Kim Abeles: Smog Collectors 1987-2020
California State University Fullerton Begovich Gallery
Through December 18, 2021
Written by Liz Goldner
While Detritus has been used by artists as source material for decades, Kim Abeles employs an unusual form of this material in her artmaking. Using particles from smog and other airborne elements, she creates a variety of illustrations on wood, acrylic, plates, furniture, among other items.
Abeles constructs these artworks by placing hand-made stencils over objects that she has coated to attract the airborne particles. She leaves the art pieces in progress in the outdoors for four days to more than a month. After removing the stencils, the smog illustrations range from slightly visible to clear and striking. While aesthetic resonance is one artistic goal, her deeper intention is to draw connections between the plague of smog and our well-being—to demonstrate how various forms of pollution affect every aspect of our lives.
The exhibition, Kim Abeles: Smog Collectors, 1987-2020, is the first showing of her groundbreaking series in its entirety. The series, which has received national and international recognition, also cites decades of scientific data about air pollution. She has remarked, “Since the worst in the air can’t be seen, Smog Collectors are both literal and metaphoric depictions of the current conditions of our life source.”
Abeles created her first Smog Collectors pieces in the late 1980s while living in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles. Her inspiration was the intense smog obscuring the nearby mountains. Using stencils to create an image of the mountains wedged between buildings, she created her first Smog Collector. In this exhibition, the elegant art piece, “Obstructions to the Wedge” (1987) is comprised of nine silver prints of her view of the mountains. This image and several other smog-related art pieces have been called “footprints of the sky” by one observer.
The five-paneled “Sixty Blocks Square of Los Angeles Horizon” (Winter 1990/91) depicts Los Angeles’ horizon line as smog-ridden. While creating these panels, Abeles produced a series of SoCal Smog Collectors artworks for the Bureau of Automotive Repair. The latter project addresses pollution density in disadvantaged communities, particularly those that are close to freeways and factories.
She created her inventive “Zoë’s Highchair” (Winter 1990/91) from stencils of a table setting and food that she placed onto her daughter’s highchair.
In 1992, Abeles produced a Smog Collectors series related to the Los Angeles uprisings, following the beating of Rodney King. Her “The Sorcerer” and “French Pyrenees” (both, 1992), are made of smog and smoke/ash resulting from the fires set during the demonstrations.
A more recent installation in this exhibition is the exquisite “Deck Chairs on the Titanic” (Sept-Oct 2020). To create these, Abeles made four stencils inspired by pictures of deck chairs from the Titanic. She placed the stencils on European Beech, the wood that the original deck chairs were made from, and let the particulate matter and smoke/ash from the local Bobcat Fire leave their imprint on the wood.
Abeles most notable series are her 17 “Presidential Commemorative Smog Plates” (1992), made of smog on 10 ½ inch white porcelain plates. Didactics explain, “The idea developed when Abeles heard George H.W. Bush on the radio proclaiming himself as the ‘Environmental President.’ The artist’s immediate reaction was to feel the contradiction between the words and the reality of the air surrounding her.”
To create these artworks, she made stencils of the faces of 17 United States Presidents to draw attention to their policies on the environment. She placed the stencils on the plates, and put them on rooftops for four to 40 days, depending on the environmental record of the president depicted on the plate. Those with the strongest records were left outside for the shortest periods, while those with the weakest records were left outside for 40 days. “They are portraits created in smog of U.S. presidents from McKinley to Bush with their quotes about pollution and industry handwritten in gold around the rim,” Abeles explained.
Her more recent “World Leaders in Smog” (2019) on white porcelain plates depict 10 world leaders—including Emmanuel Macron of France, Angela Merkel of Germany, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Theresa May of the U.K.—who presented speeches at world climate summits from 2011 to 2018. She placed each plate on a rooftop of the country of the leader. The refined art pieces help convey the message that air pollution proliferates throughout our planet.
As an artist whose works investigate biography, geography, feminism, as well as the environment, Abeles is creating an inimitable series with Smog Collectors. These aesthetically designed artworks are also symbolic depictions of the perilous world that we inhabit. They are already making an impact, helping to alert people worldwide to the perils of air pollution on the environment and on our lives.
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