Dominique Paul: Silent Spring
September 25 - November 21st, 2020
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, October 19, 2020
Canadian artist Dominique Paul works in both Montreal and New York. Her show, “Silent Spring,” visually reiterates the prophetic truth of Rachel Carson’s book of the same name, in which the writer outlines the eventual decline and extinction of birds and other species facing the use of pesticides. This prophecy has become tragically true, and Paul’s wall reliefs, constructed from acrylic and photographic collages of birds and insects, along with the bling we associate with fashionable society--watches and jewelry--comment poignantly on the increasingly fatal destruction of wildlife. It must be said that today’s ecological circumstances are capable of evoking great anger as well as sadness, but, on an individual basis, there is not much that can be done. Paul’s accomplishment in this show, which is considerable, is to demonstrate in an elegant fashion the creatures adversely affected by environmental decay and loss of habitat. In her work, the transparent plastic reliefs, illustrated from behind by images of insects, jewelry, a fashionable black man, represent trees or birds that have become endangered species. At this point, ecologically interested art has become ubiquitous, perhaps in danger, too, of turning into a cliché. But Paul’s attractive, considered artwork embraces an innovative esthetic, both in terms of its form and materials and its unusual use of collaged magazine images as illustrations, to deliver a strong and visually pleasing message of ecological urgency.
Paul’s large work, Insects of Surinam 35 (2019), is based, like many works in the show, on the early 18th-century pictorial work of the German artist Marian S. Merian, a known scientific illustrator. This intricate sculpture, connected by branch-like lines at many points, incorporates images of leaves, fruit, insects--many different kinds of caterpillars. It is nearly baroque in its intricacies, but it is also very contemporary in its materials, being made of plastic and randomly assembled photos. The weight of our current dilemma in handling the crisis in the natural world is presented lightly and indirectly here--the point is that even the decay of our environment can originate art of unusual beauty. Part of the lightness comes from the use of the acrylic frame, fundamental to the structure of the image. It is a light medium--its transparency keeps the feeling of the work from becoming heavy. At the same time, the use of historical imagery, produced by Merian, gives the art a remarkable reach, looking backward into natural history’s representation from some time ago. Most good art effects a balance between something old and something new, which means that Paul has to bring about a degree of contemporary measure to her efforts. In this work, and in the show generally, she enables her audience to participate in the kind of complexity that occurs when there is equal status between her historical research and her contemporary flair.
Most of the smaller works indicate endangered bird species. Knowing this gives a poignancy to the images, although the pictures themselves are descriptive rather than deliberately troubling. In essence, this is the foundation of Paul’s suggestive art; it is sad and moving by intellectual implication, even if the art itself is buoyant and emotionally inspired. In the work titled Northern Bobwhite 2 (2020), we look at a short rounded bird with a blue crest, a large eye, and a short, sharp beak. Its variegated, multi-colored body offers a complexity of truncated forms and differing hues. It is an exquisite image, whose beauty indirectly underscores the likely fate of its extinction.
In the image titled Bald Eagle (2020), a photo of an informally but elegantly dressed black man, taken from a men’s magazine, fills the outlined body of the bald eagle drawn by the artist. A curved beak occurs, coming off the face of the male model. Paul is perhaps being political here, equating the person with the fierceness of the bird. It is an effecting statement, in which the social status of the black man stands in for the endangered status of the eagle. Yet both man and bird are fiercely proud, defying their marginal status. In general, this is what happens in the show: the slow death of the species, making the creatures peripheral to nature, becomes the occasion of beauty and strength. It is not that the tragic is not acknowledged; our understanding of the birds’ perilous group existence demands that we recognize their fragile position. But the beauty in Paul’s art establishes a different kind of emotional connection to the creatures, which become vehicles of gorgeousness rather than examples of a dying nature. This is the best of political art, I think, because it refuses to descend to rhetoric and uses the innate attractiveness of nature to assert the point that we are in a place of extraordinary responsibility regarding the life of many species. Paul recognizes this, and very successfully engages her audience in her art. WM
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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