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Beauty and the Beast: Northwest Environmental Art at BAM

Northwest artists gather for Critical Messages

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In the Boise Art Museum's entrance hall the ambience is immediately, and literally, thrust in visitors' faces with Washington artist Vaughn Bell's installation of "personal biospheres" entitled Village Green. Clear acrylic terrariums, suspended from above, house miniature landscapes complete with soil and growing vegetation into which viewers can pop their heads through a hole in the bottom. It is a multi-sensory experience that invites visitors to get close to indigenous natural specimens and the processes of growth and decay. As a portable retreat from urban captivity, it sets the welcoming tone for a show that some might otherwise approach with apprehension.

The message of Critical Messages: Contemporary Northwest Artists on the Environment is not new. Global warming, climate change, resources management, rampant consumption and the environment in general are not only leading political issues of the day but increasingly aesthetic and cultural ones as well. The artists of the Northwest have been at the forefront of environmentally engaged contemporary art, which makes sense, given that the region is brimming with lush, natural wonders, bred-in proclivity toward ecological responsibility, and its own set of pollution and growth problems. The touring survey, currently showing at the Boise Art Museum (its third and last stop) and billed as "the first critical examination of some of the key environmental issues that face our region," forcefully captures that sensibility through the creative responses of Northwest artists. It is a tribute to the region's ecological fragility, and a thoughtful--at times even subtle--indictment of mankind's destructive impact upon it.

The Northwest encompasses Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia, an area represented by 26 participating artists. Critical Messages makes a point of emphasizing the ecological diversity of the region: It is not just coastal tidal pools and endangered old growth forests, but the grasslands of the Palouse as well. Another important contribution that this (not incidentally) good-looking show makes is to bring attention to art being made today on a more accessible scale in both traditional and nontraditional mediums, and that there is more going on in this genre than the increasingly popular large-scale sculptural installations that tend to dwarf or envelop the viewer.