Vaughn Sills creates unsettling photographs that are pretty, but perturbing. She sets lush floral bouquets — bright pink dahlias, pale yellow peonies and purple parrot tulips, among others — before one of her pensive landscape photographs to create still lifes that are as discomfiting as they are appealing. Rhonda Smith, meanwhile, creates mixed media work that looks like something you might stumble across on a nature walk. Her work is suggestive of rock formations, tree limbs, lovingly crafted birds’ nests blown off lofty perches.
The work of both artists is now on view at South End’s Kingston Gallery in two separate shows with one common theme: the untamed, natural world and what we are doing to it.
In Sills’ “Inside Outside” and Smith’s “Solastalgia,” we are introduced to two very different reflections on nature’s unstudied beauty, musings that both celebrate Mother Earth while simultaneously grieving her demise.
Sills, a retired associate professor of photography at Simmons University, has developed a unique approach to the group of 11 photographs that make up “Inside Outside.”
She had been focusing on shooting wistfully seductive landscapes of her family’s native home of Prince Edward Island for many years. Those photographs — sweeping somber seascapes, desolate fields under overcast skies, bleak panoramas softened by cloudy mists — formed part of a series entitled “True Poems Flee” (part of a pop-up show of nine photographs in an adjoining room also at Kingston) that Sills describes as a sort of “visual memoir” informed by her memories tooling around the island with her grandparents.
“I just learned to love the landscape,” she says.
For Sills, these works pay tribute to the passing of Sills’ mother in 2012, and to her own distant childhood on an island that has lost some of its 1950s charm, thanks to progress.
But in 2014, Sills came upon the idea of shooting vases of flowers, luxuriant and colorful, in front of some of the moody landscapes she had previously photographed. She was thinking, she says, of the stark contrast between the domestic world and the natural world.
“The domestic world,” she says, is represented by “highly-cultivated flowers within vases brought inside.” And “the really wild, natural world” is represented by “the seas and the storms and the fields” that we see in the landscapes behind the vases.
The effect is uncomfortable and a little surreal. The flowers are boldly beautiful, casting odd shadows on the forlorn landscapes behind. What might otherwise be just an attractive still life takes on a hypnagogic quality thanks to the layering of photograph within photograph. The contrast between landscape and flowers highlights what we all know to be true about life — flowers (and people) can be resplendent in one moment and fading the next. Life passes quickly. Also implicit is the knowledge that environmental degradation is rife. Polluted seas are rising. Farmers’ fields are poisoning our waterways. Carbon emissions are changing our climate. Even that lovely bouquet of flowers was most likely flown in on a plane from the Netherlands.
“The shadows that come behind the flowers, sometimes onto either the sea or the sky, that's unsettling,” admits Sills. “That's strange. And it does kind of throw things off and make you wonder where you are.”
Smith’s show consists of just two mixed media pieces fashioned from clay, papier mâché, cork and wire.
One of the works (actually two pieces comprised of oil and clay on panel) entitled “Before There Were Mothers and Fathers,” suggests the natural world before humankind has had a chance to make its destructive mark. It is primordial, peaceful, a quiet creative force. The second piece, entitled “Solastalgia,” suggests the natural world but after humankind has held sway. Smith describes this second piece as the confluence of the urban, industrialized condition, and a “longed-for geography or place.” We see wire reminiscent of a metal cage surrounding what looks like a rocky promontory. We see a papier mâché precipice which might be interpreted as a sort of literal cliffhanger of where mankind stands now.
The work, Smith says, is “about place and how important place is. It’s very primal for human beings and I would imagine for all creatures. And when that place is disturbed, it disturbs the whole psyche.”
“Quasi narrative, somewhat abstract, these objects suggest geographies that appear now in the rearview mirror,” she writes in her artist statement.
Smith is a Cambridge resident who grew up in Maine. The name of her show and her second work was taken from a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, a retired professor of sustainability in Australia. He used the term “solastalgia” to describe the distress we feel witnessing the destruction of the planet we call home. This is a pain that Smith says she feels deeply.
“To see a place be developed is heartbreaking to me,” she says. “I feel like you can be as much in love with a place as you can be with a person. I'm sure people would find that controversial, but I do feel that over the centuries people have had a deep love for place, and that's how I feel.”
Love of place, love of the planet and grief for the passing of both people and the world are, in the end, the underlying themes of both shows. For better or worse most of us right here, right now on planet Earth, can relate.