Linda Weintraub’s eye for activism

Zachary Skinner’s Bush Hut Rainwater Farm, a house of straw, part-wildlife blind, part-meditation space, that channels rainwater down to a perimeter of native plants. (Photo by Michael Asbill)

With her 2013 book, To Life: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet, Linda Weintraub defined and gave voice to a movement spanning continents, whose disparate approaches and media, ranging from tissue cultures, microbes and soil to meteorological instruments, wastewater treatment plants and meetings with municipal workers, represented artists’ moral reckoning with global ecological threats. Now she is following up that work with a second book, What’s Next: Eco Materialism & Contemporary Art, which has already hatched an exhibition.

“What’s Next?” which opened in July and consists of works by 33 artists at Unison Arts’ sculpture garden, came about as a collaborative project between SUNY-New Paltz visiting lecturer and artist Michael Asbill and his students, working as a curatorial team. The team used a text from Weintraub, summing up the theme of her new book and reflecting on the context, definition and value of what she calls Eco Materialism as the organizing principle of the show. True to Eco Materialism’s grounding in natural processes, the installations and sculptures will remain in place for a year, exposed to wind, rain, snow, ice and sunlight.

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Their gradual dissolution by these forces – a heavy rainstorm prior to the opening had caused the large sheets of hand-cast paper, suspended in a framework of salvaged wooden beams with the sharp, expressive angles of a Franz Kline, to sag in Sam Horowitz’s piece, as the artist noted with delight at the opening – over a year is part and parcel of their purpose in being reclaimed by the Earth. They include Maxine Leu’s large-scale Cocoon, nestled in a tree and woven of grasses grown on the grounds of New Paltz High School and from a straw mat; Christina Nalty’s Animal Trails, a row of sticks of varying height suggesting a wandering path in the woods; Stuart Bigley, Harold McBride and Stephen Spencer’s clipped mulberry branch, which happened to fall onto metal tubs atop a raku kiln and was subsequently trimmed by the team to create a semblance of symmetry; Jebah Baum’s Ashwood Reliquary, hand-sawn ash logs, harvested from trees downed by the emerald ash borer, stacked to form a palletlike structure (thereby recycling the wood while referencing the source of the pest from overseas shipping pallets); Bill Ryback’s Sankofa Memo, a geodesic-dome framework constructed of bent branches; and Zachary Skinner’s Bush Hut Rainwater Farm, a house of straw, part-wildlife blind, part-meditation space, that channels rainwater down to a perimeter of native plants.

The show demonstrated a somewhat flexible interpretation of Eco Materialism, with one piece salvaging plastic waste and another geared toward enhancing one’s sensory awareness of nature. Couch is constructed of plastic bottles fitted into a rustic-wood framework, by Cassandra Saulter and Ian Kingsley, and Alexis Elton’s Journey to Asclepeion is a kind of mini-lab in which visitors could sample tubes of hydrosols, aromatic waters whose vapors capture the scents of various harvested wild plants. Some pieces incorporate historical references, such as Joann Alvis and Tasha Depp’s Garderobe, two stone-lined pits that recreate the latrines once accompanying medieval castles and reference the use of human excrement as fertilizer on farm fields; Iain Machell’s bluestone slabs inscribed by the artist with the names of Ulster County’s former bluestone quarries; Ilse Schreiber-Holl’s logs, harvested from fallen trees, bearing texts of meditations on trees from Thoreau, Whitman and other poets and writers; and Claudia McNulty’s Hemp for Victory, in which the word “hemp” is spelled out in bales of an ecological material once widely used by US farmers and manufacturers.

