The Art of Now
The Dixon pulls out all the stops for this one-of-a-kind show.
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Advocates can come across as too bold and abrasive, as if they are shaming people into change,” says this environmental artist. “What I try to do is give alternate views, and to ask them, at least for a moment, to see the world differently.”
Over the past decade, Catherine Pena has used photography, installation, and sculptural elements in her artwork that encourage viewers to consider their relationship with nature and how they manipulate it. Her series “Visual Green” — which was her master’s thesis project at Memphis College of Art — is both playful and probing, showing how cities “objectify” nature while adding, in the midst of traffic, such touches as tiny grass median strips. Other works explore the juxtaposition of nature and human development as suburban land is stripped.
In 2008 Pena designed a unit of two back-to-back seats to be fitted to bus stop poles and accommodate riders as they wait for the bus. “So many people take public transportation because they have to, not usually out of environmental concern,” says Pena. “Still, they are making a difference. This seat was a simple metaphor, my way of saying thank you.” Each seat included the statement, “You are a role model. You are actively improving the environment by riding the bus.” Thirty seats were installed on a temporary basis at bus stops on Union between Cooper and Cleveland. “I asked MATA about making them permanent,” says Pena, “but costs were a problem.”
The daughter of a forest ranger, Pena grew up in Santa Fe, an area that fostered creativity while stirring her interest in natural beauty: “I think all that drew me to environmental causes.” Inspired by other environmental and service-oriented artists, including Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Pena has shown at galleries from New York to Kansas City to Chicago, and she currently serves as coordinator of exhibitions and lectures for MCA. For the Dixon exhibition, her sculpture titled How Will You Treat Me? plays on humankind’s stewardship of the earth and is a project she’s been conceiving in recent years. “I’d been thinking about it awhile,” says Pena, “and when I knew it would be in the Dixon garden, this seemed the time and the place for it.”