Of All the Things, She Counts
Ever since she can remember, Fanny Retsek has felt a deep connection to nature. This may seem odd for someone who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, but for Retsek, her reverence for the earth is entwined with her identity. “Every day I am awed and inspired by the beauty of nature and how we are part of a larger interconnected system.” The flow of this remarkable network, however, is constantly threatened and disrupted. Humans, driven by fear and greed, strive to control both nature and each other. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the war in the Middle East, the endangered Wyoming toad, whooping crane and North American wolf – all of these incidents highlight human’s toxic footprint on the planet. In her work, Retsek draws connections between these global and the local stories, and in doing so, reflects on who we are. “What we do to the earth and to other species is ultimately what we do to ourselves.”
More often than not, the shortsighted, faster and cheaper solution outweighs the long view to solving the multifaceted problems we face today. In her drawings and prints, Retsek wrestles with human’s complex relationship with the natural world and each other. Inspired by the intrinsic beauty of nature and research, the softly colored landscapes depict reoccurring motifs that define Retsek’s visual vocabulary. The repetitive process of drawing, stamping, and printing signifies a way of counting for Retsek. She tallies numbers that correspond to various statistics she encounters in the news or in her research. Fields of windmills, helicopters, birds, wolves and frogs create landscapes that suggest the interconnections and tensions between animals, land and humans. For the artist, making art is an act of meditation; it is a necessary process in order to grapple with the world in which she lives.
“We made this system – though destructive and unsustainable – it’s how we live.”
Before going to an artist residency in rural Wyoming last year, Retsek was struck by a startling statistic she heard on the radio – less than 100 Wyoming toads were left in the wild. “I knew right away that I wanted to do a project about the toad. When I arrived I was not only awed by the expansive Wyoming landscape but also by the locals, who genuinely cared about the land.” Wall of Toads references the valiant conservation efforts to restore the Wyoming toad population, all of which have had limited success. The hatch marks on each of the 99 individual works refer to the number of tadpoles released into the wild in order to yield just one adult toad. Cutout silhouettes of each adult frog imply their absence; representing a memorial to the amphibian’s fleeting lifespan – both individually and as a species.
Comprised of a series of nine works on paper, Migration Corridor is the artist’s response to the complicated and contradictory environmental issues surrounding wind energy. While a much needed alternative to fossil fuels and coal, wind farms’ towering turbines and transmission lines dramatically alter the landscape and native ecosystems. The endangered sage grouse and the migratory whooping crane, for instance, are both gravely threatened by the loss of habitat due to wind farms. Migration Corridor depicts a sweeping landscape where an army of windmills is stacked up against rows of sage grouse. To pit these two things against each other, however, presents a false choice – wind farms may represent one solution to the energy crisis, but can’t we work towards solutions without compromising more of our precious natural resources?
In several of her works, including Based on actual white wolf encounter: Gunflint, MN and Sarah Palin’s Wolves 2, Retsek explores the age-old relationship between wolves and humans. Throughout history, humans have feared the wild canine to the point of nearly wiping out the entire species. Even though scientists and wildlife experts have confirmed wolves are not a threat to humans or livestock, anti-wolf policies persist today. Sara Palin’s Wolves 2 depicts a field of hand-drawn wolves that are dismembered, upside down and frozen and a hovering helicopter above. The work addresses the former governor of Alaska’s support of her state’s policy to gun down wolves from planes, a savage course of action which perpetuates a misguided fear of the wild creature.
Retsek also addresses the human and environmental toll of war in her work. Using a soldering iron, the artist burned a hatch mark for every American soldier deployed in Iraq in the diptych Troops on the Ground. The rows of burn marks scar the paper to render a sandy and white-washed texture. While this labor intensive drawing took months to make, over time, the charcoal-brown burn marks will eventually disappear, leaving only the imprints of Retsek’s original marks. The work draws a parallel to our detached experience for the faces of the soldiers whose lives are sacrificed in the wars fought in distant lands.
“Aren’t we smarter than this? Can’t we do better?”
Retsek’s artwork is both deeply personal and acutely political in nature. Grounded in her dedication to human, animal and environmental rights, she maps the hidden narratives of a landscape while posing questions about human’s relationship to the environment and each other. As prints, the works engage in a larger history of printmaking as a medium for social change and dissemination of information. Reproducible and ephemeral, the process speaks to democratic values and the ever-changing impermanence of life. And while they are loaded with the artist’s politics and personal iconography, the works are also exquisite in their quiet and poetic beauty. As objects, they quietly flutter in our presence and gently whisper to us: who is caring about the 100 toads, the 286 whooping cranes, the 750,000 Iraqi widows? What will happen if all of this disappears?
Written on occasion for Bane: a solo exhibition of works on paper by Fanny Retsek, Art Ark Gallery, San Jose, California, April 2011
Quotes based on conversations with the artist on March 23 and March 29, 2011.
Wind Turbines May Threaten Whooping Cranes
Her Deadly Wolf Program by Mark Benjamin, September 8, 2008
Wyoming Toad Wikipedia entry
Greater Sage Grouse Endangered Species Listing Could Slow Western US Wind Growth by Matthew McDermitt, January 7, 2010