Whitehot Magazine

The Art Planet: Outspoken Curator Debbie Dickinson

Iran Issa Khan, Golden Pleasure, 48 x72 in. Archival Pigment Print, 2005.

By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST November 2, 2023

It began for Debbie Dickinson as she was standing beside the Hudson early last year. “During Covid time I would spend my time out in nature,” Dickinson, a one-time supermodel morphed into curator, said. “I saw millions of fish floating down the river. Like a blanket across the water. It was crazy”. She learned that such fishkills are caused by climate change when they go to their mating grounds. Shortly after she saw parallel events in Florida on Channel 10. “The Miami basin was contaminated,” she said. ‘In Miami it was reported. But in New York there was nothing on the news. I thought I needed to get the word out. For people to pay attention. We live in an urban culture, right? I had better do something about this with art.”

Dickinson immersed herself in this project for several months. She studied the microplastics that form floating islands, a phenomenon observed by Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian scientist who crossed the Pacific by raft with five companions in 1947 and who mentioned it in his bestseller, The Kon-Tiki Expedition. In 1997 such an island was observed by Captain Charles Moore, a Californian sailor, who estimated it as being three times the size of France and twice that of Texas. It’s now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the GPGP, and it is such plastics that fill the bellies of doomed whales. Dickinson put together a group of sixteen artists, three movie makers and a scientist, Dr Beckett Colson of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Massachusetts. Ocean, the show that was born, will be at 456 West Broadway, NY, from October 25 to November 22.

Bryan LeBoeuf, Martyr, 60 x 58 in. Oil on Linen, 2023.

The artists are outspoken. Bryan LeBoeuf, who grew up on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and sometimes makes a stretch of water a part of his pictorial narrative, has been following media accounts of the increasing number attacks by orcas, aka killer whales, on small boats in European waters.  “I’ve heard recently that the orca have teamed up in unison to destroy vessels out there. And in various places, which is even more startling,” LeBoeuf says. “And it’s not just an Internet thing. There are too many now. A very literal interpretation is that they’ve had it with us, That’s the loud noise in my psyche lately of what’s coming from the ocean. It’s another language. This may be getting payback in the natural course of things. I think the ocean is expressing extreme alarm just in terms of our own existence. Pretty soon the problems will be too big to ignore.”

Iran Issa Khan, the Teheran-born photographer, is bothered by the visual squalor. “I live in Miami. And I’m surrounded by water,” she says. “So for me anything that has to do with water is very important. When I see what’s happening today with all these plastics and things it’s shaming. Because I need to be in purity. I’ve travelled around the world and I’ve never seen it this bad. Never, never, never! And Miami is so bad … people throwing out their plastic bottles and cups and things! How can humanity be so horrible? The beaches, the people!”

Has she brought this into her work?

“Sure!’ says Khan, who was a fashion photographer for fifty years, shooting for Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. “I moved back to Miami and saw this happening in the year 2000,” she says. “And I saw it getting worse and worse and worse. And I had to get involved. And when I started shooting the shells I forgot about fashion, about people. I saw the purity, the beauty, in the shells. And everything that has to do with the water, the oceans, and was amazed. And that’s what I shoot now. I shoot mostly things from the ocean, things from nature. Because who knows what is going to happen next?”

Evan Sebastian Lagache feels he knows. He was born in Florida. “When I was about three days old my parents dipped me in the ocean,” he says. Dickinson being one of those parents. “I’ve always had a huge love for the ocean. I was a lifeguard for a while. I always found it interesting that we know more about the solar system than we do about the ocean on our planet. It’s unknown.”

The ocean was the subject of the first painting Lagache sold to a gallery. “It was called Deep Blue. It had to do with glacial melting in the Arctic. And the second piece was called Magnum Opus. I made it while my apartment was flooding. So water was my downfall while I was trying to work on a piece for my first gallery show”.

I said I wondered why artists had not come together to be heard on these enormous issues. Humans are good at not focusing on death, that being a psychological survival mechanism, but it’s now working against us as we barely take an interest in the death of the planet. Do I exaggerate? Here's what I gleaned from the New York Times just this Sunday. These starfish face extinction. Scientists are helping them mate, ran one story. Atlantic hurricanes are getting stronger, faster was another. Also olive oil prices have more than doubled as extreme weather hits crops in Spain, Italy and  elsewhere. There was A glimpse into Spain’s future, which was that 23 villages had to get their drinking water delivered since April, when a reservoir dried up.” Finally: The rainforest holds a fifth if the world’s fresh water, but deforestation, dwindling rain and unrelenting heat are sucking it dry. Ho-hum.

Evan Sebastian Lagache, Oceania, 48 x 48 in. Acrylic on Canvas, 2011.

Well, a few artists focus on such matters. Roberto Dutesco has for ten years been showing his photographs, The Wild Horses of Sable Island, about equine shipwreck survivors on an islet off the coast of Canada, itself climatically doomed, and he launched a foundation that planted trees in Indonesia, IAMWILD. Layla Love, the Hawaii-based photographer, is a founder member of Global Coralition, a group of artists, activists and marine scientists, set up to restore the world’s rapidly shrinking coral reefs, indeed create more, by submerging huge hollow sculptures designed to become marine habitats. Her most recent sculptural project, a sixteen footer, is to be located on the shore of the Dominican Republic. “My vision is to launch this project across the fifty reef sites,” Love says. Other artists have shown interest, but it is literally singular. The connective wave of energy that was generated by, for instance, Vietnam is visibly lacking. 

Lagache agreed that such an art world movement would be an excellent idea, suggesting a specific project. “I think it would be good, considering the waste that making art usually creates,” he said. “It would be interesting if there were a project centered around maybe reclaiming the trash of the ocean and turning it into art pieces”. Indeed some years ago, New York’s Bitforms Gallery did show work made out of oceanic trash by Studio Swine, an Anglo-Japanese outfit. Not artworks though, just chairs. 

Two other Lagache canvases, Oceana and Neptune belong in a different cosmos than that of floating plastic bottles. “Those have to do with the deepness of the unknown of water on earth and the deepness that we are unaware of in the water on space but which we look for in life to come” Lagache says. “The idea is that if we can’t find enough respect for the planet we live on we will be search for new life on another planet where it would be sustainable. Because we have lost our chance on this one.” WM 

Anthony Haden-Guest


Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.




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