New York Times
A Show That Tweaks Ecological Concern

Published: September 7, 1997

NOTWITHSTANDING its ill effects, the Industrial Revolution generated widespread optimism and, to judge from his 1844 masterpiece ''Rain, Steam and Speed,'' Turner was one painter who shared in it.

Typical doom-laden images of the time include the biblical panoramas riven with lightning bolts, which came from Joseph (Mad) Martin and the desolate landscapes of German Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich, none of which contain even a puff of industrial smoke. Whether these Luddites expressed their forebodings consciously or not, there is no doubt that history has borne them out many times.

Today the ''future'' seems closer than ever, but the show hanging in the Glyndor Gallery at Wave Hill here greets it with minimal Sturm und Drang under the jaunty title ''What on Earth?!''

The six participants are known as ''ecologically informed artists,'' which, freely translated, means they are primarily concerned with the destruction of nature and have some idea as to its causes. Doubtless aware that overkill breeds indifference, the artists do not urge viewers onto the barricades but, rather, make their respective points quietly, as if content to stand up and be counted and maybe acquire a sympathizer or two on the way.

After all, the scene of their misgivings is an estate that has escaped the depredations of progress and, as the show's curator, Cathe Rambusch, explained recently, it is a haven for the gallery's constituency.

Though art has never converted me to anything but itself, I can imagine visitors entering this exhibition indifferent to the environmental cause and leaving it with at least a few twinges of concern.

If any one artist can do the trick, it is Judith Brodsky, with a series of juicy lithographs titled ''The Meadowlands Strike Back'' that testifies to the eight years she has spent driving the New Jersey Turnpike to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where she heads the Center for Innovative Print and Paper.

Having seldom taken the route without marveling at the northern stretches bordered by pampas grass tall enough to obscure the Manhattan skyline and without being moved almost to tears at the thought of the land as it must have been in pre-Colonial times, I am not surprised by Ms. Brodsky's choice of subject or her outrage over its fate, even though it is nothing compared with that visited on the environs of the mining town Sudbury, Ontario.

In her statement, the artist speaks of oil refineries ''sucking out the resources of the earth and replacing them with cancerous residues,'' of ''garbage mountains landscaped to look like parks but rotting, foul and burning underneath'' and of her own Last Judgment, which would restore the primeval forests swarming with dinosaurs that created the oil.

But it is one thing to read the words and quite another to contemplate the images: Ms. Brodsky draws as boldly as she writes. A dramatic case in point is the image of container ship derricks standing around like armchairs in a club for giants.

But sometimes the drawing is sabotaged by far-too-attractive color, as in a combination of blue sky and lilac skyline, which is the foil for a vision of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, dwarfed by the Fresh Kills pyramid -- of garbage.

More problematic, though, is the artist's love-hate relationship with the enemy. It is obvious that she hates heavy industry for the evil it has wrought and equally obvious that she is seduced by the awful beauty of its installations -- see the print of four crackers, each with its crest of flames.

The concept of beauty in detritus is one of Modernism's many cornerstones, thanks in part to Kurt Schwitters's collages of discarded tickets and labels and the assemblages of found objects produced by other Dadaists. Janet Culbertson uses it to good effect, augmenting her landscapes and interiors with slats of wood and clumps of authentic-looking rubble. But she also adds feathers and glitter, together with touches of pink and silver paint, so that in the end her compositions look more like paeans to destruction than indictments of it. The artist is at her best when she portrays a billboard, then, as if making a film, pulls back to reveal in a larger, more Magrittean image, the entire structure floodlighted in a brown waste land.

Drawn in a blend of pencil, pastel, ink and other media, Rita Welch DiGia's images tend to symbolize their subjects instead of defining them and some have a touch of art nouveau. But in her self-critique, the artist said they remind her of Persian miniatures. No doubt the truth lies somewhere in between. Ms. DiGia says that she views the ''polluted and endangered world as a Paradise Lost'' and that she hopes ''to open our eyes wide to the truth of our peril.'' Evidently, the artist's reach exceeds her grasp, for though one picture features a dead bird in a puddle of oil and another includes the ominous if oxymoronic sign Industrial Park, all radiate a charm that is irresistible.

A canvas depicting a distant stand of trees hangs over a tree stump flayed of its bark, which stands alongside. These are the elements in ''The Work of Tanners,'' an installation by Barbara Roux, who sees environmental damage for what it is and embellishes the evidence only with verbal asides. The one accompanying tinted photographs of felled hemlocks, says that the tallest specimens were as old as the owner's wife, ''who lay ill now and needed care,'' adding that ''timber prices were very high, especially for hardwoods.'' Ms. Roux's works, which also include near-diagramatic drawings of beach erosion, in color pencil (or pastel) on canvas, are the least glamorous in the show. And this may explain why eventually they prove to be the most affecting.

Emily Barnett, an artist, and Tom Vogt, a physicist, join forces to produce blueprints that will be understood by those hip to atomic structures and other scientific esoterica but that made no sense to me. Art is the loser in most art-and-technology marriages, and it does no better in this one.

The show continues through Sept. 21. The information number is (718) 549-3200, extension 232.