Scrawled across the southeast curve of the gallery at the Burchfield Penney Art Center is an enormous illustration of Scajaquada Creek, visible above the half walls in the room. The map shows the past and present versions of the creek, as well as dumping sites, and is the cornerstone of Alberto Rey’s impressive and illuminating “Biological Realism” installation.
Part science and history lesson, the installation comprises paintings, videos, government records, sketches and water samples, as well as data provided by Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. The result is an intimate view of a thoroughly despoiled waterway.
Inspired by the idyllic landscapes of the Hudson River School, Rey began the “Biological Realism” series in 2000, creating location-specific pieces that dive deep into a local waterway and its fish. He packs three years of research and work into this installation in an attempt to remake a lost connection between the community and the wilderness it inhabits.
Where the painters of the 19th century brought the wilderness to city residents, through this installation, Rey successfully brings city dwellers to the local wilderness they have accessed and ignored for the last century.
Below the map are five landscape paintings of locations on the creek that are accompanied by a water sample, and a pollution graph highlighting the acceptable and current higher levels of pollution in the water. Each of the jars is full of cloudy, yellow liquid with varying degrees of translucence. The sample taken at Forest Lawn also includes the sole of a sneaker in the sullied water.
With an uncanny vibrancy of blue sky and green and yellow vegetation that fade into a black border, the panels have an unsettling familiarity, and the inviting tone of a warm memory. Rey works in the shadows of the Hudson River School in these landscapes, as they entice and unsettle the viewer, while simultaneously demonstrating the toxicity and manhandling of the creek.
This setup carries over to the videos “Biological Realism: Tunnel” and “Biological Realism: Leech,” which play on opposite walls, while their ambient and abstract soundtracks collide in the room. The former chronicles a dark trek into the underground portion of the creek, which acts as a simple statement of place. In contrast, “Leech” shows the putrid yellow water and discolored creek bed as the background for a swimming ribbonlike leech, the only life Rey could find in the waters.
It is a testament to Rey’s skill as an artist and a teacher – he also is a professor at SUNY Fredonia – that the installation is clear and easy to follow while presenting so much information.
“My greatest fear is to present something that is superficial,” Rey said in an interview. “For me, it is important that [the exhibit] provides information at different levels for people who want to investigate it.”
Bookending the videos are the paintings “Biological Realism: Dead Muskrat” and “Aesthetics of Death VII,” as well as a series of aerial photographs of the creek from 1927. The paintings mirror each other in theme, and provide what Scott Propeack, associate director and chief curator at the Burchfield Penney, calls the punctuation for the exhibit.
While this feels like Rey’s most political installation to date, Propeack said, the artist certainly leaves the next steps up to the viewers.
“Alberto is never leading us that far along; he’s just opening us up,” Propeack said.
Paintings from earlier work in the series are included in the installation, as well, but their presence is overshadowed by the immensity of the Scajaquada Creek series. Likewise, the cases of journals, sketches and early diagrams of the exhibit seem superfluous rather than part of the showcase.
However, that is a small quibble for a masterly project that delivers a powerful impact in such an accessible way.