Artist Gar Waterman’s new exhibit at Kehler-Liddell Gallery in Westville, “Canaries in a Blue Coal Mine,” begins with a wry advisory warning.
“This is a sculpture exhibit as much about the creatures who inspire it as it is about the artwork itself,” Waterman writes in his opening statement for the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 7. “If you care to learn something about what climate change portends for their future and ours, this exhibit will interest you. If you believe climate change is ‘fake news’ or some bizarre plot to fool you by the same scientists who brought you the facts about the world being round and not flat, this probably isn’t for you.”
That a statement like this falls along political lines these days isn’t news. So Waterman renders political what are also some gorgeously executed sculptures of marine life in several of its forms, pulling back the curtain on Waterman’s motivations and also lending poignant meaning to Waterman’s choice of medium.
Waterman is in some ways selling his pieces short. Even if you’re a climate change denier, there is much to admire in Waterman’s work. One sculpture of a cephalopod conveys the wavering motion of the animal’s fins with such accuracy that you can sense the way the creature moves. Another larger piece is all streamlined speed, turning the gallery into an aquarium that you happen to be scuba diving in. A third cephalopod is abstracted just enough to feel like an obelisk, a kind of totem.
His sculptures of nudibranchs delight in the bizarre details of those creatures’ forms. In rendering them much larger than they are in reality, he reminds us of the oft-repeated sentiment that those of us interested in alien life forms don’t have to look much farther than the ocean. It’s a strange, and strangely beautiful world down there.
Meanwhile, his sculptures of fish — a clever and striking use of the natural colors of the mineral he’s working with — are lifelike enough to, at first glance, be mistaken for trophy fish on the walls before the eye adjusts a little and sees what’s going on.
That quick visual double-talk feels almost intentional, given the context Waterman puts his pieces on. He pairs each part of his exhibit with information about the creatures he’s representing that is complex enough to be more than a simple warning. The increased acidification of the ocean poses a mortal threat to echinoderms like starfish and sea cucumbers, with ominous consequences for the ocean ecosystem. The rapid losses of coral reefs threaten nudibranchs. Cephalopods, we learn, are more adaptable than other sea creatures, and squid is experiencing a population boom — with the accompanying danger of a natural bust that could be exacerbated by overfishing.
Waterman’s explicit connection of his work to the plight of his subjects makes his use of medium poignant. When coral dies, it essentially becomes inert minerals. We know much of what we know about extinct fish, squid, nudibranchs, and starfish through fossils. With his sculptures, Waterman is almost making fossils himself — impressions in stone of living creatures. The medium is part of the warning, that if climate change proceeds as scientists believe it could, and the plants and animals currently alive suffer the catastrophic losses oceanographers fear are a real possibility, fossils could be all we have left.