Wasteland-scapes: Frick Fine Arts Building hosts environmentally-conscious art exhibits


Nina Young’s photograph titled, “King’s Plaza,” is part of the “Shifting Ground” expedition hosted by the University Art Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Nina Young)

By Prachi Patel / Staff Writer

Floorboards creaked as visitors shuffled around to get a closer view of the medley of landscapes, which included underwater photographs, silk Chinese scrolls depicting sloping mountains and an Inuit print of a sea-goddess.

The University Art Gallery hosted a joint opening of two art exhibitions — “A Part from Nature” and “Shifting Ground” — last Tuesday in the Frick Fine Arts Building. Both exhibits explore human traces on the environment, but include different artists.

“A Part from Nature” will be on display until Oct. 27, and features the photographs and videos of Canadian artist Isabelle Hayeur, whose work focuses on altered landscapes and human impact on the earth.

“I wanted to testify from the point of view of the environment itself,” Hayeur said at the opening.

The photographs displayed come from two separate series — “Excavations,” which portrays layers of the earth from underground, and “Underworlds,” which depicts underwater aquatic landscapes. In both, Hayeur strives to show landscapes from below.

“A large part of the world we don’t see, because it’s underneath,” Hayeur said. “A lake that is polluted has nice reflections — you can canoe on it, but if you look under it, underneath the surface, then you can see the real damage.”

Hayeur captures the images in her “Underworlds” series with a camera submerged partly underwater, each photo bisecting a plane of polluted waters and land.

During the opening, Angie Cruz, an assistant professor in the English department, moved closer to study one of Hayeur’s prints glued onto the gallery wall — a larger-than-life vertical landscape of muddy waters topped with a layer of trash.

“I think the pictures are really beautiful, very striking,” Cruz said. “Because it’s flat against the wall, it has this sense like it’s a portal, you’re drawn into it.”

Isabelle Chartier, the curator of the University Art Gallery, selected the artists and their artworks in the two exhibitions, choosing works that represent human imprints on nature.

“It looks like it’s separating nature from human, but really it’s all interconnected,” Chartier said of “Underworlds.” “We have people’s remnants at the top that are affecting what’s happening at the bottom.”

Chartier said the environmentally focused show originated in an interdisciplinary workshop she co-led this summer with Pitt academic curator Alex Taylor. The workshop focused on anthropocene — human activity physically altering layers of the earth’s crust.

While deciding what artists to bring into the show, Chartier said Hayeur’s work immediately came to mind, particularly her “Excavations” series.

“All our garbage, all our human-fabricated leftovers is now part of the soil,” Chartier said, pointing to one of Hayeur’s prints titled “Quaternaire IV (Anthropocène),” which depicts an elongated landscape of dirt and rubble. “Our imprint is real.”

Hayeur’s “A Part from Nature” opened in conjunction with “Shifting Ground,” an exhibition featuring historic landscapes from the University Art Gallery’s permanent collections.

“I was able to find all these different representations of nature,” Chartier said, referring to the paintings which now hang off the walls of the back room of the University Art Gallery.

Diverse in content, the display includes everything from a depiction of a 17th century Dutch harbor, to a scroll of a Chinese cliffside and village, to a painting of Pittsburgh cloaked in smoke and flames during the city’s booming steel era.

“I thought the objects or the groups of objects could get people to think about the fact that landscape is something that humans create and alter and change depending on their needs,” Chartier said.

“Shifting Ground” — which will run until Dec. 8. — also features the work of three local Pittsburgh artists, a decision Chartier made to voice contemporary concerns about our natural surroundings.

Christine Holtz, a photographer and one of the local artists, has an image from her project “50 Greenspace Dumpsites,” a series photographing illegal dumping sites in Pittsburgh, displayed in the exhibit.

“I realized a lot of the sites were in public parks, greenspaces and cemeteries,” Holtz said. “I thought that was a good way to get people interested in this idea of illegal dumping in the city of Pittsburgh.”

Holtz tracks down illegal dump sites using GPS coordinates, and then photographs landscapes of the seemingly pristine locations before revealing to viewers they’re actually looking at a dumping ground teeming with hidden trash.

“It’s a good wake-up call,” Holtz said. “They start looking at it and go like, ‘Wow, there’s this many tons of trash in this place?’”

Across from Holtz’s work sits a sculpture of a carved terra-cotta figure resting on a slab of wood, its hand placed almost quizzically over its head as a bouquet of balloons made of steel arc toward it.

The sculptor, Duncan MacDiarmid, said his sculpture urges viewers to consider the environmental impact of man-made objects — in this case balloons.

“What you’re bringing into the pure environment is something that’s completely man-made,” Duncan said. “Technology has fabricated it. We’ve completely accepted it into our lives.”

Nearby MacDiarmid’s sculpture hangs a photograph of a deserted parking lot in New York City taken by Nina Young, a photographer based in Pittsburgh. Young’s photo is from her series “Still Time,” which centers around photographing brownfields — polluted former industrial sites.

“[We’ve] just kind of sucked the life out of them. They need time to lie fallow,” Young said. “We have a chance to remake this landscape.”

Young said she aims to freeze her landscapes in time, urging viewers to reflect on how contaminated areas should be rejuvenated. She compares the stillness of her work to the call to action in Hayeur’s images.

“She puts herself underwater,” Young said. “You feel a sense of urgency in her work that you don’t feel in my work necessarily, because I’m more frozen. I want time. [Hayeur’s message] is, ‘There’s no time!’”

Hayeur’s current work focuses on finding solutions to the pollution, climate change and the subsequent social inequalities she captures in her photographs and videos. Her latest project chronicles resistance groups opposing oil industry and hydroelectric power in Canada.

“I wanted to look at the solution, and what people do to fight these problems,” Hayeur said. “Just bring a little hope. Also, just to see that it is possible.”

Chartier believes “A Part from Nature” and “Shifting Ground” will challenge visitors to consider their role in affecting the landscapes around them.

“I hope some of the contemporary images can make us afraid about what’s already happening,” Chartier said. “Between nature and humans, if we realize we’re all entangled and everything has a consequence, even if it’s not immediately visible, I think that’s the importance.”