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The very last polar bears on the planet? BIMA showcases “Whitewashed,” the environmental art of Joseph Gregory Rossano
Discussing environmentalism in most places around Washington can most definitely be described as preaching to the converted.
However, through all the bumper sticker activism and arguably effective plastic bag bans, sometimes the heart of the issue can get lost and it takes something special to make people really care again.
“Through excessive deforestation of large conifers in combination with [the] burning of fossil fuel, iconic species such as the polar bear, the ringed seal and salmon may be living their last moments on our planet,” said conservation-minded artist Joseph Gregory Rossano.
He’s not wrong.
According to a 2012 BBC article by Richard Knight, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has officially listed 801 animal and plant species known to have gone extinct since 1500, and other sources list even more dire estimates.
Rossano, an Arlington, Wash.-based mixed-media artist, is well aware of the numbers and hopes that his stark and beautiful creations will begin a discussion and reevaluation of the ways in which human beings interact with the planet.
“My artwork is really about conveying one ideal,” Rossano said. “That is the place of man in this world that can’t speak to us.”
It would be easier to label Rossano’s work as eco-art or a conservation statement. He claims, however, that his intended message is far more widespread than mere activism.
“To be frank, I’m not sure how you define being an environmental activist,” he said. “Do I believe in creating awareness through my artwork? Sure. Do I believe in talking about how man has related to the natural world throughout the history of this planet? Of course. Do I want to take some sort of radical action? I’m not sure I’d put myself in that category.”
In his series “Whitewashed,” opening at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art Saturday,
Jan. 18, Rossano has created a series of floor-mounted sculptures constructed from salvaged old growth forest wood. Surrounding those are wall-mounted wooden specimen boxes, each filled with information about specific animals including a combination of Rossano’s drawings, photos, historical ephemera and DNA codes specific to each animal. Each box has a drawer that the viewer can pull out and learn more about the creature pictured, thus engaging further with the exhibition and the main themes of awareness and discovery.
Also within the specimen boxes are specific codes which lead the viewer to commissioned academic essays from subject matter experts in the fields of global climate change and vulnerable animal species.
“How you treat those things that you think are endless is how you’ll eventually treat everything in your life,” Rossano said of man’s carefree treatment of natural resources.
“The work is really about awareness,” he said. “It’s about changing the state of mind with which you look at the world.”
It is the initial eye-catching minimalist style of the work that serves to enhance the viewer’s act of discovery even more, things are not as simple as they appear.
“Nothing is that simple in reality,” Rossano said. “That’s the reason the work is so minimalist on the outside. So, hopefully you come to some understanding, because the reality is that everything is important.
“I want everyone to be aware. This is my attempt at saying it’s really not that simple. It’s the appearance of minimalism that I hope engages people into wanting to become part of this other dialogue with the world where they live.”
Within this exhibition Rossano includes a new series of “trophies” - a stylized set of hand-carved animals that are wall-mounted - including a life-sized swordfish projecting from the wall. These pieces are covered in white paint and tar, another statement of humankind’s relationship with the seemingly endless resources of the natural world.
“Rossano has a very beautiful and sophisticated way of engaging the viewer in difficult topics,” said Greg Robinson, executive director of BIMA. “It’s ultimately more about people, ourselves, than the animals. He artfully places a kind of mirror in front of us. We cannot ignore what he reflects back at us.”
Like Albrecht Dürer, the Old World master he cites as an artistic influence, Rossano prefers to work with multiple and varied materials. The wood he’s used in this series comes from a friend who salvages old bridges, and the foam was taken from ex-military aircraft components.
“I’m always looking for that next material and how it should be used to get that result I’m looking for,” he said. “My process involves thinking about a lot of different things, and then engaging people about the materials I’m thinking about using and understanding what the materials are.
“The world’s my oyster. I can work with all these different people who understand different mediums, and I can come in here [his workshop] and put them all together. I’m a blessed guy in that situation,” he said.
Rossano said that it is nothing less than the fundamental relationship humans have with the planet that is the driving subject of his work, and the need for correction in our cultural behavior.
He described the initial interactions between early humans and the animals of that age, saying that the first reaction of our species would have been to use whatever they needed to survive and to kill whatever they might have perceived as a threat.
“I look at these examples of animals that are really on the edge, and we know better,” he said. “There’s no excuse for our actions. No matter how threatened we may be, we know better and they can’t speak for themselves. We still allow the same interaction that was happening back in the Pleistocene era today.”
What: Joseph Gregory Rossano’s environmental exhibition “Whitewashed.”
When: Opens on Saturday, Jan. 18.
Where: Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (550 Winslow Way East)
Admission: Free, donations accepted.