THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY
By Paul Tatara
You’ve seen Al Gore’s movie. You know we’re too dependent on our cars; that we waste electricity; that Earth’s glaciers are receding faster than Karl Rove’s hairline, and that—right now—nobody is doing nearly enough to stop it.
In short, you’ve heard enough about global warming already.
But have you really?
Sam Huang doesn’t think so. Huang, a muralist and biology professor at Riverside Community College for some 30 years, has devoted much of his life to promoting awareness of global warming and fighting its effects. With his newest exhibit at the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, Art and the Science of Global Warming, he forges ahead with that mission in a series of mixed-media works whose power lays in their rhetorical punch rather than their aesthetic complexity. Huang’s pieces, alongside Robert Dawson’s more artistically interesting photographic exhibit Awakening from the California Dream: An Environmental History, together form an important and informative artistic indictment of our environmental practices, both regional and global.
For Huang’s part, all of the pieces in Global Warming have two things in common: a signature folk art style—simple figures, bold colors, symmetrical composition—and a fierce environmentalist conscience. His subjects are things like global dimming, particulate matter, and ice core analysis. If these sound more like fodder for biology class lessons than cutting-edge art, they are, and Huang’s art functions primarily in the vein of the former. In “Say Goodbye to Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro,” for instance, Huang depicts Ernest Hemingway’s face surrounded by a neat pictorial timeline of Kilimanjaro’s receding snowline. Similarly straightforward is the oil painting “Mommy Help,” which features a gaggle of polar bears stranded on melting chunks of ice and a giant faucet in the foreground representing the rising floodwaters produced by glacial melting.
Probably Huang’s most interesting piece is “The Choice is Ours,” a diagonally bifurcated painting of Riverside with one side depicting the city’s future—coal-gray skies swirling with pollution, wilting hillside vegetation, freeways jammed with cars, the drivers’ faces transformed into skeletal masks. The other side depicts Huang’s utopian future: a freeway teeming with solar-powered cars, solar-powered pillars upholding the roadways, windmills lining the clear blue horizon.
Alas, subtlety is not in the cards. (“This is your world . . . This is your world on global warming . . . Any questions?”) But Huang’s is the sensibility of a muralist, after all—an artist who, by definition, attempts to reach the masses in an identifiable artistic idiom. While the significance of his message can’t be overstated, his art loses much of its potential power when confined to these small quarters.
Far more compelling artistically is Dawson’s photo series. Tracing a record of California’s environmental history from the Gold Rush to today, his black and white photos offer powerfully understated indictments of the Golden State’s smeared environmental record. Dawson’s almost surrealist photo “Private Property” (1988) depicts a locked black metal gate positioned at the edge of a small, vacant wooden pier on Lake Tahoe, a stark contrast representing the ugly friction between individual property rights and the drive to preserve California’s natural beauty as an asset for all. “Lake Moola” (1993)—which features a giant casino billboard, also in Tahoe, towering over the lake—takes on a similarly troubling friction between the profit motive and environmental conscience. “Monarch” (1996) depicts California’s last wild grizzly; its caption tells us that the California grizzly, long a potent state symbol, has been extinct since the early part of the 20th century.
Dawson’s photos cover a wide range of topics—from diminishing salmon runs to the legacy of gold mining to the steady corrupting of our air and water—many of which don’t get nearly as much PR as global warming. Global warming might be the biggest fish on our environmentalist skillet at the moment, but Dawson reminds us that our “unreflective violence” against our planet has many faces.
ART AND THE SCIENCE OF GLOBAL WARMING: NEW WORKS BY SAM HUANG AND AWAKENING FROM THE CALIFORNIA DREAM: AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY AT THE RIVERSIDE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM, 3580 MISSION INN AVE., RIVERSIDE, (951) 826-5273; WWW.RIVERSIDECA.GOV/MUSEUM. TUES.-FRI., 9 A.M.-5 P.M.; SAT., 10 A.M.-5 P.M.; SUN., 11 A.M.-5 P.M. FREE. THRU AUG. 27.