The enormous nestlike form of Halcyon, suspended high above the ground by cables and home to several white ceramic birdlike sculptures positioned as if they were singing, refers to an ancient mythical bird that brought peace and calm to nature and was designed by Jan Harrison and Alan Baer as a place of refuge and rebirth in a world tottering on mass extinctions. Susan Togut’s Emergent Wisdom fashions a winged horse from organic materials and glass and ceramic pieces suspended over a pond as a kind of spirit guide, while Daniel Totten traced the life and death of a calf he raised and his subsequent curing and tanning of its hide in a series of texts, leading up to the hide stretched on a rustic framework. Emily Puthoff, Elena Sniezek and Jennifer Woodin displayed SolitaryBee/Multispecies Pollinator Commons, an installation consisting of a group of carefully arranged and multilevel sawed, hollowed-out logs, some filled with hives, designed as both a habitat for solitary bees and an aesthetic artwork.

Perhaps the most radical exemplifier of Eco Materialism was Microbial Origin of Connections, a piece by Mary Anne Davis, Kate Farrington and Patricia Tinajero in which human saliva was being collected (visitors were invited to spit) in a series of clay pots containing various local fibers in order to hasten the fermentation of the fibers into pulp. The pots will be buried and then dug up and their paper-pulp contents collected by the team both in the fall and following spring. The resulting pulp will be made into paper – on which stories will be written by a community workshop, according to the artists.

Weintraub herself embraces an eco-friendly lifestyle: She lives with her husband on 11 acres of woods and fields outside Red Hook, off the grid. The couple cultivate a vegetable garden and orchard, keep beehives and tap their maple trees in the early spring. However, while eco art is her passion, her curatorial engagements extend into many other genres. This month she is also curating a show at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, in Woodstock, titled “The Aesthetics of Persuasion: Graphic Visualizations of Entreaties & Warnings by Artists, Designers & Neighbors,” which assembles more than 140 images used to promote a particular message. They include posters from World Wars I and II and from the WPA, as well as football logos and traffic signs – examples showing how artists and designers deploy color, form and composition as powerful tools to register certain emotional states. The exhibition runs from August 10 until October 14, and there will be an opening reception on Saturday, August 11, from 4 to 6 p.m. 

After that Weintraub is participating in a group exhibition, titled “Spectrum,” at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the home of the early-19th-century artist who founded the Hudson River School, in Catskill, which begins August 14 (with an opening party on August 25). The exhibition celebrates Cole’s thinking about color and explores how artists today work with color, both in terms of how it affects the senses and relates to the natural world. Weintraub’s piece consists of 30 jars of brightly colored preserves harvested from her garden.

Collectively, Weintraub’s current projects hint at the impressive range and comprehensiveness of her career as a scholar, writer, curator and artist. Born and raised in the gritty industrial city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Weintraub earned an MFA at Rutgers University and was hired as the first director of Bard College’s Edith C. Blum Art Institute in 1982. She has curated nearly 70 exhibitions, lectured on contemporary art throughout the US, published several books on contemporary art and was the Henry Luce Professor of Emerging Arts at Oberlin College. Currently she teaches at the Nomad9 MFA program at the University of Hartford. The program, now its third year, integrates environmental influences into its arts curriculum.

Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently caught up with the author, curator and artist.

What prompted your interest in eco art?

  I have always dealt with avant-garde art. Since contemporary art is often baffling, even for people within the art field, my professional niche is to serve as a liaison between emerging artforms and the general public, museumgoers and students of art. I focus particularly on artists who disrupt expectations regarding established criteria of artistic merit. Since new vanguards emerge in quick succession, my career choice has allowed me to track several generations of art pioneers and offer explanations for their various forms of innovation. In each and every instance, what has seemed outlandish becomes comprehensible by noting that each new development mirrored the issues that were key to that era.

That is why, when I became personally involved with environmental issues, I thought, “I bet there are artists out there altering the norms of art in response to escalating environmental concerns.” So I sniffed around the fringes of the art scene, which is often where new developments first appear. What did I discover? Not dozens, but hundreds of artists, distributed around the globe, who were not merely addressing environmental concerns, but altering their art practices in order to accommodate these concerns. When I reached out to them, I heard over and over again that they felt they were working in an isolated way. They were not aware that they were forging a new art movement.

