Flowing a Force of Nature

“The immensity of our oceans and open bodies of water can be nearly incomprehensible as it relates to the scale of one human. It is the artists that translate this into a way of understanding our relationship to this vast expanse of blue that divides, unifies, and is ever changing the landscape of our world.” – Kathleen Vance, curator of “Vital Force: Water Essential.”


It touches every facet of our lives, and we can’t live without it. While literally a giver of life, it can be a dangerous and destructive, and at times a mixed blessing. Its beauty and power have inspired visual artists across time —  notable among many are Theodore Gericault, the Hudson River School, J.M.W. Turner and Helen Frankenthaler – to capture water’s energy in their work.

Water, in all its aspects, is the subject of the works in the group show “Vital Force” at Front Room Gallery. “In considering artists for the show I was thinking about the capacity of water as a fragile vital resource, yet a force,” said Kathleen Vance, curator of the exhibition.”To capture the potential energy of water and its expansive quality I selected large scale works by these artists to give an immersive feel to the exhibition and expand on each artists exploration of the experiential quality of water.” And, as she explained, the group represents a wide range of interpretations of the subject…

Human interventions, for better but mostly worse, occupy several works. An impactful presence  is Karen Marston’s large scale painting, “Decomposition,” depicts a decomposing coral formation embraced by a vivid blue aura, the beauty captures us before the grief of realizing that this has been killed. Pamela Longobardi is more direct and reflects a huge concern  — her wall installation consisting of plastics recovered from the ocean.

Aerial photos can vividly tell this story. In  “Our Land, My Landscape,” Brazilian environmental activist and photographer Julia Pontes captures in vivid color  the effects of mining, from high above where water meets earth. Ashok Sinha’s photo of ice acquires resonance from having been shot in Antarctica  — where there should be more ice in relation to water than we see here. Fragility of what we thought would last forever is its inevitable subtext. Jessica Hargreaves narrative paintings personify the force of the ocean in response to human misdeeds —  one injects a bit of very dark humor by depicting a gigantic and angry angler fish chasing 3 human divers, while desperate creatures entangled in detritus look on from the frame.

Not all human interactions are harmful — in Stephen Mallon’s photo “Sink,” an  outdated NYC subway car slips below the ocean waves on it’s way to becoming part of a recycled, artificial reef for wildlife to colonize. Water plays with our notions of art in Suzanne Levesque’s installation or drawings floating in water, as well as in Sascha Mallon’s ceramic figure, cut out to reveal floating figures within.

Our positive emotional connection with water as part of our history and psyche manifests through the works of 3 painters.  Peggy Cyphers’ romantic vision takes the lead in “Swept Away,” a dive into deep blue waters teeming with light and life. Like a glinting and vibrant oceanic embrace, the painting connects us to how life on earth began. Purely abstract, definitely expressionist, and rather fauvist, Debra Drexler’s two works reflect the oceans of our dreams and daydreams in her signature large and lavish strokes, vivid colors and deep surface textures. Shira Toren goes the route of minimal geometric abstraction in paler shades, as if analyzing the play of light and water at the surface of the sea.

Components of the magic of visual art are its ability to communicate by NOT showing, and perhaps even travel in time. Beth Dary’s site specific installations of hand-sculpted barnacles characterize the pristine space they inhabit as submerged by indicating that water has been there. In Sasha Bezzubov and Jessica Sucher’s collaborative photo series, Vortex in the River Ganges, the approach minimal in every sense – color, contrast, lighting, detail –  thus revealing what is usually unseeable — motion itself. Subtext to the mystery here is a contradiction — Ganges is the 6th most polluted river in the world, yet in the Hindu tradition it’s waters are believed to wash away sins, and true believers filter out the other information.

The power of water is chillingly expressed in photos of Niagara Falls by Zoe Wetherall and Edie Winograde. While very different, each show the beauty of the Falls in a way that we enjoy admiring it, but we are also very glad we are not too close. Sarah Olson’s “Swept Away” series of oil paintings confronts the unforgiving nature of water and the dire situation of refugees in overfilled and unseaworthy boats, evoking the drama of “The Raft of the Medusa” by reminding us of the political functions of water — as a conduit and a barrier.

Water  — too much of it, too little of it, what is in it, who it belongs to —  is the focus of so much that is in the news today, it’s only natural that artists working now will continue to reflect upon water in their work. History will tell if this tactile and dynamic theme becomes a movement among creators, and whether the persistence of expression that characterizes the creative community creates ripples that will have a wide influence on the environment of the future.

In terms of her vision for what viewers will take away from the exhibition, curator Vance said, “We are a part of the natural environment and need to find a way to co-exist in a positive way. The world is so much bigger than just one person, but each one does make an impact.”

A vital force indeed…

Review by Linda DiGusta

“Vital Force: Water Essential” is on view through February 9th, 2020 at the Front Room Gallery (48 Hester Street, NY, NY 10002)

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