Unison Arts Center opens year-long exhibit in sculpture garden

A detail of Daniel Totten’s installation “Skins as New Testament.” (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

Unison Arts Center has mounted a year-long exhibition designed to disappear on its own. “Composed to Decompose,” the 21st annual show to be featured in the art center sculpture garden, opened Sunday, July 21 and will remain on view through July 2020.

Co-curated by Michael Asbill, head of the sculpture program at SUNY New Paltz, and Linda Weintraub, author of What’s Next: Eco-Materialism and Contemporary Art, “Composed to Decompose” is comprised of site-specific installations meant to challenge people’s desires for material stability and provoke an awareness that we humans disturb ecosystem functions when we suppress the life-supporting dynamics of decomposition through our actions. According to the curators, the exhibition “demonstrates that it is through decomposition that fertility is replenished, ecosystems are revitalized, and life is renewed.”


Based on the concept of eco-materialism explored in Weintraub’s book, which advocates for humans to respect non-human systems and functions, the installations invite the effects of weather, season and wildlife. “By July 2020, when the exhibition year ends, the vitality of each site will be enlivened and enhanced by these decomposed artworks,” say the curators.

A detail of Nicolae Golici’s “42 Seeds”.

The 32 participating artists created their works using biodegradable materials that will decompose and change with time and weather over the course of the year to come, with return visits to the installation driving home the concepts inherent in the exhibit. The contributors to the exhibit dispensed with conventional art practices – “which tend to be polluting and depleting,” according to the curators – in favor of using natural materials that will ultimately restore the ecosystem in which the works have been placed.

In addition, 14 artists will mount monthly sequential installations in a companion exhibition, “Composed to Decompose: Sequential Responsive Transformations,” 12 projects staged on a single site changing monthly until the show ends next summer. According to Weintraub and Asbill, “Each month a new artist will enter the site to add to and/or alter the remains of previous artists’ installations, contributing to an ongoing sequence of interactive interventions. In this manner, artists emulate the responsiveness that prevails among wildlife, instead of the domination that prevails in contemporary industrial practices.”

For example, July’s sequential artist, Michael McDonough, not only chose to work with bamboo, he brought his materials to Unison Arts Sculpture Garden using an electric vehicle. Mary Ann Davis, Maria Patricia Tinajero and Kate Farrington created the ink used in their installation with wild mulberries, crafting paper from pulp fermented by human saliva. And Eliza Evans’s “Vault” uses adobe figures containing a single seed from the functionally extinct American Chestnut tree, setting up the conditions for a small chestnut orchard to potentially emerge if the seeds breed with engineered trees that will be released into the forests within the next two years.

Beth Haber’s “Leaves of Grass.”

Another installation in the exhibit involving tree sustainability is Allyson Levy’s “Ashes to Ashes,” which involves her use of wax to preserve seeds from the Ash tree population decimated in recent years by the Emerald Ash Borer beetles, attaching seeds from a surviving ash tree to the standing trunks of dying Ash trees. According to Levy’s artist statement in the accompanying exhibition brochure, “The goal with this project is that during the next year, the seeds will fall off the tree trunks and be spread by the wind. Unlike fresh seeds that germinate quickly when hitting soil, these seeds coated in beeswax will take longer to decompose in nature. By the time the wax breaks down naturally, these ‘fresh’ Ash seeds will produce trees in an environment no longer plagued by the Emerald Ash Borer.”

Some of the installations are more successful than others. This reporter personally found the project mounted by Joanne Alvis and Tasha Depp, “Clogging the Garderobe,” to be offensive in its use of human feces that created an unbearable stench throughout the garden, making it impossible to stand anywhere near the piece long enough to even consider its conceptual message of utilizing biological waste as “a tribute to the human history of consumption and expulsion.” The artist statement in the brochure is equally troubling in its assertion that because the clay soil at Unison will not allow water to drain from the pits comprising the project, “mosquitoes have taken over the stagnant water as a breeding ground.” 

Unison Arts Sculpture Garden is free to the public and open year-round from dawn to dusk.

Unison is located at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz. For additional information, call (845) 255-1559.

A detail of Maria Lupo’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’-A Living Quilt.”

There is one comment

  1. Alex Baer

    As the Executive Director of Unison Arts Center I want to clarify a comment that Sharyn Flanagan made implying that Joanne Alvis and Tasha Depp used human feces in their sculpture garden installation. In reading the description of their piece it is clear that they are merely re-creating the historical concept of human consumption and expulsion. The piece uses seeds/pits soaked in water that does not drain well and the smell of contained seed liquid creates an acrid smell that make one go back in time, to and era where clean waste was not accessible – as it is now. We would never allow the use of human ‘poop’ on our grounds for any reason and hope that Ms. Flanagan understands the difference between insinuation and actual : )

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