Now that it's July, the farmers market has reached max volume and we've got the full scale of summer fruits and vegetables on our collective mind. I'm going to say this means it's a good time to revisit the importance of being local.
Each Saturday morning, the Arcata farmers market serves up a mind-expanding object lesson in the concept foodies call terroir: the idea that agricultural products from a given region taste the way they do because of the unique set of environmental factors that shape their growth. Think of a perfect globe artichoke or a psychedelic-looking stalk of Romanesco broccoli; now imagine that vegetable as a kind of lens that refracts the sun, soil, wind and water that shaped its growth, lending these forces visible and toothsome form. Imagine it again as a record-keeping device, a living thing that bears witness to the events that shaped its time, as the growth rings in a redwood do. Art can also be like that.
Many works of art made in these parts offer a meditation on the unique nature of the place where we live. But some critics counter that the spirit of a place is likely to find its purest expression in artworks that aim to do something — anything — else. Artworks that don't aim to illustrate the genius loci often embody it.
This month's group exhibitions survey a range of themes that are close to Humboldt hearts. The Arcata Artisans' Co-Op Gallery features tropical serigraph subjects by John Wesa and porcelain pandas by Diane Sonderegger. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Plaza, a trio of precocious talents from the Arcata Arts Institute shows recent work at Redwood Yogurt.
Wesa's orchids and hummingbirds vibrate in front of day-glow sunsets; Sonderegger's coyly anthropomorphic pandas flirt, kiss and hold hands. The press release says that the works feature "animal couples experiencing summer romance." These aggressively adorable ceramic miniatures "are intended to show the joys of companionship and love." Given everything I know about the way animal couples experience summer romance, this frankly does not sound like it would be a "family friendly" spectacle, although I can reassure viewers that the panda-on-panda explorations of companionship and love depicted here go no further than first base.
Sonderegger has been a full-time ceramic artist for the past 10 years, while Wesa has been making silkscreens professionally since received his master's degree from Humboldt State University in 1976. Both artists' works display a level of professional craft that speaks to their experience.
The Arcata Arts Institute is a "school within a school" at Arcata High for advanced study in the visual and performing arts. At the G Street yogurt shop, small paintings and graphic works by advanced placement AAI students April Abbott, Sarah Alexander and Brandon Kelsey offer a fun opportunity to contrast three very different styles that have been locally grown in a very literal sense, given the youth of the works' creators.
Abbott's decorative, flatly painted sunsets and seascapes appear to have been fractured and then painstakingly rearranged. The effect is simultaneously regular and random, as though the ocean were being viewed through a camera filter called "mosaic."
Alexander's photographs of brightly lit interiors at night evoke alienation by adopting a literal outsider's perspective. The artist writes that she hopes her images will create "either feelings of isolation and anxiety, comfort and freedom, or a combination of these feelings." Which outcome takes precedence presumably depends on whether a viewer identifies more strongly with the photographs' warm, bright interiors, or with the darkness that surrounds them.
Kelsey's landscapes are executed in a vibrant, high-energy style that seems to reflect the influence of science fiction and computer-generated imagery, as well as the venerable high school tradition of doodling with markers. The one I saw, "Wall II," manages to be both funny and timely in the freewheeling way it mingles local landscape elements with contemporary headlines. A wall has been erected on the border in this alternative reality, although we're not talking about the U.S.-Mexico border; it looks more like a border separating Humboldt from the rest of the world. The wall is a hulk straight out of an Orwellian dystopia — a sinister looking fortification bristling with buttresses and control panels that dwarfs the token redwood growing next to it. In the channel of the river just beyond the wall, the river god, a muscle-bound giant in baby blue, turns his face away.
None of the artworks mentioned here could be described as overtly political. Yet when considered in the aggregate they evoke a range of concerns that are especially germane to this community, from a preoccupation with borders and belonging to a deeply experienced response to the natural world. Modest proposal: Even as we nosh on farmer's market produce, guzzle local brews and lavish our disposable income on Humboldt-made condiments, lotions, T-shirts, hemp wicks and soil amendments, we should also strive to look locally and patronize our area's artists when possible. If you're a locavore, you can also be a locaspectator.
The Arcata Arts Institute's Group Exhibition is on display at Redwood Yogurt during Arts! Arcata, Friday, July 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. Diane Sonderegger and John Wesa's work is featured at Arcata Artisans Co-Op Gallery through July and during Arts! Arcata.