I wrote To Life: Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet in a state of exuberance. I filled its pages with examples of artists who were reclaiming their role as visionaries and problem-solvers, getting out there in the trenches, ignoring the conventions of art in order to communicate a brand-new sensibility and new set of problems posed by the litany of current environmental woes.

The book was published in 2013. Has its message gotten out there in the way you hoped?

  To Life is the first eco art college textbook. It was written to help professors integrate environmental consciousness into the art curriculum. When I began to tackle the engagement of artists with environmentalism, I became aware of how vast and complex this subject is, how many artistic approaches were being introduced and how difficult it would be for an instructor to present this material without having a book that identified the key issues and organized them into a coherent narrative. The book is selling well, but it has not yet fulfilled its ultimate goal: for art departments to integrate an ecological conscience into their entire curriculum, including graphic design, painting, sculpture and metallurgy departments.

We are living in an era that’s being transformed by technology. For example, 3-D printing is revolutionizing the practice of architects, designers and other professionals and is changing the process of industrial design and manufacturing. Is eco art anti-technology?

  Eco artists, by simply being mindful of their use of technology, are introducing a radically new mindset – one that may lead to a reevaluation of current dependencies. Anybody who’s working with technology without considering the environmental consequences of that behavior is perpetuating the existing system of values and behaviors that have contributed to today’s environmental crisis.

This book presents the artist Markus Kayser as an example of an artist who is concerned about the environmental impact of 3-D printing. He identified two ways this new technology exacerbates environmental problems: It uses an exorbitant amount of electricity, and it typically utilizes resin, which is a contaminating material. As his art practice, he developed a strategy to reconfigure 3-D printing without such harmful environmental impacts by concentrating solar energy through a lens so it gets super-hot and then directing the heat of the sun onto desert sand, a material which is abundant and underutilized. He melts the sand to create a 3-D solid enduring form. Kayser’s innovation was expanded by a group of artists, based in China, who have envisioned how to print building components on location in deserts utilizing a source of infinite energy and a neglected resource to create metropolises in the desert. Their vision involves providing shelter for dislocated populations, due to climate change, in coming years.

In their project, called “Sand Babble,” the group is working out the practical challenges of how to cool the air and how to utilize cactus to get water. They demonstrate that eco-material art is not a matter of being playful with bark and pinecones, nor assembling sculptures out of litter. It’s reconnecting with the material world to suspend behaviors that are depleting and polluting and introduce those that are beneficial and/or remedial.

I talk to my students about what we are now utilizing to sustain an individual life compared to what was done prior to our dependence on fossil fuels. Imagine if you were still responsible for gathering and managing the fuel you required to make yourself comfortable and safe and provide for your needs. Such eco-material awareness is needed to assess current lifestyles.

What led to your second book on this topic, What’s Next?

  As I became increasingly involved with exploring what a piece of land could provide as a resource for building and eating and having a delightful life, I discovered the absolute rapture and joy of working with materials that are not mass-produced and predictable and coming out of industrial production. I felt half-embarrassed by the lifestyle I developed, in which I dealt directly with plants and soil and fur and bone and scales and feathers and all these lichens and moss. Then I started discovering examples [of these materials] in the work of other artists. It became apparent that the fringes of art were now occupied by artists reveling in the material world and the sensuality of those interactions. Like me, they were celebrating how deeply rewarding that kind of interaction is.

I decided to do a new book about their explorations of materiality when I was introduced to an intellectual movement sweeping a variety of disciplines across the globe. It is called New Materialism. The bibliography at the end of my book provides evidence that New Materialism is being adopted by many disciplines, such as social studies, archaeology, psychology and theology. Scholars in all these different fields are feeling a compulsion to reconnect with materials of the planet. Almost nothing had yet been written about the relationship between New Materialism and art, even though we artists are dealing intimately with materiality. I assembled about 35 artists from around the globe who are working this way.

But the book is not just 35 examples of artists who are doing work with odd media. One chapter asks, “What does creativity look like from an eco-material-art point of view?” Another, “What does technology look like? How did tools change when people start interacting with material things from an eco point of view?” The book identifies these areas that define human interactions with the material environment, and then presents stunning examples of art [to illustrate] them. It’s been an exciting adventure.

