Pam Longobardi is no stranger to the language of painting. A self-defined “conceptual artist with a strong affinity to materials and process,” the recent Hudgens Prize winner has created paintings and works on paper for the past 15 years. However, since the commencement of the Drifters Project in 2006, it is her installation-based work that has received the most attention. Adopting a practice that leans heavily toward the archaeological, she has amassed a mammoth collection of objects made of the defining material of our time, plastic. But Longobardi’s material concerns don’t end with these petrol-based artifacts. On the contrary, the works on display in Endless, on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery through December 14, shift the focus back to her painting practice, revealing an engagement with material that, while informed by her research, takes on a vibrant life of its own.
Although two sculptural works are included in the exhibition, most of the heavy lifting is delegated to a suite of dense paintings on copper, most of whose titles reference the notion of the Anthropocene Era, a proposed geological time-period designating humankind’s significant impact on the earth. These works take on dual roles as amorphous landscape spaces, as well as sites for material transformation. Longobardi uses patinas that react with the copper surfaces in unexpected ways. The resulting grounds resemble the tumbling mist-shrouded topography of Chinese landscape painting. This initial phase of the process yields a number of fascinating optical effects before the artist even applies paint to the surface. Crystalline forms collect and disperse, resembling snowflakes or stars. Layers of patina crack and peel, their organic variation in size generating gorgeous shifts in depth.
The subsequent application of painted forms brings a whiff of the comic to these toxic scenes. A certain formal playfulness is not unexpected. According to the press release, Longobardi makes paintings “as an antidote to the physically and emotionally difficult Drifters work.” Feebly drawn rainbows and lipstick-pink lines percolate up and wiggle their way through the rust-mist. One wonders if these amusingly pitiful flowers and rainbows evoke the staggering scale of environmental crisis more effectively than the tiny silhouetted human figures superimposed elsewhere in the landscapes.
Two sculptural works included in the exhibition provide context for the paintings. Comprising scavenged plastic objects ravaged by time and sea, Economies of Scale: Spine for Greece I & II exemplify what political theorist Jane Bennett describes as thing-power, “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things). Longobardi’s investigation into the excess of plastic products that characterizes the Anthropocene Era brings into stark relief the capacity for objects to exert a very real force in the world.
In the 17-foot-long Economies of Scale, the artist uses the aesthetic pleasure of “the archive” not tacitly but tactically. Enticed by their tidy display and sheer material delight, the viewer is confronted by ghostly garbage that attests to the fact that nothing can really be thrown “away.” Their familiar forms hint toward some former state of completion while their craggy, time-lashed surfaces gesture toward some future state of oblivion. In addition to offering a glimpse into the wealth of material that fuels Longobardi’s sculptural practice, the work functions as a lexicon of marks and effects that find expression in the Anthropocene paintings.
Also included is a handful of ecstatic works on paper that perfectly distill Longobardi’s visual and conceptual concerns. In these pieces, aesthetic dissonance loses some of its menacing environmental overtones as it is kneaded effortlessly into delightfully enigmatic landscapes. A grimy wave topples, heaving forth a spray of chromatic detritus and moldy black splotches. A pile of goofy putrid lumps lurch upward in a weird cave, not fully animate but seemingly self-generating and glowing turquoise. These grungy and ebullient little works speak to the artist’s ability to remain playful amid the muck of global warming. Just as painting functions for Longobardi as an antidote to the emotional exhaustion of the Drifters Project, the works in Endless suggest the necessity of optimism in spite of the monstrous scale of ecological crisis.