It's fitting that Don Harvey co-founded and edited an arts magazine called Dialogue. The photo-based sculpture in Don Harvey: Invented Landscapes -- A Ten-Year Survey, a retrospective now on view at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, demonstrates his ability to examine many sides of an issue. He creates disciplined visual images that express volatile emotions: anger at the despoliation of the land by chemical pollutants; fear that the individual has increasingly less say in a technologically advancing world. But there is also a lyricism in his work that is expressed through nature imagery. This dialogue between dread and awe is Harvey's stock-in-trade.
Harvey needs little introduction. He has been awarded fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council. He has lectured extensively and was a founding member of Cleveland's Committee for Public Art. He has exhibited in Japan, China, New York, and Philadelphia, and closer to home, has had six solo shows at the William Busta Gallery. He's a regional artist who has had a national, even international, impact.
The retrospective is comprehensive. Included among the 52 works is an ominous series of sculptures combining images of endangered birds, turtles, and swans with sealed vials of antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid. The juxtapositions are laced with indignation. These vials filled with blue and green fluids create a laboratory-like mood. Harvey, the artist-scientist, is seeking the root causes of cultural apathy toward the environmental issues important to him. Many of the photo images are slathered with grease and other substances. This, too, helps the artist to sustain an appropriately toxic atmosphere.
Co-curators Kristin Chambers and Amy Gilman shed light on Harvey's process. There's a room devoted to photographs that the artist later incorporated into his pieces. Harvey, part of a growing contingent of artists who use the camera as a natural extension of their perceptions, takes photos of everything that catches his interest. He is like an archaeologist who gathers fragments at the excavation site and only later gives them a connecting order. As he has noted, "I began to take long, aimless walks, to intentionally lose myself in strange neighborhoods and to use these walks as the platform for observation." The photographs on view in this room increase one's respect for Harvey. He started with this unprepossessing source material, but the rest of the exhibit demonstrates how he transformed it.
Harvey mixes the natural and the urban in his work. For each image of natural beauty, there is a grim suggestion of the technological forces that threaten its existence. For every point, there is a counterpoint. For example, in the three-paneled work called "Two Fields" (2001), there are three photographs from left to right. The first is a black-and-white shot of a crowd of people seen from above. Then there's a color photograph of a bright green field. Finally, another crowd is seen from the same vantage point as in the first shot. The purity of the central image -- the vivid swath of green -- is contrasted with the monochromatic outer panels. Thus, in this concise work, Harvey pits nature against civilization.
"Two Fields" sums up the major themes Harvey addresses in the show. The work represents the coming together of various strands of art and cultural history. There is a long tradition in American art of exploring the relationship between the natural and the urban. In 1871, during the industrial revolution, the painter Thomas Moran remarked that the craggy cliffs of Yellowstone were "beyond the reach of human art," in that no human hand or machine could have made them. Moran went on to create enormous canvases in which those massive cliffs dwarf human figures into insignificance. More recently, during the 1960s, artists like Robert Smithson sought to create sculptural environments with natural materials like rocks, tree branches, and sand. While Andy Warhol brashly told America to forget Yellowstone and behold the wonder of a Campbell's soup can, these earth artists nostalgically recalled an earlier America, as yet untainted by ranchers, miners, and the advertising industry. Harvey recognizes the tension between the natural and the artificial. By offsetting the vivid colors of nature against the gray, neutral tones of city life, Harvey, in "Two Fields," squarely comes down in favor of the natural.
Viewing this exhibit, one is struck by the consistency of Harvey's vision, whatever the medium. In lesser hands, all that antifreeze would be a waste. But Harvey manages to make it necessary.
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