Do these eco-artists represent a complete break from the past? Is there a connection to art in the art-historical canon?

  One artist who illustrates what kind of change is implied by Eco Materialism and how we have to change the way art has conventionally been made and appreciated, and start all over again, is Pierre Huyghe. He’s taken Monet’s renowned series of paintings of ponds and done something interesting: Instead of making a representation of the surface of the pond as it appears to the human eye, like Monet, he went to [Monet’s former estate] Giverny and got a sample of the actual water and plants and aquatic creatures in the pond. He then displayed the samples in aquariums in a gallery, so that what we see, instead of the surface appearance of the pond, is the actual aquatic system, filled with living specimens from the pond conducting their life processes.

How does the “What’s Next?” exhibition at Unison fulfill certain requirements of New Materialism and eco-art?

  Eco Material ways of interacting with the material environment change the way humans measure success. The Eco Material form of success is not pleasing human viewers; it is measured in terms of revitalizing an ecosystem. Every one of the installations at Unison – an exhibition curated by professor Michael Asbill with students from SUNY-New Paltz – will gradually decompose in response to active environmental factors. This dynamic component is welcomed by the artists. Whereas conventional artforms consume resources and deplete ecosystems, Eco Material artworks make positive contributions by making the land more fertile and revitalizing it.

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Michael and I plan to have a series of photographs taken of the pieces over the next year. What we saw at the opening will look nothing like what it will be in two months. But what the artists are making is enduring, in terms of how their work will benefit the ecosystem and wildlife.

So you were pleased by the results.

  I’m thrilled beyond belief! How rewarding is it for a book not yet published to already have inspired 33 artists?

In the intro to my new book, I explain that anything made out of wood or straw or manure or leather is reactive to weather, the seasons, temperature, moisture et cetera. When this occurs, it’s not like the art is being destroyed. Instead, it becomes a part of the ongoing dynamic of the ecosystem. This is the artists’ way of saying, “Stop thinking of ourselves as humans. We are an ecosystem, and what we do affects everything around us. We’re not isolated creatures; the materialism has to do with the materiality of our own bodies and our own actions.” The piece that invited visitors to spit, thereby contributing living microbes to the process of fermentation, acknowledges that we have these microbes in us and we can utilize them.

In the introduction to your book, you write this: “Eco material attention to the world of solids, liquids, plasmas and gases may originate in such neglected substances as sap, fur, bone, soil, stone, bark and moss, as well as such familiar materials as Gore-Tex, AstroTurf, lubricating oil, plastic and Doritos.” One of the pieces in the show utilized plastic disposal bottles. So I assume part of the goal is conveying a message and raising awareness about environmental degradation, rather than a purist aesthetic predicated only on natural materials?

  An Eco Materialist will pick up a plastic fork and think about the materials gathered from dispersed places around the globe to make it, about where the fuel came from to melt and merge its materials, how the mold was made, the materiality of the packaging and the assemblage of materials across the globe that now cost mere pennies to acquire. For the most part, they would not use a material in their work if they deem it damaging. However, they might include a plastic fork if it helps viewers recognize its environmental impact. It’s not just a matter of being playful; it’s rethinking human interactions in the world that pervade everything.

Silence=Death by Keith Haring

Tell us more about the show you are curating at the Kleinert.

  I made the acquaintance of Adrienne Klein, who had an international collection of AIDS posters, which were fascinating but not sufficient for a whole show. In thinking about how we could utilize these posters for a compelling exhibition, I decided to focus not on the content of the art, but the strategy employed by the artists to convey this content. I started to gather images whose intention was predetermined and recognizable, including WPA posters advertising the national parks, delightful lithographs by Honore Daumier that are political satires and tiny tantric paintings, which are like icons. I also included football logos, which graphically are so interesting, and signs that say “No Walking,” “No Firearms,” “No Crossing.” I compare these to the means by which artists convey positive things, in words like “Yippee!” “Hurray!” and “Yay!” There are principles of aesthetic design and form that pervade these different kinds of images.

