Whitehot Magazine

Steve Rossi at Caldwell University (New Jersey)

34.335799, -103.165836 version 2, aluminum, submersible water pump, water, EPDM rubber, plywood, acrylic latex, and soil from eastern New Mexico (collected at the location of the GPS coordinates in the title), 1.5’ x 20’ x 15’



Steve Rossi’s solo exhibition Prior Appropriation was located in the Mueller Gallery of Caldwell University, roughly an hour away from New York City. His exhibition is at extremely interdisciplinary body of work that includes a series of waterjet cut aluminum wall relief sculptures, acrylic paintings on canvas, an immersive sound and video installation, as well as a sculptural installation featuring circulating water pumps and soil from the southern High Plains. The work is heavily informed by the landscape in this region where groundwater pivot irrigation is widely used to support industrial agriculture. His intent is to bring awareness to the entirely unsustainable aquifer depletion brought about by this highly efficient industrial process, seemingly necessary, but highly extractive to the water tables in the region. 

Rossi learned about these issues firsthand, and up close, through spending time on the ground after his brother relocated to rural eastern New Mexico. All of the work in the exhibition directly or indirectly references satellite source imagery of the region, the titles are taken from their GPS coordinates. The exhibition title Prior Appropriation highlights a system often used to allocate fresh water resources in the western states, where the early user has a legal right to ground or surface water to the exclusion of the rights of those who come later (1). There is of course the double meaning in the title related to appropriation of subject matter in an art world context, as Rossi appropriates satellite images of the landscape for use as visual source material.

34.233707, -103.084940, acrylic on canvas, 2022, 30” x 39”

The sound and video installation is as lyrically beautiful as the other work is industrially descriptive. Both describe the same difficulty: the damage caused by the current use of technologies for irrigation in an arid region. Visitors experience a layered video floor projection in the space. Evident first, is a close up view of gentle meandering patterns of light reflecting on the surface of water, superimposed under this is the satellite source imagery that provided the direction for the other works in the exhibition—however in this immersive project the imagery is experienced entirely differently; the satellite images change in scale, some zoom in revealing roads and houses amid the circular fields, some are zoomed out to the extent that only vague patterns of circles from pivot irrigation are visible, as if almost seen from space.

In the video, the reflecting water sways slowly over this terrain. Rossi’s impressive visuals are joined by a sound sculpture filling the room. It is made by Robbie Wing, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, who grew up in Oklahoma and now resides in the mid-Hudson Valley. His composition Beneath the Stream is heavily rhythmic, like indigenous drumming, but also can resemble the strong beats of minimalists such as Steve Reich. Wing’s recording was created through the use of a hydrophone, simultaneously recording below and above the water’s surface in the Roeliff Jansen Kill, a body of water near the artist’s home. In the post-processing phase, Wing has also added synthesized keyboard notes, at times melodic, at other times intensely ominous. Rossi, a former student of mine, has done an excellent job in bringing together the varied aspects of this immersive video and sound installation.

Transitional Space No. 2, waterjet cut aluminum, 2021, 15” x 25”

Rossi’s implications, partially obscured by his abstract imagery, are political; his beautifully suggestive art is based on factual recognition of an industrial landscape and aquifer far away from the exhibition space. Rossi asks us to consider, what can be done about the conflict between current land practices and the harm inflicted on the sustainability of the water sources that support them? Standing in stark contrast to these realities, he includes the following land acknowledgement statement in the wall text of this exhibition: The area of the Great Plains region referenced in this work has been the traditional homeland of the Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, Comanche and Lipan Apache people. Native People have stewarded the land in the Great Plains region for thousands of years prior to European colonization, sustaining relationships with water sources so different from the nonrenewable extractive practices currently in use today. Whether an artist like Rossi is commenting forcefully enough about these practices might be questioned.

Yet I think Rossi is. Much of his imagery is also informed by a modernist aesthetic, which he uses intentionally to question the myth of the modernist utopia that has failed to materialize, despite our increasing technological advancements and industrial efficiency. The paintings and relief sculptures relate formally to abstract art from a century ago, while the sculptural installation includes references to land art of the 1970’s. In bringing together these historical connections, with our myriad ecological crises in mind, Rossi seems to be searching the past and the present for moments of paradoxical beauty and stillness—where he, and us, can rest for a moment to also consider our complicity in an unsustainable economic system of continual growth. Rossi’s politics may be oblique on the surface, but they are genuine. The lands continue to be abused. Whether his imagery aestheticizes a political tragedy can be questioned, but it is hard to say. Soon enough, he intimates, there will come a time when agriculture will have permanently destroyed the aquifers serving crop production, and not only the beauty, but the richness of the landscape, now still beautiful, will continue to need our help. WM


1. The National Agricultural Law Center. (n.d.). Water Law: An Overviewhttps://nationalaglawcenter.org/overview/water-law/ 


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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