The final art exhibition of a two-year retrospective celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UC San Diego Visual Arts Department is open at the University Art Gallery (UAG) in Mandeville Center through May 17.
The quarterly UAG shows have been curated by Tatiana Sizonenko, Ph.D., under the guidance of Visual Arts chair Jack Greenstein, Ph.D. Through these exhibitions, the two have done an outstanding job of raising the image of the department and profiling its accomplishments. The shows have pointed out just how vital art can be in our daily lives and have depicted the important role art plays in the STEAM education equation.
This concluding show, which, ironically, may be the last one ever at the gallery, is called “The Agency of Art.” As British anthropologist Alfred Geld explains it: “Art objects are not simply illustrations or visual texts; they are tangible indices of social interactions that act as social agents.”
“The Agency of Art” examines the work of 18 MFA graduates, who are currently working, and two former faculty members, Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018) and her spouse, Newton Harrison (b. 1932), who were instrumental in inaugurating the department’s environmental art aspect and coordinating the ecologically-oriented efforts of diverse faculty across campus.
The show features five large panels made by the Harrisons, called “Peninsular Europe,” which have never been shown in San Diego. The panels include maps of Europe proposing a transformation of the highlands across the continent into one large forest or farmlands that will serve as a buffer against global warming.
Said Sizonenko: “The coming droughts and climate change will destroy most of the low-lying farmlands of Europe within 60 years.”
Exhibiting artist Ruth Wallen was a student of the Harrisons in the early 1980s. She said she enrolled in the art program because of their influence. “The Harrisons were very supported of me as a young artist,” Wallen explained. “They invited me to come and stay with them twice before I even joined the department as a student.”
Wallen’s work includes photographs of trees in their natural habitat. She also created an installation piece that features a tree ring growth study displayed on an iPad mounted in a section of a tree trunk.
I first met Wallen 10 years ago when she was installing colorful panels that explained the life cycle and creatures of the endangered vernal pools that are found on the mesa top of the Carmel Mountain Nature Preserve, where I’ve led nature hikes for many years. It was only through the hard work and diligence of people like Wallen that these vernal pools were saved for posterity. Throughout the county, 90 percent of them have been destroyed.
Wallen’s work examines the loss of our forests and trees to climate change. “A die-off of trees is happening all over the world,” she explained. “More than 136 million trees have died in California alone. The die-off is occurring in the Sierras, and locally, in places like Felicity Park, the Daley Ranch, Descanso, Penasquitos Canyon Preserve and Torrey Pines State Park.
“Sometimes the trees die just due to drought. Other times the low levels of soil moisture stress the trees and they can’t produce enough sap to drive out beetle larvae, like the bark beetle or the gold spotted oak borer, which end up killing them. At Torrey Pines State Park, for instance, over 1000 Torrey Pine trees have died!”
Wallen collaborates with David Pierce of Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Pierce calculated that from 1950 to 2000, there was an average of four days a year where the temperature at Torrey Pines rose above 89 degrees. Working with data from 32 global models of climate change, Pierce formulated an estimate that by the decade, 2090 to 2100, there will be 85 days, or almost three months of the year, when the temperature will rise above 89 degrees at Torrey Pines. This does not bode well for the future of these rare trees ...
Mike Kelly, a naturalist at Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, has been surveying local oak trees to determine the number that are infected and dying because of infestation by the gold spotted oak borer. Sizonenko said that in her homeland, the same issues are decimating the pine trees of Siberia.
IF YOU GO: UAG is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Thursday on the west end of Mandeville Center on UCSD campus. Participating 18 artists are Sadie Barnette, Roman de Salvo, Rob Duarte, Katie Herzog, Nina Karavasiles, Jean Lowe, Virginia Maksymowicz, Heather Gwen Martin, Roy McMakin, Jesse Mockrin, Owen Mundy, Tim Nohe, Sheryl Oring, Tim Schwartz, Igor Vamos, Nina Waisman, Ruth Wallen and Allison Wiese. Free admission. (858) 822-7755. visarts.ucsd.edu