The latest news about the BP oil spill comes with a map that shows the oil in yellow. It curves around Florida and cups the East Coast, then up by Canada it slides east into a giant plume that gathers like an engorged belly spilling its contents across the Atlantic to Europe. This is where the National Center for Atmospheric Research sees the oil going: all over. The yellow area is cut off by the edge of the map—the map ends before the oil does. It's everywhere.
The photograph accompanying this map is of an oil-drenched pelican lifting sagging wings, his beak screamingly open. (He may as well be the new national bird.) He is one of the few meaningful images to come out of the oil spill. Most photographs show the spill from above, nonspecific; it looks like just a newly colored zone of water, except that water can't have zones because it's always moving and changing shape. What makes the spill so terrifying—its seeming endlessness and formlessness—is what makes it so hard to picture.
Picturing the unpicturable has always been the purview of art, and right now, even art not directly inspired by the oil spill seems suffused with it. Artists—as if they saw this coming—were already preoccupied with disaster, animals, formlessness, nature. Just as the oil was starting to spread into the national imagination, Stephen B. Nguyen built the ruins of a giant natural disaster inside the gallery at Suyama Space. As you walk in, you are faced with a big, torn-up, black wall. It looks like a huge flock of birds flew through it into the gallery and then crashed into the back walls, leaving behind almost cartoonish white splats in the otherwise neat and tidy architects' offices adjacent to the space. Each white splat is a series of feathery marks that seem to flutter frantically around a deeper white central hit, in a material that's not paint but gypsum dust—the dust that fell when the black wall was smashed. Nguyen bought pigeon feathers, dipped them in the dust, then slapped them against the black surface of the wall to create these intricately detailed marks. They could be wiped away in an instant.
There is nothing on the floor now. The dust, the presumed dead birds, any traces of the crash have been cleaned up, leaving only the walls to tell the stories. In contrast to the fragile dust marks, the wounds of the back side of the torn-up wall are violent, gaping, obscene. The exploded skin of the wall and its twisted metal innards bring to mind two associations: that unbearably graphic shot to JFK's head and J. G. Ballard's Crash. (This gallery was once an automobile shop and still bears the shop's faint letters on its wood beams.) But this installation is not a portrait of a single bird, car, or politician—it marks a group tragedy, a collective force fatally misdirected, the phenomenon of collective stupidity and helplessness. It's gorgeous and unthinkable, like the miles-wide color fields of oil in the ocean.
The oil spill is everywhere, not just in art that specifically references natural disaster. Take the show by Seattle artist Whiting Tennis at Greg Kucera Gallery. Tennis is using the same semi-abstract, semi-animal shapes as always, but now he's started coating them. Brown Shelf is a six-layered cardboard shelf housing six rows of little cardboard sculptures, all painted in oil paint the color of mud. The surface is dry but looks slick. The forms, like the pelican's wings, are somewhere under there, trapped and contained.
Tennis has also started casting. He makes molds out of folded and bent cardboard hot-glued together, then pours plaster or concrete into them. These are, again, the same shapes that appear on the Brown Shelf and in paintings, as if they're struggling to be seen and understood. Baby Buggy is a slab of cast-concrete shaped like a bassinet with teeth for feet. It's grainy and flat like a sidewalk, except for the shallow cast facets that delineate curves along its surface. It's missing all baby-buggyness (color, softness, warmth). What the hell species of baby is this for? A stone-age baby, or a future baby, or an alien-planet baby? (This exceptionally uncommon, simple, hard thing is my current favorite work of art.) These casts are negatives from lost photographs, negatives of negatives.
In the aftermath of disaster or faced with fatality: Go to Disneyland. You'll find that the place is a little run-down, a little understaffed, and a little more fun, in a sad sort of way. L.A.-based artist Jennifer West (formerly a maven of Seattle and Tacoma) noticed a report in the Los Angeles Times in April 2009 announcing that Disney was making layoffs, among which were the photo editors hired specifically to delete images of women flashing their breasts during the final 50-foot drop on Splash Mountain. The souvenir pictures appear automatically on a big screen at the end of the ride. Disney put a stop to "Flash Mountain"—until the recession. Now you can flash with impunity, which is how West and a couple friends created the source image for her video Flash Mountain, now showing at Western Bridge.
West stains films with liquids. In Seattle Art Museum's Kurt Cobain tribute show, she has a 16-mm black-and-white film of the feet of her and her son jumping on a trampoline to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The grainy black-and-white has become brightly colored and even more staticky by having been soaked in lithium, bleach, pennyroyal tea, and other materials taken from Nirvana song lyrics. In Flash Mountain, she doused her source in various materials, including blue-dyed bluebird feathers (in honor of the ride's zip-a-dee-doo-dah theme) and Simpler Times Lager from Trader Joe's. As the fake canoe spills down the 50-foot drop, pure pleasure spills over the imagery in the form of saturated color—and across the faces of the happy flashers. At the same time, there's a basic sorrow to this or any soaked vision, like a teary letter. At a talk last week at the gallery, West emphasized that her work is not a way of mourning the death of physical film. She didn't say it, but there it was: There are so many bigger, better things to mourn.