A MONTH AFTER WHITING TENNIS' FANTASIA OF Colonial America in painting, photography, and ceramics closed at Grover Thurston, Pike Powers fills Elliott Brown's intimate spaces with a similarly wide-ranging excursion into 19th-century whale hunting, using oils, metal, and blown glass. Tennis' well-received show, cheekily titled 1999, threw together images of sailing ships, colonists, Indians, houses, traditional crafts, and modern-day photos to suggest the debased ways America's history stays with us; Powers' subject is more narrowly focused than Tennis', and his point seems more plain, perhaps overly so.
The main gallery at Elliott Brown reads like Melville in miniatures. The room is dominated by a series of very small, delicate oil paintings, lit by blown-glass oil lamps, which cast a warm glow on the images and fill the room with a nostalgia-inducing scent. The horizontal images, often no more than two by one-and-a-half inches, depict mostly sailing ships and whales, in close juxtaposition. In several, such as The Watch, the whale is a huge, threatening hulk in the foreground; behind, one or more fragile-looking ships bob on the blue sea. In some, the whale is attacking: in Day Sail, a recreational boater in a small, single-sail craft faces a huge, open-mawed sperm whale breaching in front of him, most of its body clear of the water, its mouth lined with terrifying teeth. In a couple of works, man gets the better of monster: in one image a whale is stripped of its blubber in the bloody sea, and another grisly work's title tells you everything: Advent of the Grenade Harpoon.
Though the foregrounded whale is often the main character in these works, it is obviously drawn from a human point of view, where the whale is a threatening, mysterious, powerful presence. The whale is the main character of these little dramas in the same way the serial killer is the main character of a slasher movie. The beast is a projection of our needs and fears.
In a smaller gallery, a series of works in glass look at sea monsters from a scientific perspective. Cunningly assembled, these solid glass pieces appear to be glass specimen jars, with preserved objects swimming in formaldehyde. The objects are placed on shelves and identified with neatly typed white labels: Last Whale Specimens, Baleen Roe, Green Turtle Roe, Squid from the Four Corners of the Earth. In these pieces, the massive beasts of the other room are re-envisioned as cute blobs of zygotic matter. Here, in contrast to the previous gallery, the animals are changed from the subject of an artist to that of a scientist, their myth and literary mystery banished by realism.
An excerpt from Richard Ellis' 1994 book Monsters of the Sea, which analyzed maritime myths and scientific knowledge about sea creatures, is included on the show's checklist. Ellis' quote contrasts Melville's literary monster Moby Dick with the "20th century beatification of the whale" by "the new religion of conservation." Powers, like Ellis, seems to regret the shift "from monster to commodity, from literary icon to religious icon." His specimen jars, while beautiful, lack the dynamism and emotion of the paintings, or of the large metal sculptures--homages to the cod liver, the giant squid, and the great giant clam--which appear at intervals on the ceiling, wall, and floor of the main space.
Is knowledge a good thing, when it puts myth under the light of science? Well, of course not, if you follow Powers' argument. But both art and science were compromised in the unpoetic commercial forces that sent men out to battle whales in the first place. Whale blubber, which until the '70s was used in make-up, soap, crayons, glue, and margarine (ugh!), was also used, of course, for lamp oil, hence the little lamps in front of each small painting. But Powers' neat comparison between the romantic past of three-master whaling ships and the scientific present conveniently ignores (with the exception of the "grenade harpoon" image) the unpoetic 20th century whaling technologies that allowed humans, between 1900 and 1970, to efficiently and unadventurously bring several species of whale near extinction, thus compelling the elevation of conservation to a near-religion and damning the whale to its current reduced role in our imaginations.
These harsh facts have little to do with art, which understandably removes them from Powers' purview. But their absence results in a false, rigged comparison, a convincing argument that doesn't hold up to scrutiny.