Painter Alberto Rey’s exhibition Biological Regionalism: Scajaquada Creek, Erie County, New York, USA, on view at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo through June 2, makes a strong case for unflinching realism in landscape painting and signals a new way of thinking about the role of landscape art in the 21st century.
Alberto Rey, Biological Regionalism: Scajaquada Creek, Erie County, New York, USA, installation overview, Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Feb 14-June 2, 2014. Main gallery.
Alberto Rey, Burchfield-Penney installation overview with sketchbook display.
Alberto Rey, Burchfield-Penney installation, second gallery with video projections, maps, specimens and paintings.
Rey used the term “biological regionalism” to describe his approach to naturalism. It’s a term that plays off the art historical category “regionalism,” the naturalist style developed by artists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton during the 1930s, which promoted an image of America-ness based on Midwestern rural experience. Rey builds on the idea of “regional” in site-specific terms by developing projects about lakes and waterways located in close proximity to his exhibition venues. In 2010 he presented an installation at the University of Buffalo Gallery focused on Ellicott Creek that flows past UB on its way to Lake Erie, and in 2012 he presented “Biological Regionalism: Bayous, Lakes and Rivers, Monroe, Louisiana, USA” at the Masur Art Museum. Accordingly, the Scajaquada is located very near the Burchfield-Penney. It is unlikely that one could avoid crossing over it on a drive to the art center, but the Scajaquada is so buried under concrete that it would be difficulty to see much of it as you drive by.
Rey approaches these projects as an expert painter and as an expert angler. His strong sensitivity to the environment as an ecosystem enables him to problematize traditional norms of landscape painting and wildlife art. As appealing as landscape painting often is, it usually presents what we want to see in nature, rather than revealing our dysfunctional relationship with it. Rey’s installation cuts through the veil of artistic wishful thinking that so often comes between the environment and its depiction as landscape.
Rey’s installation brings the viewer face to face with the Scajaquada which was driven underground into concrete drainage culverts in 1921 because it was polluted and to make way for new roads. So, even though this watershed touches the lives of approximately 94,000 people in Erie County, it is nearly invisible to them.
At the center of the exhibition, a large map orients to viewer spatially by showing the close proximity of the creek to the Burchfield-Penney. Lines drawn on the wall link highlighted locations on the map to large paintings of these places which are hung below.
The five large landscapes press the viewer to look at unsettling places where biosphere awkwardly meets technosphere; that is to say, where the creek and its flora and fauna are grafted to the city’s system of highway overpasses, concrete culverts, and drainage ditches. Coupled with each painting is a dirty sample of creek water with disturbing readings of E.coli bacteria levels, water turbidity and conductivity.
Rey transcribes these dystopian spaces where road runoff, human waste, and creek water flow together in fairly regularly patterned brushstrokes. This way of applying paint results in an aesthetic version of flat affect which implies that the image is a kind of mute witness instead of an impassioned response to nature. This uncanny effect makes it difficult to turn away. We are used to being reassured by landscape art, but we can’t find this feeling in these images.
Rey, a master fisherman with a naturalist’s eye for river wildlife, has an astonishing collection of hand-tied lures. I once caught a glimpse of this and observed that each insect type was systematically recreated as a fly in the many phases of its development from hatch to full maturity. Rey’s observational acumen is fully evident in oil paintings of brown trout, his signature subject, included in the show.
Brown Trout, Delaware River, Catskills, New York I, 2012 (R) and Brown Trout , Upper Beaverkill River, Catskills, New York 1, 2012 (L)
Considering the art world bias again “wildlife art,” I was initially thrown off by Rey’s portraits of brown trout. Why would a contemporary artist present each fish in such brilliant specificity? When he explained to me that the subtle differences among brown trout is the result of their adaptation to the specific rivers they inhabit, I could see that in Rey’s work trout signify the biological interconnectedness of life in nature. Thus, Rey’s paintings of trout are a important component of the exhibition, especially as trout would never survive in the polluted Scajaquada Creek, even though they thrive in rivers and creeks throughout the region.
Alberto Rey, Dead Muskrat, oil.
The adjoining gallery presents counterpoints to the beautiful trout. A large oil painting in this darkened gallery shows the carefully rendered carcass of a dead muskrat with matted fur floating in the creek. Here too, are videos Rey shot while wading in the murky creek; in one, he takes us into a cavernous culvert tunnel, in the other he introduces us to what seems like a monstrously long leech.
Video still with oversized leech.
As I contemplate the significance of art in the 21st century–a period so fraught with humanitarian and environmental crisis–I often find myself doubting the relevance of art. I’m thinking of both contemporary conceptual art, motivated by fashion, iconoclastic irony, and philosophical high-mindedness, and naturalist and abstractionist variants of fine art, motivated by the quest for beauty and/or self expression. Sinking my teeth into Rey’s installation about the Scajaquada I began to see that every community would benefit from art of this kind. That is, an art that avoids both irony and universal truths and which models a way of thinking about the local environment that fosters a greater sense of ownership and responsibility in viewers. What better role could landscape painting play in the 21st century?