An artistic tidal wave as nature fights back
ROCKLAND, Maine — You don’t have to step inside the gallery to see “Hubris Atë Nemesis,” the wildly dynamic installation at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen. Instead, it comes to you: Slim fronds of wood veneer creep out the door and into the hallway, cascading upward like a thicket of seaweed reaching sunward toward the surface from the ocean floor. It’s not in motion, as much as it feels like it should be; you can almost see it waving in the current.
Just inside, an arch of curving tendrils forms the portal through which you pass into a parallel reality, where a slim boardwalk perches atop a raging sea of wood. It’s static, but appears to rush and swirl like an angry storm. It channels into one corner, builds into a swell in the next, and then bulks into a towering column of wooden tsunami, poised like a fist to crush whatever might be underneath it. If you came in through the portal, as you would, that would be you. Consider it the sea’s retribution for centuries of abuse, and it seems fair enough.
I don’t know that strident environmentalism is the core of the work, though across the hall from the museum’s “Melt Down,” a bleak show about the planet’s vanishing ice caps, it seems to lean in that direction. Even with so ungainly a title (“Hubris” is, of course, arrogance; “Atë,” folly; “Nemesis,” revenge), it has an uncanny visceral presence. It’s immersive in the true sense of the word. When you’re in it, you’re not aware of anything else; when you leave, you leave awestruck, hardly able to believe it was real.
It makes you feel small, like the sea itself should, though our industrious little species has spent millennia designing new ways to desecrate and control it. Only real disasters — devastating tidal waves, overflown levees, the proverbial perfect storms — remind us who’s really in charge. “Hubris Atë Nemesis” feels like a warning, and its title says as much: Dare not to assume mastery over that which you cannot control.
For a society that’s busily assumed mastery over so many things in the natural world, the piece might spark a much-needed reality check. It feels precarious, the boardwalk buckling and breaking in spots where the wooden waves rush most fiercely. It’s not too much of a stretch to see it along a continuum of works warning of the unforgiving ferocity of the sea. I can’t help but think of Winslow Homer’s “Undertow” at the Clark Art Institute, a chilling painting in which a pair of burly men drag two exhausted women from a churning black sea, or his bleak, unpeopled coastline in “Northeaster,” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, waves shattering into mist on black rock.
It doesn’t feel like coincidence that “Northeaster” is a scene of the Maine coast, a fact that resonates powerfully with the angry wooden seas Kavanaugh and Nguyen have crafted here specifically for this very place. Their piece positions them alongside those Homer paintings in the tradition of American landscape art that’s ever had two sides: The holy majesty of nature (Albert Bierstadt and his endlessly beatific light) on one, and on the other, its pervasive, voracious threat.
For all its startling dynamism and radical orginality — I can’t imagine it being anything but a hit with kids, struck giddy by its enveloping awesomeness — “Hubris Atë Nemesis” also tucks neatly into the latter, a long line of the terrors that artists have found in nature for centuries. Kavanaugh’s and Nguyen’s piece, finally, feels like the moment before it all comes crashing down, an end-of-days environmental threat suspended over our head.
Do we have time to change course? That’s the big question. “Hubris Atë Nemesis” feels like an update on an old notion, refit for our trying times: Nature is no longer content to be indifferent or random in its violence. It’s wounded, and it’s fighting back.
HUBRIS ATË NEMESIS
At the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 21 Winter St., Rockland, Maine, through June 16. 207-701-5005, www.cmcanow.org