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In her graphic memoir, Fun Home, cartoonist Alison Bechdel recalls seeing sunsets made “pyrotechnic” by air pollution from a local paper mill and a creek that was beautifully clear only because mine runoff had made it too acidic for life to thrive.
“Wading in this fishless creek and swooning at the salmon sky, I learned firsthand that most elemental of all ironies,” she writes of her 1960s and ’70s childhood. “That, as Wallace Stevens put it in mom’s favorite poem, ‘death is the mother of beauty.’”
The idea that suffering can beget art is hardly a new concept, but these observations about the environment have a particular sting in 2017, as Donald Trump pursues his plan to roll back efforts to fight climate change. Here in D.C., the city where Trump sort-of lives, artist Jowita Wyszomirska has tapped into the real anxiety many Americans have about the future by offering up a beautiful elegy to a suffering planet.
The pieces in Vanishing Point, Wyszomirska’s new exhibit at gallery neptune & brown, are conceptual of the highest order. She takes her inspiration from satellite imagery documenting the changing weather patterns near northern glaciers and, more locally, the Chesapeake Bay. After digitally tracing and laser cutting the images, she creates paintings that are at once elegant and frightening.
You have to get up close to really appreciate these pieces, especially the 11-foot-wide installation. The suspended strings and materials creep out at you from the installation, which can make it a little difficult to get into. But if you stand close enough to it to look—really look—at the paintings behind them, you’ll see winds and crashing waves and little lines that might even remind you of the calligraphy you learned in school.
Wyszomirska is interested in landscape on an experiential level—sunlight and wind, that kind of thing. And when you look at her pieces, you can definitely sense those elements, even recognize the places and feelings. This, you might think, is the ice mountain on some distant moon I’ve seen in my dreams; that is a country I’ve never been to; and that is what a hurricane looks and feels like.
Two of the most striking pieces are “Melt 1” and “Melt 2,” both inspired by melting glaciers. The first one has the rich, understated colors of a ’70s stop-motion or animated film—think Bilbo going over the Misty Mountains in the animated Hobbit film. Yet if the first one is a beautiful, dream-like image of mountains gently sliding into the sea, the second is lifted from a nightmare. It is harsher, more violent, and closer to the idea of what too much glacier melt will actually lead to—a biblical flood, the end of days. “I think there is beauty in change,” Wyszomirska says. And strangely, even tragically, she is correct in finding it here.
If you know that the inspiration for the show is climate change, the connection is easy to see. In fact, it rolls over you as you look at each piece. There will undoubtedly be visitors who don’t understand that intention; and there could even be people who, once they realize that the works are about climate change, become less interested, because they don’t believe in it.
Despite the possibility for misunderstandings and missed connections, Wyszomirska does hope that her show will prompt reflection in people who don’t believe in or care about the issue. You don’t need the context of climate change to understand that Wyszomirska’s art is incredible; but you do to know its horror.
At gallery neptune & brown to May 13. 1530 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 986-1200. www.galleryneptunebrown.com.