I wrote a 40-page visitors’ guide to provide a brief analysis of individual items and the aesthetic principles they employ. For example, I’ve included a collection of World War I and II posters that evoke fear, while another series evokes patriotism. Then I compare how each group of images communicates these contrasting messages. I’m really curious to see the public’s response. It’s not a typical exhibition, in that a lot of exhibited works are in the public domain and printed off the Internet.

The exhibition also includes a communal artwork. Tell us about that.

  The communal artwork is entitled What’s Next for Life on Earth? and is a major part of the show. I designed a way for people to register whether they are optimistic that species will survive or pessimistic and think extinctions will increase. They are invited to express their opinions graphically, using the principles outlined in the exhibition. Each person chooses a piece of paper with lines indicating either optimism or pessimism as abstractions. The pages will then be hung on the wall to create a large mural. I’m hoping lots of people will contribute, so we get a sense of the eco mindset of the community.

To get people engaged with the concept, at the opening we’ll have a big bowl of multicolored lollipops so that people can choose the color that reflects their mood. We’ll also have a few contemporary artists represented, such as the Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of art activists who contributed posters that present raw statistics of different kinds of deaths and the culture’s response to it. For example, many vets commit suicide, and with little response; but if one child sucks on a toy and chokes, a whole industry changes.

Tim Gaudreau will be represented by his series of posters of Woodstock and its environment. One set is called Lost Posters and the other is called Found Posters. The Found Posters consist of beautifully photographed bits of litter. The poster might say, “Looks like a fetish object. If you wish to reclaim this valuable object, ‘Please call me.’” The Lost project refers to a forest that has been replaced by a parking lot. The posters are in the exhibition and put up all over Woodstock.

 Later in the month, you are exhibiting a shelf of preserves you made in the “Spectrum” exhibition at the Cole House. What is this about?

  This installation is a contemporary interpretation of Thomas Cole’s analysis of color. My contribution consists of foods I have grown and canned. The jars are arranged according to the color gradations, which is why it is titled Let Us Eat the Colors of Nature’s Spectrum. The Cole House installation will feature 30 jars presented as an opportunity to appreciate color, not in terms of a surface that represents the taste of the artist or designer; these colors originate in life processes, metabolism, sunshine and rain. They offer evidence of life having happened across the spectrum: Yellows consist of corn and squash, oranges of carrots, reds of tomatoes. There will be a community potluck to actually “let us eat the colors of nature’s spectrum.”  

When will your new book be available?

  The book should be out by the end of this month. It’s published by Intellect Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press and is available on both websites. It will be published to respect the principles of Eco Materialism: It will be sold as a 310-page volume, or people can buy one chapter at a time. It will be entirely printed on demand. The publisher is paying a lot of attention to the inks being used, and transportation will be reduced because it will be printed locally.

I would like to start a revolution in publishing as well as art. It will be possible for a professor to get the text and print ten or 20 copies on campus. [Intellect Books] have undertaken my project as an experiment and are talking about applying it to other publications.

“What’s Next?” Unison Arts Center sculpture garden, 68 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; (845) 255-1559, www.unisonarts.org.

“The Aesthetics of Persuasion: Graphic Visualizations of Entreaties & Warnings by Artists, Designers & Neighbors” opening, Saturday, August 11, 4-6 p.m., through October 14, artists’ discussion/performance, Thursday, September 23, 3-5 p.m., August hours: Thursday-Monday noon-6 p.m., weekends 11 a.m.-6 p.m., September/October hours: Thursday-Sunday noon-6 p.m., Tuesday/Wednesday by appointment, Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock: (845) 679-2079, www.woodstockguild.org.

“Spectrum” opening party, Saturday, August 25, 4-6 p.m., exhibition runs August 14-November 18, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill; (518) 943-7465, www.thomascole.org.

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