Stromatolites — structures built up by ancient single-cell photosynthesizing microbes — are earth’s oldest known fossils visible to the naked eye. The cyanobacteria that created these layered forms ingested water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight and expelled oxygen as a byproduct. From three and a half billion years ago, these little photosynthesizing workhorses began impacting their environment, liberating so much oxygen that the earth’s atmosphere changed to become oxygen-rich, paving the way for a diversity of oxygen-consuming life.
Button columns of Cabot artist Janet Van Fleet’s installation, “Stromatolites,” recall the lithified remnants of these microbial communities. The installation, inspired by these early life forms, stands a few feet in front of the artist’s expansive 25-foot-long “Digesting the Planet,” considering today’s imperiled natural world, when another species has an oversized impact on it.
The visual conversations between “Digesting the Planet” and “Stromatolites,” and between other artworks, as well as the individual pieces themselves, are among the experiences of Van Fleet’s solo exhibition, “Vanishment,” that opened this week at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery.
“Vanishment” considers relationships between the planet’s life forms — especially that of humankind and the natural world. The exhibition continues to June 28. Visually and thematically, with its multiple elements, “Vanishment” is an installation filling the Gallery.
“It is an issue I feel strongly about — the diminishment of life forms on our planet which I find is tremendously concerning and distressing. We sometimes don’t acknowledge it and some people don’t know the extent to which our biosphere is being damaged and changed irrevocably,” Van Fleet said at the opening of “Vanishment” last week.
Van Fleet noted that a 2018 study published by the National Academy of Sciences reported that of the planet’s entire biomass of terrestrial animals, humans account for 36 percent, and livestock and domesticated animals (cows, pigs, etc.) 60 percent. A mere 4 percent is shared by all other species.
As Van Fleet’s “Stromatolites” brings to mind that early life form that precipitated change over an exceedingly long time, other elements of “Vanishment” explore the more recent relationships with humankind’s hand on the planet.
“Dissolution,” a set of eight collage paintings, fills the front of the gallery. These chronicle a relationship between the human and natural worlds, a narrative from blissful beginnings and optimistic courtship through separation, estrangement and chaotic and hostile end.
The eight panels of “Dissolution,” like other pieces in “Vanishment,” are repurposed from earlier artwork by Van Fleet. The artist had done the earlier paintings, shown in a 1998 Montpelier exhibition at the Vermont Arts Council Spotlight Gallery, through a process of rubbing away upper layers of paint to bring out lighter forms below. For “Dissolution,” she sealed the works with shellac, made from secretions of the lac beetle, and built upon them using wine foils as a collage medium. Wine foils are the pliable metal protective sleeves at the tops of bottles.
“I have chosen recycling as my procedure in creating these works not to recommend it as an adequate response to our annihilation of other species, but only because it seemed appropriate to express my anguish over the destruction of the biosphere without consuming more of it,” Van Fleet said.
“Nevertheless, the wine foils represent, again ironically, the culture of consumption that threatens life forms mourned in the images, but also, like the gold leaf applied to religious scenes in early Renaissance paintings (though more humbly), they glorify the creatures abused and call the abusers to reckoning,” Van Fleet said.
For “Digesting the Planet,” Van Fleet turned to earlier work and reused elements. Here, the “intestines” that wind through the length of the installation are of red and brown buttons that she acquired years ago and had stored in the basement of Studio Place Arts. After one of Barre’s floods, she retrieved the boxes, discovering that the muddy water had left imprints on the cardboard.
In “Digesting the Planet,” little plastic animals cluster in the boxes, species mingling with each other, perhaps finding shelter or perhaps like zoological displays in early natural history museums.
Van Fleet noted, “The medium here is ironic — the animals are made of what threatens them.”