Now or never. It’s a phrase that conveys the immediacy of a problem — If it isn’t fixed now, there may never be another chance.
That phrase could apply to any number of crises we’re facing today amid a global pandemic and ever-increasing political polarization.
But perhaps none more than the herculean problem of climate change.
That’s likely why the phrase is at the center of the local art show, “Eco-Urgency: Now or Never.” The exhibition, which is split into two parts, has begun its second phase at the Lehman College Art Gallery after showing at Wave Hill last summer.
The Lehman gallery show concludes April 23.
Bartholomew Bland, the Lehman gallery’s executive director, says each of the exhibition’s two phases tackle different ways of understanding climate change.
“It was designed really to be a two-part exhibition — ‘now’ and ‘never,’” Bland said. Wave Hill was “doing ‘now,’ and we’re doing ‘never.’ They were sort of looking at the crisis as it’s happening now. And we’re kind of looking at speculative ideas, and also works that have a historical element — sort of pulling in the roots of some of these problems.”
The Lehman show features 14 artists, many of whom also presented work at the Wave Hill exhibition. The show officially opened late last month after being delayed for a few weeks because of the coronavirus omicron surge.
Although it’s now open, Bland said, the gallery still has strict pandemic safety protocols. Those wishing to attend the show must reserve a timeslot online ahead of their visit and show proof of vaccination at the campus gate.
The exhibition has five basic themes the artists followed, Bland said. First, is the idea of grief, mourning the loss of parts of the environment that climate change has already permanently altered.
Then they needed to look at the effects of climate change from the perspective of animals whose ecosystems are changing rapidly.
Third, there’s the concept of stewardship and trying to preserve parts of the environment that are disappearing. Fourth is the link between social justice and protecting the environment.
And lastly, the idea of depicting the physical changes that are taking place and the result of those changes.
“Those are the five sort-of big themes, and a lot of them overlap,” Bland said. “But those are some things we identified — our curatorial team — as we were putting everything together.”
Bland originally started collaborating with Jennifer McGregor, the former arts director at Wave Hill, in early 2020 — planning to debut the show right before the pandemic hit. They decided now was the perfect time to do a climate-themed exhibition because of the increasing number of severe weather events over the past two years that appear to be caused by the planet’s rising temperature.
“The fires in the West really seemed to be a psychological tipping point for a lot of people,” Bland said. “I think that combined with the record-setting heat that was going across the Pacific Northwest when you saw Vancouver at 106 (degrees). That kind of thing really jarred people.”
But, like most live events, the show was delayed when the coronavirus pandemic shut the city — and really the world — down in March 2020. The curators used that time to reorganize the show and recruit artists through an open call.
Riverdale local Nicky Enright was one of the artists chosen. He has a piece in both shows called “What On Earth (Have You Done)?” This text-based installation covers the walls of the entrance rotunda to Lehman’s gallery. It also adorned the entrance of Glyndor Gallery when the show was at Wave Hill.
The installation is the phrase “What on Earth have you done?” repeated five times on both walls of the rotunda in large black letters, some of which are italicized. Enright adapted this large-scale installation from a much-smaller piece.
“The original is about two-by-three feet,” he said. “All of a sudden, it’s like this huge installation. Plus, the piece itself is kind of yelling. And so, at this scale, it’s much more appropriate.”
The idea of the piece, Enright said, was to take this colloquial expression and draw attention to the fact that “Earth” is at its center. And really have people think about the question in the context of climate change.
“I wanted them to feel it,” Enright said. “Posing it outward toward corporations, (the) oil industry, fossil fuels. ‘You people seem to not care about the future of your grandchildren.’ And then also inward. ‘What have we done?’ ‘What have I done?’
“So, it’s reflexive. It can be directed either way in the viewer’s mind.”
Natalie Collette Wood, anther Bronx-based artist, also participated in both phases of “Eco-Urgency.” her installation combines oil paintings, plants, moss and repurposed furniture to depict what she described as an “abandoned dinner party that’s gone awry, with animals and natural plants and moss and succulents taking over.”
“My work is definitely inspired by nature and the rising climate change crisis,” Wood said. “And just this idea that our environment is changing, and we have an impact on it. And just imagining if nature were to reclaim it.”
Wood wants her work to inspire people to be better stewards of the environment.
While Bland says the show in indeed open to interpretation, he still hopes it gets people thinking about how the climate crisis can be addressed on a governmental — and global — scale.
“Because there is a limit to what the individual can do, and it’s very easy to become hopeless on a lot of these issues,” Bland said. “But we’re hoping that people will at least be engaged and vote for things that are going to be helpful to transform the environment in the ways scientists think we need to.”