Seattle-based artist Mary Coss is driven to deploy her vision and imagination as a means to examine and highlight some of the pressing social and environmental issues of our time. Some of her recent work has dealt with things like gun violence. Much of her work digs into a variety of women’s issues that have recently been highlighted in the country at large.
With shows like “Silent Salinity,” which is currently running at Tacoma’s 950 Gallery, Coss tackles an environmental phenomenon linked to global warming – namely, the increasing saltiness of our estuary environments, those unique ecosystems where river, land and ocean meet and mix.
“Silent Salinity” is the result of a two-year partnership between Coss and Western Washington University ecologist Roger Fuller, a specialist in estuary ecosystems. Fuller has been uncovering evidence that global warming is causing a rise in sea level and that estuary systems are becoming increasingly saline. Coss thus chose salt as the medium for most of the work in the show: a group of sculptures, some wall-mounted works and an installation with sound and projection. The show is a hybrid exhibit – partially a standard art gallery display of individual works of art, partially an art installation and partially a science exhibit.
Organic things like bones, plants, shells, kelp and even a human heart are sculpted in salt. Human artifacts, like an old typewriter, a fan, an antique rotary telephone, a gun and a cast iron kettle are either made out of salt or are encrusted in salt. Salt licks, shaped by the tongues of animals, are also shown in conjunction with some of the other objects, which are often arranged in groupings. There are also some big cattle bones made of cast glass.
On the walls are a form of literary sculptures in which Coss uses wire – here encrusted with salt and rust – to form a cursive script. This form is used to write out poems that Coss composed in exploration of the problem of the salting up of the estuary systems. Coss’ poetry is quite good.
A large-scale piece related to the wire poetry is “Net Loss,” in which wire is used to write Fuller’s findings of changes to the estuary systems. The script gives Fuller’s firsthand account of coming to a place that was once a thriving population of bulrushes. He finds the bulrushes dead and saltwater creatures like barnacles living on the stumps of the dead bulrushes. On the floor in front of “Net Loss” is a replica of the “ghost meadow” of bulrushes, made with salt-encrusted twigs, a bed of salt and rocks with barnacles.
The 950 Gallery’s media room is devoted to a hauntingly beautiful installation in which an old, partially decomposed suitcase, encrusted in white, is on a bed of chunky salt crystals. A projection of light and water enshrouds the suitcase and its nest of salt. The salt crystals sparkle in the shimmering light. The sound of gentle waves comes through the sound system.
Coss was born and raised in Detroit and received her MFA from Syracuse University. Now based in Seattle, Coss uses sculpture, sound, projection and light to weave issues of social justice with visual arts. Her narrative inspired sculptures and installations explore the intersection between nature and contemporary society.
Much of Coss’ work defies subtlety. This show hits you over the head with a hammer – a big, rusty, salt-encrusted sledgehammer. A problem with work rooted in ideology (as opposed to work that flows out of organic self-expression) is that it often results in work that is literalistic and cumbersome. Activist artists often come across as preachy, but sometimes, as in “Silent Salinity,” the results look cool.
Many of the objects in this show, including the iconic salt-encrusted typewriter, seem to have been repurposed from a former installation called “Surge,” which was about the threat that sea level rise and storm surge poses to coastal communities. “Surge” addressed a phenomenon different (but related to) that of estuary salinity. The use of work from one show to fill out another show dilutes the point that Coss is trying to make. The salt-encrusted typewriter is an interesting object, but is hard to see how it relates to the salting of an estuary, except that it is salty. The same can be said for a sculpture that combines a salt lick, a casting of a human heart and a gun.
Use of tangentially-related art objects in the show makes it less about what it claims to be about and more of a standard art gallery exhibit of recent work by an artist. That being said, the sculptures are all visually fascinating and the show does have a salty poetry to it.
All the salty, rusty, crumbling human-made objects have a distressed appearance – an aesthetic that is popular these days. Use of aged objects, which lend a patina of wear and decomposition to new compositions, is a way of making new art objects seem old and rustic. It is the art world’s echo of things like the marketing of pre-worn-out jeans, distressed furniture and the faux-rust look that has gained favor among creators of hot rods and rat rods.
“Silent Salinity” runs through Feb. 21. On that date, there will be a closing reception. The 950 Gallery is located at 950 Pacific Ave. On Feb. 7, the Tacoma Art Museum will host an event related to “Silent Salinity,” an Art and Science Salon featuring Coss and Fuller.
For a full examination of Coss’ work visit www.marycoss.com.
For more on the 950 Gallery show visit www.spaceworkstacoma.com/gallery.