Growing numbers of artists have hybrid civic practices, but often their studio production is sidelined by fractious processes of subject research and documentation. It’s a challenge to find spaces for creative expression in contexts more suited for data. Aesthetics often seem overwhelmed in administrative and logistical tasks, special requests from communities being served or by team coordinating and fundraising. There are many forms of civic practice art, some dealing with economics, cultural traditions, class, race, and numerous finely tuned forms of academic critique. Explaining to exhibition coordinators about the best way to present and promote the work can be a struggle while skills in making objects, and probing visual culture can appear self-indulgent and stretch artists to the limit.
Pamela Longobardi’s principal artist and activist venture is the “Drifter’s Project,” so named because it directly addresses global mismanagement of migratory waste despoiling some of the most scenic, remote, and endangered locations on Earth. Her work has included Greece, Venice, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Alaska, turning debris-plagued shores into sites of cultural collaboration through award-winning abatement projects with local communities. Currently the Atlanta based artist is a visiting artist in the country of Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
Longobardi is exceptional at balancing all of the above issues while measuring a hostile moving target. Apart from the enormity of anthropogenic housekeeping, there is the sculpting of discarded plastic, material that’s in theory less than nothing. Refuse which was once considered absent is now “undead” in once pristine ecosystems and home to vulnerable populations, some often as disparaged as the refuse mounting in their (and eventually) our backyards.
In Modernism much art has been fashioned from discarded material. While generally a stylistic challenge to the formalities of the previous generation, it has also been useful as a critique of human dominion over nature and the disparate wealth built into technologically aggressive societies. Critical theory reflects artists’ anxiety about the fugitive state of our mismanaged social and technological existence, the shrinking of nature, confining of populations into contaminated neighborhoods, and a suppression of rural and wild as romantic and exploitable. Manifested linguistically as part of a nature vs culture debate in DaDa and German Expressionism it became variously redeployed through Surrealism, Neo-primitivism, and Abstract Expressionism.
Longobardi’s installations highlight our carelessness – I should say obliviousness – with regard to the plight of oceans, but they also make an affirming point about planetary reconciliation and compensation. Her position is fundamental that the world will never find a method to accommodate mounting waste or other environmental challenges without aesthetic investments, financial risk and individual obligation. She asserts ironically that our design technology and avant-garde legacies allow for eccentric, even objectionable forms to be re-defined and aestheticized. For her, uselessness and value are ends of the same continuum. Nothing is pure waste or pure treasure. We suffer from proportional resource misalignment and an economy with no moral or aesthetic compass.
As mentioned above, Longobardi is particularly adept at balancing the ideological dimensions of her research with artifactual and archeological play. Her paintings have a critical role in sustaining a narrative of imperiled landscape that brings together the aesthetic and experiential at a slight remove. Her abstractions of crisis may verge on decay but convey that work required to resist the proliferation of contaminants will get your hands dirty.
The sculpture she produces from island refuse call attention to the reality of oceans in decline. They show how objects may be re-introduced through artists’ public interventions. The differences in her extraordinary mixed media works on paper has deeper cultural roots and conjures myths linking the sea and shore with remarkable historiographies. Yet they’re the most personal, the most romantic, classically expressionist and paradoxically contemporary of her artwork. In them a cosmos of rarified sea forms such as grottos, estuaries, and seamounts sweep across the compositions rooted in the artist/activist’s log. Beautiful but fatigued, they have a gloom formed from poisonously fetching botanicals and torrents of desolate nocturnes.
Her manipulation of color is spontaneous and aggressive, sometimes volatile. She pushes color and light around with sumi and walnut ink, gouache, raw pigment, and acrylic producing atmospheres with murky dark corners, then injects them with radiant vortexes of color to recharge her compositions.
Just beneath the surface is the knowledge that we may never come to terms with slow climactic change and find a way back to a stable ecosphere. Longobardi emphasizes that a devolving sea coughs up waste on our beaches to warn us of its threshold. Not all migrating garbage is ugly though and the paintings translate a spectacular narrative of troubling hybridity. They’re reflections of the debris the artist first saw on beaches in Hawaii in 2006, matter she selectively archived because of its formal correspondence to avant-garde sculpture. Might a synthesis of natural and counterfeit forms that parody the radical negativity of DaDa, threaten all matter with macabre cross-pollination if not abated?
“Threshold VIII” is a mixed media burlesque with a ghoulish channel in “forever chemical” contamination. Tree forms are gelatinous and in a slow stage of vanishing. Nature is murky, backlit by washes of gray and splatters of granular brushwork on shredded parchment. The emblematic panorama slowly dissolves into an improvisation of disorderly Halloween surrealisms. These show how adept even traditional pictorial methods are in tackling present day emergencies in the hands of a dexterous abstractionist, one that mixes mass media subject matter with aesthetic play and painterly intellect. Debate about the most surgical visual culture is not just an academic pretension. Artists such as Longobardi think hard about the relationship between critical efficacy and form.
In “Electrical Charge” a magenta dust-cloud brain drips lightning strikes over a deluged fiord. Snow-capped gray rockfaces glow on either side of a micro-burst silhouette. Texture and color knit the symbolic and perceptual together and overwhelm the tempest-in-a-cloud motif. Longobardi adds carefully rendered jewel-like artifacts uncovered by catastrophic cycles of art media weather. The painting is rife with turbulent forms that don’t translate, but rather conceive, content through chaotic streams of consciousness that fathom what happens to nature when we’re not paying attention.
Sentient oceans reveal not only an uber-marine theater of disorder but a deep structure of nature out of balance that includes climate change, a decline in bio-diversity, deforestation, etc.. Ecocentrism, Longobardi predicts, will either take over benevolently, or take revenge, if we don’t initiate change.
Aesthetics are fully in play here. The question remains whether painting can make sense of mercantilist waste management as an existential threat. Do the artist’s dream-state configurations make clear the risk of endgame probability or soften it in an effort to assuage the extent of everyone’s culpability? Till recently an anthropocentric universe has mediated the crisis, contained our feelings of loss, and distanced our panic. But we’re clearly running out of space/time to run trials with more planetary miscalculations. Who then is more competent and trusted to present a comprehensible picture about the health of the planet? Artist’s discipline train them to scrutinize everything, to be hyper-conscious of cultural history, attend to pattern, and anticipate change. Longobardi’s paintings are one forceful example of what the landscape genre could benefit from – glimpses of interior monologues hinged to ideological activism.
Longobardi inserts a classic art language into the mix because it has psychological as well as style creds. It’s proven, over time, to be persuasive and cherished by human animals. While gathering statistics on radical ecosystems is necessary for science and popular media, their statistics are focused on the immediate possibility of restorative action only if it includes revenue generating assurances. Art about any radical culture is research without profit motive and driven by a belief that a beautifully designed future will be more equitable, humanistic, and more sustainable than one dependent on short-term investors. A hope of Longobardi is that the ritual of studio practice and artist’s undivided attention to the world might be an alternative roadmap for a technologist’s data-congested imagination. We know the world more completely through the favor and imperfections of cultural representation. Between art and technology, only one is more faithful to the real.
Pamela Longobardi is a Regents’ Professor at Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia,
Please see https://driftersproject.net/ for more information