Identity, History & the Environment: The Compassionate Arc of Kim Abeles’ Art
“When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world… healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world.” ~Chogyam Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhist Monk
Written by Betty Brown
Kim Abeles’ artworks range from data-based portraits of the self, to reconsiderations of historical figures, to interactive considerations of natural phenomena. She deploys both art and non-art materials, everything from paint to suitcases to smog. In doing so, she addresses our society’s most urgent issues with poetry and grace.
Abeles’ Self-portrait (Pope Joan) is comprised of the originals of all her identifying documents, from her birth certificate to her social security card, to her faculty IDs from the many universities she serve as faculty member and/or visiting artist. The documents cover the back and seat of a reconfigured chair. There is an opening in the seat, crossed by woven wires and reflected in a mirror on the floor beneath the chair. That opening recalls the “dung chair” which, according to legend, was used to verify if a pope had testicles or not. (A cardinal was supposed to reach up through the opening and feel the pope’s genitals.) The “dung chair” became necessary after a ninth century woman–Ioannas Anglicus–disguised herself as a man and rose in the church hierarchy to finally become pope. Her gender was only discovered after she gave birth. She was then tortured and killed for having the hubris to think that she, a mere woman, could run the church.
Kim Abeles has never been part of the Catholic Church (except for when, in the fifth grade, she attended mass with a friend.) But as an artist and professor, she has worked in male dominated fields that favor masculine cultural productions over those of women. Abeles’ Self-portrait reminds us that gender is a fundamental of human identity construction, and that patriarchal cultures strongly favor the male half of the gender divide. To this day, men occupy the majority of power positions across the planet. Male artists are represented in museums far more than their female counterparts. (The Guerilla Girls assert that 87% of the artists in US public museums are male.) And the leaders of the Catholic Church are still exclusively male, just as they were in the (perhaps mythic) era of Pope Joan.
Abeles’ World Leaders in Smog (2019-2020) is a continuation of her Smog Collectors series that began in 1987. As the artist writes, this series “materializes the reality of the air we breathe.” She began with portrait plates of US presidents from McKinley to Bush. Each of the white porcelain plates had a picture of the president’s face and a statement he made about the environment or industry. The artist put the plates outside in downtown Los Angeles so the particulate matter in the ever-present smog adhered to the stenciled portraits and darkened their faces. The darker their vision of the environment, the darker she made their depictions. Theodore Roosevelt had a relatively good record on the environment, so his image is quite pale. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, is quite dark.
More than thirty years later, Abeles reprised the Smog Collectors on a global scale, with world leaders “painted” in smog. The plates continue to be compelling documents of global/political policy differences.
In 2017-2018, Abeles worked with the National Park Service and the County Fire Department on a project involving the Firefighting Women Inmates of Conservation Camp 13. She helped the women create small valises filled with images and objects that relate both to fire abatement and to our connection to the wilderness, especially to forests. The valises are used to educate the public about fire in particular and environmental conservation in general.
The artist collaborated with the inmates–none of whom had been trained as artists–for six months. She helped them gather materials related to their firefighting and fire abatement processes, and assisted them in arranging these materials aesthetically as well as didactically. One of the valises is a vintage suitcase (a vintage typewriter case, actually). The others were containers constructed by the female inmates. Following processes she has developed over decades of deploying community building as an art form, Abeles worked alongside the inmates to co-create these teaching tools cum artworks.
On of Abeles’ most recent works is Breathing Trees (2018-2019). In this case, she worked with the Institute of Forest Genetics in the Sierra Nevada foothills. She sought to chart the resilience of pine species that had been planted by the institute’s founder James Eddy as far back as 1926. She took numerous photographs of specific trees, printed the images on tall strips of silk, and arranged them into in-the-round portraits. Abeles also worked with students from Independence High School (Diamond Springs, California) to consider the resilience of the trees as linked to human resilience, and specifically, the students’ own responses, especially when under stress.
Abeles’ Breathing Trees uses the tree as metaphor for social aspirations. A short video by Anita Getzler shows how the trees appear to be breathing and moving.
Few artists allow their work to expand from self to world with such insight and generosity. Few artists commit to engaging diverse communities in shared work that addresses our planet’s most pressing problems. Few artists achieve such beauty and grace as the inimitable Kim Abeles.