Exhibition Review of "Sunodos: Act of Attention"
The exhibition, which ran from early-June to August 12th, featured nine northeastern Oklahoma-based artists. Their subject: Oklahoma ecology. The exhibition was held in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship Flagship space. It was there that I met Blood for an exhibition walk-through.
Blood is a writer, and editor, who recently published Creative Field Guide to Northeastern Oklahoma, a compilation of art, creative writing, and prompts inspired by the region's natural environments. The Field Guide, like the exhibition, features works from various Oklahoma creatives and encourages its readers to direct their attention to the world around them.
Pictured above, Darren Dirksen's painting "Prayer at the Oracle" (2005)
Perhaps Blood’s background as a writer led me to approach the show with special attention to theme and narrative structure, reading the individual artworks like paragraphs in a larger essay. But like any good essay, as Blood explained, the exhibition doesn’t make the mistake of loudly proclaiming its point.
“When you’re writing an essay,” Blood explained, “you don’t want to be over the top where you’re just shoving your ideas down people’s throats. I think curation has the same thing. I’m concerned about the climate crisis, and I think about it all the time, but I don’t mention it in all the writing here (indicating her curatorial statement). My hope is people will see the show and think more about the local shared ecology and environment.”
Even without a neon-sign declaring global climate crisis, climate change is ever-present especially at a nature-themed exhibition like this. It’s always in the back of the viewer's mind, like the ambient sound of air conditioning battling the heat-wave that awaits us outside the gallery space.
Yet given the urgency of the situation, one might ask whether all eco-art produced in our era needs to be explicitly about climate change? Or is the climate crisis baked into our very (re)production of nature through oils, film, sculpture, and poetry in this era?
Though certainly the role of eco-art in commenting on ecological issues has shifted over the last few decades, I am hesitant to provide prescriptivist answers to any of these questions.
While climate change provides a silent background to the exhibition, the thematic foreground is about attention. “I think the overarching narrative is about the things we give attention to and the things we don't, by contrast,” Blood said.
Pictured above: entrance to the gallery, on left is Steve Blesch's "Garden Guardian" (2023)
The guiding text of the exhibition was posted on the front wall. In it, there is no reference to the anxiety-inducing news about the climate crisis. Instead, it directs our attention toward the intersection of place and stories: “As we are changed by the stories that happen in a place, so do we change a place by the stories we tell. Sunodos is the intersection of both.”
Sunodos, Blood explained, comes from the Greek hodos meaning road and sun- meaning together: “...Sunodos is a sum of those two parts, meaning ‘meeting,’ ‘assembly,’ or ‘way together.’”
This begs the questions: a way together through what, with what, and to what? We can see the exhibit as an answer to these questions. We might also find that in answering these questions, we are inevitably drawn back to questions of responsibilities to and engagement with our surrounding ecologies in the imminent climate crisis.
Shortly after meeting with Blood, I read an article in ArtReview provocatively titled, “Eco Exhibits Won’t Save Us” by Marv Recinto. Recinto begins, “Exhibitions of art about ecology have been sprouting up everywhere, usually operating under some premise of ‘raising awareness’ for the climate crisis.” He goes on to lament what he views as the ultimate futility of eco-art as it stands, divorced from climate action. He urges us to push art into the sphere of activism—away from the production of an art-object and toward an artistic-process of adapting to, preventing, and fighting climate change.
Recinto writes, “This proposed shift in art’s function from the production of speculative art objects to one of material praxis, particularly with regard to ecological art, inevitably dredges up the age-old question: what is art’s function?”
I would argue that Sunodos offers another function of eco-art—one less directly tied to climate activism, but still practicing a crucial form of material praxis: community building through regional specificity. Sunodos asks viewers to turn their attention not only to the art-objects but also to the local ecological community, both non-human and human. If art-objects won’t save us, the community can.
Sunodos’ regional focus emphasizes the local environment rather than the amorphous, abstract concept of nature. It highlights specific problems in the region rather than climate change as a global, undefeatable catastrophe.
