"Consumption of Empire"

Brandon Ballengée at Archibald Arts

January 14 - February 26, 2005
602 Tenth Ave #2RS, New York, NY 10036
212 541-6366
reviewed by Flash Light

Detail from show invitation

Ballengée is probably best known for attempting to breed an extinct species of frog back into existence. The gallery ad describes him thus, "This young artist merges art and science in multidisciplinary installations." I've described him in previous reviews as a pioneer of Sci-Art, the attempt by artists to do serious science by using the perspective of art to benefit science.

This show certainly demonstrates Ballengées continuing interest in biology. "Mermaids With Unknown Illness: Specimens from Tillman Road Site Infested with Parasites," is an Iris print showing a scan of pond specimens, which includes tadpoles suffering from parasites. More striking is "Horsehair worm, Gordius species," a print where the parasite is the star. The artist found this parasite in NY state, and he says it is one of only seven such parasites documented here. It's body is particularly long and wormlike, and the graceful curve it is formed into belies it's nefarious parasitic intentions.

"The Course of Empire: Consumption of Empire," is an aquarium. The piece is titled after the background of the tank which is a print of a painting by the Hudson River painter, Thomas Cole. Cole did a series of paintings on the "Course of Empire" theme. This one depicts an empire consuming itself. In the tank we see the sort of detritus one might find at the bottom of the Hudson river: a coke bottle, a broken cinder block, shattered concrete, a discarded syringe, etc. The creatures in the tank were found in NY waters, but most are not native here. We see a species of cod descended from pet goldfish. Goldfish released into NY waters evolve into something quite different from the pets we see in bowls. The gold color is a disadvantage in nature, and soon disappears. We also see several other species not native to the region, which cause ecological problems, such as a bullfrog tadpole, which can grow large enough to eat baby ducks.

What I did not see was the rusty crayfish listed among the tank's contents. The fish are not likely to see it coming either. Although orconectes rusticus was spread by fishermen using it as bait, I expect its lobster like pincers will make it the dominant predatory in this tank of small fish. Given enough time, I imagine it will be the last creature swimming and the ultimate biological metaphor for the consumption of empire, having consumed every other species in the tank. It had already stripped the tank of vegetation by the time I saw the show.

"The Emergence and Decline of Humankind," from the series, "Dioxin Drawings," was painted with pollutants. The artist claims he took samples from polluted waters around the state, and distilled them down into a sludge of dioxin, PCBs, petrochemicals, etc., which he then used as his paint medium on watercolor paper. The images he painted suggest the human skeleton, which is where the artist says these pollutants come to reside in our bodies.

"Eco-Actions!" is a found TV which plays a DVD presenting a slide show of the artist leading children on field trips around the state. Perhaps this demonstrates most clearly the artist's commitment to educating people about the dangers our "Consumption of Empire" poses to the land and water around us.

"Love Motel for Insects," is both an installation at the gallery, and a limited edition of prints. The gallery installation shows the set up the artist used to create the edition. A black light, set against a white sheet, was enough to attract the insects, which swarmed over the sheet, secreting pheromones which further attracted more insects. The limited edition contains small prints of individual insects; it's housed in CD case recycled and re-worked by the artist. This is Ballengée's first multiple, and seems sure to appeal to fans of his work.

Waiting to see if the crayfish consumes the other species in the aquarium might not be quite as appealing as waiting to see an extinct frog bred back into existence, however this show amply demonstrates the artist's continuing commitment to compelling biological metaphors. And he's still working on breeding back those frogs.