Linking art and environmental issues has been a popular conceit for years with arts institutions. Locally, though, an environmentally themed exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art is the first in my memory to make those connections in a comprehensive way. • The small but thoughtful "It's Not Easy Being Green" (get past the prosaic and obvious title) has three components that examine consumer choices, responsible urban design and artists' responses to environmental concerns. The first two have a feel-good quality that softens the guilt factor in works that show us how we're ruining our planet in large and small ways. • Curator Elaine Gustafson assembled a catalog of artists from near (Tampa) and far (Dubai) for the cerebral part of the exhibition. Then she went on a shopping spree to find easily available, affordable and eco-friendly products that have style and even aesthetic value. It will remind you a little of the design galleries of the Museum of Modern Art in its setup.
A large photograph of downtown Shanghai by German artists H. and D. Zielske is the exhibition's greeting card and not an expected choice except for its size and eye-catching colors. The city sparkles with life and looks more like a travel poster about the pleasures of urbanity than an environmental screed. But all the bright lights and activity, you begin to see, are in the photograph's periphery. In the darker center is a stand of trees, smaller even than a pocket park, looking irrelevant. An understated but potent statement.
Canadian artist Isabelle Hayeur is blunter in two vertical photographs, each measuring about 4 feet in height, which also use the contrast of dark and light. Deep piles of earth, like graves, dominate both. Roofs of homes under construction loom above them along with, in one, the skeletal remains of a tree, victim of development. There is some grim humor in Brian McMorrow's series documenting the massive Dubai project called the Palm Islands, created off the coast with millions of tons of dredged sand piled up to look like a trio of giant date palms. The "fronds" are peninsulas on which hundreds of big, new, cookie-cutter homes are being built.
Gustafson tapped architecture students at the University of South Florida to submit designs for local buildings. One is an imagined headquarters for the USF School of Architecture, with giant screens that look like netting swooping around it to mitigate heat and sunlight.
The what-we-can-do-right-now component has things we have seen before (a reusable grocery bag, a handbag made from an old cigar box, a fluorescent bulb) along with some cool stuff: a cute "stapler" of recycled plastic that uses slivers of paper instead of metal. Really cute. The Eco Clamshell To-Go designed by Eckerd College students that replaces standard Styrofoam with a reusable material in pretty teal. A laundry hamper of recycled strips of magazine pages that would look great in a modernist bathroom. Coasters made from old vinyl records (labels still on them).
A video documents what has already been done, by a group of student volunteers in the 2006 Youth Alive program who built a charming 210-square-foot house of mud, clay, straw and wood at Kid City in Tampa.
Two conceptual works that don't fit neatly into any of the categories are interactive and fun. Joe Griffith's High Green Gutter, Bromeliad Version is a lovely water collector. The artist sculpted flowers from plastic water jugs and connected then to narrow tubing. They're hung in varying heights from a box that catches rainwater and cycles into the holes leading to the tubing. Water drips down the flowers and tubing into a container. So much prettier than a rain barrel.
Kim Johnson and Nikki Pike's Gardens in Roam — nice play on words — is a clever adaptation of the adoption process and can only be experienced fully when the artists are present, which they will be on Aug. 15 at the Museum's Art After Dark social from 8 to 11 p.m. In lab coats, they interview visitors as prospective new owners of seedlings growing in glass vitrines lined on shelves. They do a background check complete with fingerprinting and mug shots. They ask that you empty the contents of your pockets or purse and photograph them, too. They ask: "Is it okay if I listen to your heart?" with a stethoscope. You are asked to complete a puzzle in 30 seconds. You must describe an instance when you did not act responsibly. If you "pass" you get to take home one of the baby tomato, eggplant or soy plants and agree to be monitored as to its progress. A lot of people will not consider it art, but it's a thoroughly entertaining and original concept.
The entire exhibition is well nuanced and doesn't patronize with oversimplifications. The best examples are a mixed media piece by Christy Rupp showing a bird's-eye view of a poultry farm surrounded by floral cutouts and a plump hen, and aerial photographs by David Maisel that show the devastation of human intervention on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. If you're far enough away, even pollution can seem beautiful.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.