Narratives departing from “the American Dream” are numerous and often disheartening. In Death Motel, the first solo exhibition of Madeleine Bialke at Newchild, one of those narratives, namely, the experience of a lifestyle close to nature is undoubtedly on the brink of crumbling. The 1920s saw the birth of a new trend coined among the urbanites as ‘relaxation in nature’. The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans and others of the newly rich, the very same industrialists whose railways, mines and financial activities had jeopardised the wilderness, now embraced a new spirit of conservation, overlaid with nostalgia for a simpler life closer to nature. This emergence of back-to-nature became an idealized mantra of looking the other way as “America's evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular, where the cities are dead zones and the countryside is a wasteland of cartoon architecture and parking lots”, as writer James H. Kunstler explains in his book The Geography of Nowhere.
The works in the exhibition display a skilful use of colour that generates and indicates emotion. At times atypical hues appear undisturbed like polluted gradients, referencing the balance and imbalance between colour and nature in an expressionistic manner. Bialke’s distinctive compositions built of layers upon layers, remind us that the natural world is not exclusively a resource for humans but a living organism, as is in the case of The Land of Giants. The large canvas depicts a view from the overstory of the forest, where two enormous trees loom above it, tall and eerie. Here people and trees uncannily mirror one another in what could be described as a mutual understanding. It's as though the trees and foliage themselves are suffering from the same ailments, aware of what is happening to the world. Yet their strong presence reminds us of the grandiosity of nature and its sweeping generosity to all living beings, as the forest is an ecosystem where all plants aid each other through a complex network of roots and fungi.
Many of the works in Death Motel describe the silent journeys around the reservoir of the Adirondacks, penetrating our psyche with wide values, abutting hues, and gradients deceivingly natural that confront the viewer with a place where realism is unsettlingly familiar. Her depictions of the sky– although in natural transitions– are very uncharacteristic in colour: poisonous warm oranges, pinks that gradate to greens, that merge into lavender, and mauves. Bialke’s change of colours might actually reflect a changing environment, as she explains how “our atmosphere has been changed by us for the last 200 years, but more drastically so over the past 50 years”.
Bialke’s realism is of a philosophical kind denoting environmental frustration. The ideas surrounding her work accentuate the reality that people from individualistic cultures perceive climate change as an intractable problem, and cannot be helped by the efforts of an individual. This thought correlates with ideas of climate change helplessness: the belief that climate change is beyond personal control, which emphasises individual experience over collective action. Therefore, climate change helplessness prevents action because it seems unattainable. In Death Motel the artist invites us to view her undulating landscapes as an experience from inside the forest, from the point of view of a tree, or of any being nourished directly by nature. In essence, encouraging us to embrace our interconnectedness and the need of mankind to function collectively, like the trees in the forests she admires and honours.
“You can buy a lobster in the middle of a park in Brooklyn, [and I just wonder] how much ice did we use to just get this lobster into the middle of that park in Brooklyn, where you can’t even really have trucks.”
Artists: Madeleine Bialke