ROCKLAND — Two months after it closed when a broken water line flooded the galleries with gushing water, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art has reopened with an exhibition that explores, in part, rising water levels.

“Melt Down” includes stunning photographic and video work by several Maine artists who have traveled to and worked in the Arctic and Antarctica. Their photographs and videos offer undeniable evidence of climate change, said guest curator Bruce Brown. “Artists are committed to being at the forefront of persuading people through their art about the seriousness of the issue – and that’s true for so many other issues, as well,” he said. “The point is, artists are not hiding in their studios. They are thinking about the world in which they live, they are very much aware and they are committed to telling these important stories.”

Mainers of all stripes, including scientists, are heading to the polar regions. This exhibition brings together Maine’s cli mate change all-star artists, who often stand right alongside their science brethren in their desire to understand what is happening with climate change and its impact on the environment, Brown said. Artists are going north to explore a once-remote region that has become accessible through artist fellowships, residencies and ecotourism, often hitching rides on container ships or sailing with scientists on research vessels. Through their work in these physically remote and challenging places, artists are creating awareness and encouraging others to pay attention – and take action.

“For many of these artists, their work goes far beyond the visual. A number of these artists are really studying the issues and are well-versed verbally to discuss the issues,” Brown said.

John Eide, 3479 Image courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

The exhibition will stay on view through June 9. It is showing in tandem with an installation by Ellis-Beauregard Foundation fellows Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen.

In an age when scientific data seems insufficient to motivate people to take action, perhaps an art exhibition that offers hard evidence of climate change will provide the incentive, Brown said. CMCA is among a large number of museums and art centers across the region and the country that are presenting work about climate change this year.

In Waterville, Colby College Museum of Art is dedicating its exhibition programming this year to climate change with a series of exhibitions that use art to amplify environmental threats, and the Lunder Institute for American Art will present panels and programs to advance the discussion. One of those exhibitions, the video installation “Flooded McDonald’s” by the artist collaborative Superflex, is on view through April 26. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, presents a major fine-art exhibition, “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” through May 5. At Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, the Lamont Gallery is showing the environmentally themed “[E]mission[s]: Critical” through May 18 with work by Maine artists Lucinda Bliss and Tom Hall, among others.

Jim Nickelson, “Fjallsjokull, Iceland” Image courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

“There’s a crescendo of interest in both art that is itself about the environment and art that is self-consciously environmental, and I think that’s entirely understandable and good, because it draws attention to these dire situations we’re facing,” Karl Kusserow, curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum and co-curator of “Nature’s Nation,” told The New York Times last week.

Artists with work in “Melt Down” include John Paul Caponigro, John Eide, Ella Hudson, Jonathan Laurence, Justin Levesque, Jim Nickelson, Jan Piribeck, Peter Ralston, Shoshannah White and Deanna Witman. All have been to the Arctic or Antarctica at least once, and several artists have made multiple trips. Caponigro has been to both regions many times and has been making work in both locations for years.

The volume of recent work related to climate change by Maine artists surprised Brown. He could have organized a much larger exhibition, but focused on photographs and video.

“I started with the idea of tracking a few people down and was dumbfounded to realize there are many artists who have gone up to look at the situation and to learn and to really become well-informed about the issue of climate change. There are painters, sculptors and printmakers among them, and within a matter of a couple of weeks. I came up with 24 or 25 different names. I thought that was pretty extraordinary. These artists are taking the issue seriously and commenting seriously about it.”

John Eide, “Antarctica 1331” Image courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

A smaller version of “Melt Down” will open in August at the Portland Public Library.

Ralston, a photographer from Rockport, has been touring Maine and across New England to show his photographs from his 2016 plane-and-yacht voyage to Greenland and through parts of the Northwest Passage. He was shocked by what he saw and came home with a clear agenda to talk urgently about climate change. “I feel pretty evangelical about it, in my own tiny way,” he said.

Ralston’s slideshow and talk, “Arctic Observations,” draws parallels to what’s happening up north and what’s happening in the Gulf of Maine with a changing ecosystem and rising water levels. For this exhibition, he is showing a handful of photographs that document how climate change is affecting humans and animals. His photographs show hungry bears and dogs suffering from diminished food supplies, insects and species of fish far beyond their normal ranges and other indicators of a changing climate, including what he considered a shocking lack of ice and unhealthy-looking ice.

Peter Ralston, “Second Rule” Image courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

“Stepping out the plane, it started. Just as we as New Englanders visually know the difference between healthy snow and ice and the rotting snow and ice of March and April, that was the impression even as we were coming down in the plane – and that feeling never let up,” Ralston said.

“What I am showing really does nothing more than simply reflect what I saw. I am not a scientist. I am just a photographer long interested in small communities, and an observer and storyteller.”

Levesque, an image-based interdisciplinary artist from Portland, has incorporated science into his practice since he began visiting the Arctic in 2015, as a passenger aboard a container ship from Portland to Iceland. He was mostly an observer on that trip and used his time to learn about the lifestyles of the crew. On his second trip to the Arctic in 2017, he traveled aboard a sailing vessel with 30 artists and scientists on an Arctic Circle residency, exploring Svalbard and its environs. He has just completed a visiting artist stint at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, working on projects related to research about viruses in Antarctica. He’s also doing a residency at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells.

His work has never been specifically about climate change, but how we interact, often with technology, with the idea of climate change. Since Brown approached him about being in the exhibition, Levesque said the conversation has become more urgent and pointed, especially since the recent release of a U.N. report suggesting the window for effective change related to climate change is closing quickly. There is urgency in the work of all the artists in “Melt Down,” he said, but he wonders, and worries, that “folks are shooting in the dark” when it comes to finding effecting ways to communicate their fears.

It’s such a big and daunting problem, people shut down when they consider it, he said. Levesque subscribes to the ideas espoused in Plan It Change 10, a network of people “united to face and express the fears humanity will endure as climate change becomes evermore real and irreversible.” The goal of Plan It Change 10 is simply to engage artists in their communities to express their fears about climate change in hopes that it leads to real change in the political and corporate worlds.

“Melt Down” feels like that sort of response – a concentrated expression of fear and alarm by a community of artists who are attempting to lead a discussion where politicians and policymakers have failed. Their agenda is awareness, by whatever means necessary.

Shoshannah White, “White Coal Landscape” Image courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

Levesque has two lasting pieces in the show, an installation of 12 prints with cold-blue metal frames, acrylic rods and viewer-activated video, and a sculptural video piece. Both of those pieces relate to his interest in engaging people through a variety of ways, including social media. He had a third piece in the show, but it was a temporary piece of art involving a photograph and large block of carved ice that was designed to melt at the opening Saturday.

White is taking advantage of the wall space of CMCA to show a five-panel mural that’s 7 feet tall and nearly 20 feet wide. The image is an enlargement of prints she made by mixing melted glacial ice, which she collected in Alaska, and coal that she collected in Pennsylvania. She created a slurry of the two materials and spilled them over light-sensitive paper. The resulting image looks like a mountain scene with a night sky, but it’s a completely fabricated landscape made from the raw material of two environments.

She sees her work less related to climate change directly, and more related to simply understanding the environment deeply. Her art is based on the data and information that’s packed into the ice and coal, she said. For her next project, she is headed to New Mexico, where she will focus on other kinds of sediment and explore new landscapes.

“For me, the work is not as much activist-based as much as it is to put myself closer to these environments so I can have a physical relationship with what is going on and understand it more deeply,” she said.

That said, if her work leads to a conversation and action, all the better. “I think it’s a scary and important moment, and I think it’s important to have different eyes on what’s happening.” White said.

 


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