“Anthropocenic: Art about the Natural World in the Human Era,” now on view at the Bates Museum of Art in Lewiston, is a visually exciting and conceptually brilliant exhibition. The show is fittingly diverse in terms of installation, and that matches the aesthetic and energy of work.

Based on the geological term for the current epoch that is largely defined by the presence of humanity, “Anthropocenic” was organized by museum director Dan Mills. It is a model of curatorial excellence. Mills has gathered 19 artists from around the globe, including four Mainers. As a body of work, “Anthropocenic” exudes a compelling moral and philosophical pulse. It connects the global to the local and vice versa. Any of the works on its own is excellent, but gathered together they create an extraordinary experience.

The main gallery of the museum is not large, but with the number and conceptual density of the works, “Anthropocenic” is a massive show. And it takes time to get through it: There are several video works, and each is worth watching in its entirety. In addition to video, there are paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures and installations.

A quick glance might give the impression of a show about environmentalism, but such a stance is too simplistic. Sammy Baloji’s photographic work, for example, features the artist in chains standing among abandoned and dilapidated industrial buildings in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the cast-off detritus of colonialism. It’s easy to enough to sense that Western imperialists came and exploited the landscape – and the people – until it was no longer profitable. So they left, leaving behind what, to them, was garbage. Baloji is black, so the image of him in chains in this industrial wasteland is particularly poignant.

“Anthropocenic” features a few clear impulses and directions. Science and data lead one mode. Some of the work is narrative. Other sets are encyclopedic, poetic or post-apocalyptic. Baloji’s work speaks to Lori Nix & Kathleen Gerber’s staged post-apocalyptic photographs, for example. One features a New York City subway car pictured from the inside, essentially buried in sand with the now presumably empty city visible in the distance. The ironic wit is subtle; we can read the decaying posters in the car: “You need a vacation,” and so on. Their other image features the interior of a deteriorating all-night laundromat. Grass is growing and there are a couple of rats the size of possums. A kitschy wall-sized picture of a forest is peeling off the wall. These large color photographs manage somehow to be simultaneously gorgeous, hilarious and unsettling.

Lori Nix/Kathleen Gerber, “Subway,” 2012, archival pigment print, 40 x 50 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Clampart Gallery, New York

Mainer Jan Piribeck and Brooklyn artist Eve Andrée Laramée both work with data and stories styled for print. Piribeck’s work includes the story of “Knudson Pond,” what Piribeck has named the annual flooding of Marginal Way and Cove Street in Portland during what is known as the “king tide” – the highest tide of the year. Piribeck uses the tide as a gathering point for the “King Tide Party,” a political party of sorts and a regular gathering of artists and activists. Laramée’s work uses a template for the National Parks’ standard brochures to present information about problematic environmental sites such as Maine Yankee, the nuclear power plant in Wiscasset. Despite being decommissioned in 1996, the plant still houses more than a trillion (yup, you read that right) highly radioactive fuel pellets.

Painting is particularly strong in “Anthropocenic.” Illinois artist Laurie Hogin’s impressive works take the form of Renaissance allegories teeming with Day-Glo-colored flora and fauna, all mutated of course. Her hyper-realistic style gives these works a hallucinatory clarity. Isabella Kirkland’s four works are digital prints made from her paintings. The suite is made in the style of early Renaissance “nature-mortes” – which we translate as “still life,” even though in French it means “dead nature,” following the idea of nature’s generous bounty. Kirkland’s four images feature, in turn, species that are disappearing, ascending, those that were endangered but have returned, and finally species that are now extinct. While the conceptual content of this group of paintings – and we should add to work of printmaker/painter Timothy Berry to this list – is robust, these images are all remarkable for the obvious skill and effort that went into their making.

Deb Hall’s photographs of Idaho lake scenes are shaped like the real estate plots from which they were taken. Apparently, the lake, which Hall visited freely as a child, has access limited to the owners of the land. With ironic wit, she notes both signs of “welcome” and “keep out” – the mixed messages of ownership and marketing.

Sammy Baloji, “Untitled 13,” 2006, from the Mémoire series, archival digital photograph on satin matte paper, 24 by 94½ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Axis Gallery, New York and New Jersey

Sculpture even makes a strong appearance: Adrienne Herman’s half-digested bales of recycling materials, installed on campus, have launched a great deal of dialogue within the community. Maika’i Tubbs’ rock-like objects are made of materials washed up on the shore of his native Hawaii. Despite their appearance of solidity, they are no more than plastic bottles combined with the blender-made pulp of the junk mail he receives. Nathalie Miebach’s “The Ghostly Crew of the Andrea Gail” references the lost boat and crew that was the subject of Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm.” The sculpture combines basketry, wire and beads organized by scientific and meteorlogical systems into something that rather looks like a three-masted circus schooner pretending to be a chariot. It’s a colorful work, and it looks particularly solid coupled with Michel Droge’s handsome orange and blue atmospheric abstractions.

Julie Poitras Santos, “Chronicle of Mud,” 2018, video, 19:28 minutes (still) Courtesy of the artist

The videos are all excellent. Danish artist group Superflex’s video of a McDonald’s restaurant getting flooded is hilarious fun – and oddly poignant. Allora & Calzadilla’s “The Great Silence” is a heart-wrenching video narrated by an endangered Puerto Rican parrot. The parrot laments humanity’s building the Arecibo Observatory used to seek extra-terrestrial intelligence while ignoring the animals around them with whom they could (and, according to the parrot narrator, should) communicate. The parrot (via subtitles) asks: “Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?” Bates commissioned Julie Poitras Santos’ “Chronicle of Mud” for “Anthropocenic.” It’s a poetic meditation on carbon, beginning with the idea that we are carbon-based life forms. She presents carbon as the earth’s memory by looking to wetlands and mud: We learn, for example, that about 15 percent of the earth’s carbon is held within wetlands. Ursula Biemann’s two short video essays are gorgeously poetic inquiries that pair seemingly disconnected places with unexpected profundity. It takes a minute to connect the whispered narrative – observations by an arctic scientist – to the images. Biemann shifts from video of oil sands production (which is very rare because the companies don’t like showing how nasty it is) by a few anonymous machines in Canada to scenes of hundreds of barefoot people carrying bags of mud in Bangladesh, desperately building levees by hand. It’s a masterclass in dialectics: the interacting connection is terrifyingly powerful.

For all of its ethical urgency, “Anthropocenic” is an unusually engaging and entertaining show. It shifts on a dime from morally challenging work to kitschy hilarity to deeply elegant aesthetics. It is serious and conceptually ambitious, but this combination of work opens many doors for both the content and the experience of the work as art. A masterful exhibition, “Anthropocenic” is a curatorial coup for Bates.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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