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Artists grapple with the uses and misuses of water.

"Among the most compelling works are those that achieve balance between the artistic, the informational and the political."

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Panel discussion: Lisa Link's "Water Ways" asks Boston residents and scientists about water.
  • Panel discussion: Lisa Link's "Water Ways" asks Boston residents and scientists about water.

Too Shallow for Diving: The 21st Century Is Treading Water, at the American Jewish Museum, is a provocative, broadly based art exhibit examining water as an essential resource with symbolic overtones, political currency and profound practical implications.

Guest-curated by artist Carolyn Speranza, this ambitious exhibit presents mostly commissioned new work by 13 artists and collaborative teams. While the exhibition area has more than its share of spatial interruptions, the venue -- located in the Jewish Community Center -- is a hybrid of gallery and community center. And that's fitting for an exhibit that asks us "to engage in pivotal issues of water and environment."

It's a timely topic, what with daily stories of flooding and drought, likely exacerbated by global warming/climate disruption. We're also witnessing privatization of water supplies in developing nations, leading to skyrocketing prices and profits; increasing data and heated debate on fracking's effects on water supplies; and ongoing water pollution from industrial-agriculture runoff and other causes, to name but a few.

Too Shallow for Diving provides multiple points of entry for thinking about how we need, use and misuse water. More traditionally aesthetic-poetic approaches include Jamie Gruzska's encased photographs representing memories of water at different stages of his life, and Maritza Mosquera's photographs of people indeterminately sinking or swimming. Both artists allude to the connection between our aesthetic response to water -- the rhythm of waves, the smell of rain, the shimmer of light on a lake's surface -- and our dependence on this elemental substance. These highly personal responses also suggest the anxiety regarding the global future that underlies and threads through the entire exhibit.

Consistent with the curator's goal of "ignit[ing] a conversation that will result in people taking action," several artworks emphasize the informational and, as broadly defined, the political, while employing aesthetics for clarity and dramatic effect. Lisa Link's "Water Ways" is a set of graphically designed panels, in each of which a Boston scientist or resident addresses water issues in that city, giving lucid voice to information, insights and rational fears.

Closer to home is documentation of Tim Collins and Reiko Goto's "Nine Mile Run" project, for which they brought together scientists, lawyers, planners, et al., in the process expanding and redefining the role of "artist." While this presentation on the restoration of a local creek is rather heavy on text, what they have achieved to date at Nine Mile Run is available to see by anyone willing to take a long-ish walk from the JCC. Meanwhile, their "Three Rivers Sand Mandala," presented here in photographic documentation, elegantly dramatizes the interconnectedness of waterways.

Among the most compelling works are those that -- like the "Three Rivers Sand Mandala" -- achieve balance between the artistic, the informational and the political. Wendy Osher's "Something in Water" organized the efforts of women in far-flung locations to crochet plastic bags into a variety of breast-like forms. The rich sculptural presence of "Something in Water" captures our attention and then, through adjacent documentation, directs our thinking to toxins that make their way into the bodies of nursing women, and thence to the next generation.

Prudence Gill's "As Heard on NPR April 18, 2011" consists simply and powerfully of the text "10,000 Swimming Pools of Oil Flowed into the Gulf," a statement all the more resonant as it is affixed to windows overlooking the JCC's swimming pool. "Requiem for the Net-Makers," a collaboration between Carolyn Speranza and Frank Ferraro, is a multimedia installation that conveys both the essentialness of America's waterways and the actuality of individuals whose livelihoods depend on those waterways. Roger Laib's outdoor "Glut Hut" is at once an embodiment of responsible practices -- solar, water collection, composting, gardening, creative reuse -- and a paean to those practices, suggesting that sustainability is a loftier goal than tidiness.

In total, the exhibit attends to both the emotions and intellect, both of which are essential to inspire responsible citizenship in a political climate in which everything seems to be for sale, and anything can be labeled as "safe" simply because it's convenient or profitable. While the symbolic is thoroughly present, the heart of the exhibit is focused on the actionable, including numerous public events from environmental group PennFuture and the inimitable Vanessa German's "A Love Poem for Water." As included in Speranza and Ferraro's artwork, a quote from Richard Nixon -- "Restoring nature to a natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions" -- makes one long for a time when clean water was widely seen as fundamental to progress, which of course it is.

 

TOO SHALLOW FOR DIVING: THE 21ST CENTURY IS TREADING WATER continues through July 28. American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-521-8010 or www.jccpgh.org

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