Plein Air Is a Sobering Reminder of Human Impact on the Environment
From borderlands and elevations to ecology and isolation, curator Aurora Tang brings together artists who work deeply in their regional geographies.
by Thao Votang
Installation view of Plein Air at MOCA Tucson, 2022 (photo by Julius Schlosburg, courtesy MOCA Tucson)
TUCSON — By noon on a July day in Tucson, Arizona, it’s already 100 degrees and still climbing. Going to see an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson means visiting as museum hours allow in case the afternoon evolves into a dust storm powerful enough to make masonry and stucco homes creak or a monsoon that turns city streets into rushing waterways.
To step out of that heat and into the cooled air of a museum to see an exhibition titled Plein Air was, at first, ironically humorous. Then it was a sobering reminder of human impact on the environment because going to the museum also meant hoping there wouldn’t be an ozone air pollution warning like there had been for the past three days straight.
Plein Air, guest curated by Aurora Tang, brings together seven artists who use their environments as subject, medium, or setting. In the exhibition text, Tang writes that the outdoors is a “point of departure to consider the ways in which humans use, observe, record, and commune with the land.”
A darkened video room, closed off from the rest of the exhibition, swaddles the viewer. Paula Wilson embodies a goddess-like figure in her 2014 video work “Salty + Fresh.” The frame pans out and reveals the goddess’ extra large painter’s palette and brush. The goddess-artist paints the backs of three live caryatids. These first four figures are all standing in water. The frame zooms out more and a group of picnickers toast and laugh and document the scene in the water with their phones.
Left: Paula Wilson, “Salty + Fresh” (2014), right: Paula Wilson “In the Desert: Mooning” (2016), installation view in Plein Air at MOCA Tucson, 2022 (photo Thao Votang/Hyperallergic)
The onlookers take on an insidiousness with the knowledge that Wilson filmed the video at Virginia Key Beach, Miami’s historic “colored only” beach. The push and pull of the beach’s history and American culture’s continued struggle with racism repeat in the cuts between the figures in the water and the picnickers on the beach. The people in the water aren’t all Black, and as much as I want to categorize and draw easy conclusions, I can’t assume the figures on the beach are all white. Things are never that simple, which is one powerful aspect of Wilson’s work: the rearrangement of things we’ve seen before so that we can try to see something new.
Plein Air left me wanting more from each artist. As a sampler of works by artists who use the outdoors in their work, the group exhibition succeeds in bringing together multiple approaches and perspectives amid shared themes of questioning borders or regulations as the government tries to control vast swathes of land, and warnings of how oil and gas corporations are poisoning the land and people.
What stuck with me most is how Plein Air pulled together artists grappling with different ways of being in the Southwest with its borderlands, elevations, ecology, and isolation. Each instance has a vast history, community, and knowledge to gain. It makes me eager to learn more and hope that artists all over the world are working this deeply in their regional geographies before it all disappears in fire, flood, or worse.
Plein Air continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson (265 South Church Avenue, Tucson, Arizona) through February 5, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Aurora Tang.