Pictured above: Preston Witt's installation "Oh Oh Oh" (2023): a poem on split-flap display, with accompanying crossword puzzle on paper. The installation is mounted to Joseph Rushmore's photograph "Creek" (2022) - To the right, are two video works by Nic Annette Miller "All I Can Do, Murmurmotion" (2016, right on brick) and "The Land" (2021, left on brick)
This evades Recinto’s criticism (and offers a counterpoint); his article only features exhibitions in London and other metropolitan art capitals. In these places, the viewers may not be local, and the subject of climate change and nature then tends toward the conceptual and large-scale. The art he criticizes speaks about climate change as a worldwide tragedy (which it of course is), but in doing so, it fails to stir the audience to effect change on a local scale.
When I first met with Blood, I mentioned seeing exhibitions with an eco-focus popping up all over the place.
“But not in Oklahoma,” Blood countered. And she was right.
In this way, the exhibition also reflects and responds to a sentiment I hear often from artists in the ‘flyover states’—that these natural environments are less worthy of being conserved, preserved, or even observed.
Describing some Oklahoma landscapes, Blood commented, “A lot of people think it’s ugly, you know? I kind of wonder if that’s why we don’t have a lot of artists making work about our nature…growing up I had this idea that nature was elsewhere.” But by gathering art that turns attention to the local environment, viewers are given a new lens through which to appreciate their surrounding ecologies.
The specifics are everywhere in Sunodos. Take, for example, Darren Dirksen’s oil painting “Plight of Blue.” The subject is pokeweed, a native plant sometimes considered a ‘pest’ by farmers. Though in late summer it becomes poisonous, in other seasons it can be harvested for consumption. The berries are a food source for birds, which are key in seed dispersal.
Pictured above: Darren Dirksen's "Plight of Blue" (2005)
“It’s so specific,” Blood commented as we looked at the painting's vibrant bluesky, against which the green leaves and dark purple berries are set, “but it’s connected to so many other things. When you know what it is, you’ll see it everywhere.”
This brings us to the subtitle of the exhibition, “Act of Attention.” Blood’s work, both through the Field Guide and the exhibition, asks us to turn attention to our surroundings, study them, and in doing so, build that connection — build a ‘way together.’
Attention guides the eye in the exhibition too. Take, for example, Rachel Rector’s photograph “All I Need,” printed on vinyl and covering one large wall of the gallery. It is a double exposure of the view of a tree’s canopy as seen from the ground and a photo of a window open, the curtains blowing in. The photograph also tunes us into our own attention: are we focused on the curtain, the tree, or a combination of both? The inside or the outside?
Pictured above: Rachel Rector's "All I Need" (2022) 35mm Kodak Ektachrome printed on vinyl
We can also see Nic Annette Miller’s performance of her American Sign Language poem titled The Land. The poem only lasts 22 seconds, and is composed of only 5 words, but every time it plays, new meaning arises. Miller’s performance highlights the effects of colonization on the land and people—one only needs to pay attention to the movements of her hands and her expressions, which generate the narrative tissue of the poem.
Aside from the art works, on display were a number of fossils found by Darren Dirksen, Sarah Thompson, and Bradley Dry at various points along the Arkansas River. A fossilized mastodon tooth and a fossilized leg of an ancient bison present another example of what we can find in our surroundings if we only pay attention.
In the works at Sunodos, nature becomes specific and thereby tangible and present. It becomes something in your backyard, on the shore of the river running through your town, in the turtle making its way down the sidewalk to the creek. The works in the exhibit may not provide a way out of the climate crisis, but I’m dubious that any single piece of art, any single exhibition, or single action of climate activism could. Nor do I believe that they need to.
What Sunodos does is contribute to the slow, vital, and tender work of community building as we find a ‘way together’ through our complicated relationships with each other and the ecologies we are planted in.
Hayley Nichol's "Earth Wheres (Turkey Mountain)" (2023) made from hand dug, unprocessed, Oklahoma clay
Follow the artists from the show on social media to see what else they're producing.
Curator Liz Blood: @lizardblood
Her publishing company: @okiebugok
Steve Blesch: @stevebleschiii
Shane Brown: @shanebrownsocialmedium
Darren Dirksen: @dkdirksen
Yatika Starr Fields: @yatikafields
Hayley Nichols: @hoorayley
Nic Annette Miller: @nicamiller
Rachel Rector: @thereisnothere
Joseph Rushmore: @no_jackson
Preston Witt: @jprestonwitt
And follow @tulsaartistfellowship for upcoming shows at Flagship and around Tulsa.