The cloud is a giant worm, starting small and almost invisibly. Its mouth, however, is large and thick and threatening to swallow you up into its weightlessly heavy doom. Walking into the Judith Bear Isroff Gallery at the Akron Art Museum, the impact is immediate. The cloud is exhaust, oil and coal, dirty and toxic. It’s comprised of countless smaller components, which individually perhaps could each be lovely: wisps of smoke captured on paper, sometimes shimmering, but growing darker. Altogether it’s overwhelming. It’s coming for you, and you feel it.
Many artists talk about pollution in photographs, in facts. They lay out an argument for a rational audience; they appeal to our minds like scientists. Most Americans have heard these facts, yet remain unmoved, unwilling to change their actions regardless of whether they claim to believe a change could make a difference. They look around and see the slippery beginning of something awry: abnormal snowfalls and mild summers, raging storms and wild temperature fluctuations. But hey, could be a fluke, right? And what’s one more car in an ocean of gas guzzlers, one more water bottle floating out to sea, one more factory farmed burger?
But Charles Beneke is not like most artists, and certainly not like most Americans. When his daughter came home from school one day a decade ago, she had learned some distressing news. “Dad,” she exclaimed earnestly, “the polar bears are dying!” He talked about the environment with her, about how the countless thoughtless actions of many can add up to such a global tragedy. “But Dad, what are you going to do about it?”
Beneke started looking around his printmaking studio and realizing how much waste he and his students were generating. He recognized how many toxic chemicals they were employing in their everyday art practice. He decided there was a lot he could do, and he started making changes. And that’s when he started looking at the content of his work.
Specter’s strength lies in that same emotional appeal, the kind that motivates people to act. Along the left wall plants, oil rigs, and bright orange emissions become a language chronicling the history of what we’ve done to the environment in floor to ceiling, ominously hieroglyphic wallpaper. Tangles of green become a lurid, emergency orange in graphics that at once appear slick and deliberately designed, yet stacked haphazardly atop each other in a screaming frenzy of development. Next, the landscape appears to get cleaner, though the lack of greenery becomes suspicious.
Then the paper comes off the wall and begins to take on its own oppressive form. The cloud fills the room, hanging just low enough to allow viewers to walk beneath and behind it, examine its components up close, then step back and be hit by all it took to create this monster. The installation is an apt metaphor for the environmental impact of our cumulative choices, with each component of the cloud being a print that could stand alone as art; the thought and care that went into each piece is evident. Impending doom is a handful of categorical actions represented as unique patterns, harmless enough one by one, but repeated feverishly, swirling around and sticking to each other, becoming in bulk something impossible to tackle. The mouth of the beast hangs over viewers’ heads, poised to swallow up the room.
Finally, visitors are asked to trade their carbon for art. The prints available for trade are worthy of being hung on your wall, and remind those who take them in the most pleasingly designed way that nets, smoke stacks, car and natural gas omissions may not yet be big monsters, but handheld, actionable, daily choices that can turn the tide toward positive change just as they’re currently accumulating toward disaster. Beneke realizes the power of being looked in the eye and asked earnestly “What will you do?” And Specter does just that.
Specter by Charles Beneke is on view now at the Akron Art Museum, through Jan 3, 2016. Beneke will give an Artist’s Talk on Sept 13, 2016 at 2pm in the Akron Art Museum Auditorium.
Christina Day is a board member at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland, and formerly co-owner/director/curator at FORUM artspace in the 78th Street Studios complex. She received her BFA in Printmaking from the Myers School of Art in 2012. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org