Land We Share – Installation by Margaret Whiting

Five of the 100 tree stumps that Whiting has made from law books for the variable piece
called Deforestation, 2016.

The tree stumps look surprisingly “real” at first glance.  But what appear to be bark surfaces and vestigial roots are the vertical edges of vintage law book pages that Margaret Whiting has collected and altered to make these silent inhabitants of a gallery room.   Her statement about this piece, Deforestation, cogently and passionately expresses her concerns about the environmental issue that titles this work and the need for corrective policies to be developed and enforced.

The other two series she shows in this exhibition also address the urgent need for humans to recognize and embrace their dependence on and responsibility for the health of our fragile ecosystem.  The Law Book Art Work Series, for example, offers Analysis, comprised of a test tube rack and rolled law book pages.  In this work, the hard clear glass of test tubes is replaced with opaque, fragile paper from more of the law books in her large collection.  Scientific experiments are efforts toward better understanding the laws of nature.  This piece is a kind of artifact of the scientific method. It becomes a reminder that we need to keep reconsidering, testing those old laws and how well they address the changing contexts and ongoing research and experiences of our present day.

Detail of US Geological Survey Map IL – IN, 2013, 27 in X 23 in, geological survey map, human anatomy illustration of lungs

The Map Series piece U.S. Geological Survey – Illinois and Indiana appears above. As with all the works in this series, a geological survey map from the 1900’s has been combined with a collaged element from an old human anatomy textbook illustration.  This map is an Economic Geology Sheet that depicts the Danville Quadrangle.  This area covers about 228 geographic square miles and is situated mainly in Vermilion County Illinois, although it extends slightly into Indiana.  It is part of the great Illinois-Indiana coalfield, near its northeastern margin.  Whiting leaves the maps intact, with their titles and legends visible.  This is helpful – one might think this map showed a lake, given the dominant blue colors, when in fact we are looking at a coal bed.  The added in illustration of a human lung floats like an exotic moth in the lower left corner.  The tributaries of the Vermillion River echo the branching veins and arteries that carry blood flow into and out of the lungs.

A simple interpretation would be that Whiting juxtaposes delicate human lungs with the coal deposits to indict the coal-caused pollution that endangers our breathing and our health.  However, her intent is more nuanced.  Whiting calls for an intelligent assessment of how we continue to power our electricity grid using energies from the finite resources of the earth.  She asks for careful creation of policies and laws that will protect our safety and the integrity of the systems that keep our planet healthy.

 In Laws of Nature from her Law Book Art Work Series Whiting pairs an illustration of the lungs with a law book page upon which she has circled a “found” poetic statement: “In the midst of the law, we inhale it at every breath, and it is interwoven with the very idiom that we speak.”  She suggests that laws that have been in place for over one hundred years have become so embedded in our world view it is hard to realize they are laws of man and not laws of nature and that we can and should examine and change and improve them.Whiting has worked as a medical technologist.  This involves performing and analyzing the results of complex scientific tests on blood and bodily fluids, using sophisticated procedures and equipment.   It’s hard not to speculate that tasks requiring such care and precision would carry over into the crafting of her artwork.  While her body of work resonates with other general trends in modern art, it retains a uniqueness that results from her intelligent merging of the cultures of art and science.

For example, her work can be aligned with minimal art, a primarily American style in painting and sculpture that developed in the 1960’s largely in reaction to abstract expressionism.  Illusion, decorativeness and emotional subjectivity were eschewed in favor of impersonality, simplification of form and repetition of identical or near identical units.

Whiting’s sculpture is often based on symmetrical structure and economical restraint in terms of color.   Deforestation shows an interest in the repetition of simple relatively symmetrical forms and the relationship of objects in space subject to a site-specific environment.  The similarity between Deforestation and Eva Hesse’s Repetition Nineteen III is striking.

However, Hesse and other minimalists favored industrial materials such as steel, aluminum, resins, and fiberglass.  Some minimalist artists, such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre had their works professionally fabricated.

Whiting has an entirely different feel for materials and construction processes, favoring papers and wood, and in earlier works, actual found natural objects such as rocks, including fossils, shells, sticks and bones that she enjoys collecting.  In addition, while her end results exhibit discipline and symmetry, from the time of her beginnings in art-making she has gathered materials whose presence intrigues her and then looked for ways they related to each other.  Rather than start with a preconceived idea, she allows the materials to speak to each other and to her.

Whiting could be seen to have some affinity with artists who use text as part or all of their visual statements, such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger.  But Whiting’s text is inextricably bound to the law books or map sources wherein it is found, and thus the meanings and contexts of those objects become part of her statement.

Whiting could be seen to have some affinity with the subtle form of surrealism that infuses Joseph Cornell’s boxes.  Like him, she enjoys the energizing jolt that comes from a surprising juxtaposition.  Consider how in U.S. Geological Survey – Maryland the illustration of a human brain is laid over the landscape in the upper left quadrant of the map, causing the Chesapeake Bay to suddenly become a stretching human form.

Most clearly, Whiting is part of a movement that has been identified as Environmental Art.  Artists creating within this genre seek to draw attention to and sometimes actively help preserve, remediate and/or revitalize the life forms, resources, and ecology of the earth.  Early on, Environmental Art began with a focus on artworks built into the natural environment without necessarily considering the impact upon that environment.  For example, Robert Smithson has been criticized for damage to the landscape incurred during the construction of Spiral Jetty (1969), as has Christo for in the same year temporarily wrapping the coastline at Little Bay south of Sydney, Australia.  Ecological Art, a specific form of Environmental Art, can involve ecological systems-restoration, as well as socially engaged, activist, community-based interventions.  Environmental art can address politics, culture, economics, ethics and aesthetics as they impact the conditions of ecosystems. Practitioners include artists, scientists, philosophers and activists who may collaborate on restoration, remediation and public awareness projects.

To gain a glimpse of the richly varied community of artists with which Whiting considers herself to be aligned, take a look at Stephanie Rahmstorf’s CO2 pins, Agnes Denes’ “Tree Mountain-A Living Time Capsule-involving 11,000 trees, 11,000 people and 400 years”, Joseph Beuys’ “7,000 Oaks project”, and Helen and Newton Harrison’s “Greenhouse Britain”.

A room of tree stumps made of paper engenders a complex response.  The title of the piece, Deforestation, addresses the impact of human behavior on the environment and how we regulate this behavior through the laws we make (which may or may not be useful) or the laws we do not make or the laws we make and disregard. It’s hard not to feel that in this room of stumps law has failed and we’re seeing the remnants of a destroyed community.  Yet there’s also an eerie serenity created by the pale colors, the naturalness of the spacing of these objects and the sense of repetitive process that went into their making.  There’s the possibility that these stumps are not the end, but are a point in the ever-ongoing process of creation and destruction and creation that proceeds according to the laws of nature.  Contemplation of Whiting’s work can lift our awareness, as we are asked to ask ourselves how we can help.

The exhibition will run from June 2 – August 19. Regular gallery hours are T – F 12 – 5 pm; Sat 11 am- 2 pm. Receptions will be held on each First Friday Art Walk.

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