Arts & Theater

Art review: Verge show on Delta has good message, but is short on art

Jenny Stark’s photograph of the Tracy pumping station is part of “Sacramento Meditations.”
Jenny Stark’s photograph of the Tracy pumping station is part of “Sacramento Meditations.”

“Sacramento Meditation” at Verge Center for the Arts is a problematic show.

It deals with a subject that appears almost daily on the front page of this newspaper – the ongoing drought and water crisis in California. And it invites viewers to become engaged in some sense. It is an example of social practice art or art with a purpose.

Including maps of California that demonstrate the nature of the problems we have with sustainable water usage and warnings about the dangers of irrigating farmlands, it’s a heavily didactic show – long on information but short on art.

At its center is a piece by Newton and Helen Harrison, world-renowned eco-artists, that demonstrate the drawbacks of the irrigated fields that produce a bounty of fresh produce, grazing land for animals and our farm-to-fork, locavore lifestyle.

The problem, their artworks – including a giant map of the Sierra Nevada watershed on the floor of the gallery – tell us, is that this use of our water resources is not sustainable and leads to the destruction of our fragile Delta ecosystem.

Wall texts, including “Sierra Nevada An Adaptation” outline the problems with our current abuse of the landscape and offer ways to find a solution to the clear-cut forests and soil erosion that depletes our natural resources. Their text, for example, tell us that 1 inch of topsoil takes a thousand years to produce and over the past 50 years we have lost 4 inches of topsoil.

The map, which can be walked on, is difficult to decipher without the help of an interpreter, and the text, which hovers between document and a kind of preachy poetry, is off-putting, as is the text of their piece, “Sacramento Meditations,” which gives the show its title. Here we see maps with written warnings and posters that ask “What If All That Irrigated Farming Isn’t Necessary?” The posters offer convincing evidence that it may not be, but this is argument, not visual art.

Another map of sorts by Susannah Sayler and Ed Morris of “The Canary Project,” which documents visible signs of climate change worldwide, deals in a similar though less-accessible way with issues surrounding the American River and its history from Gold Rush era to suburban and farm water usage.

The show is rounded out by beautiful photographs of the Delta and its inhabitants by Jeff Enlow, who was commissioned by National Geographic in 2011 to document the community and landscape of the Delta, and Jenny Stark, who seeks to investigate the beauty and fragility of the Delta through photographs and film.

Enlow’s film “Behind the Levees” captures the beauty of the Delta and is accompanied by stirring words by Julia Connor, former Sacramento poet laureate. Stark’s film “River Rat” is an interview with a resident of the Delta, Lisa Kirk, proprietor of a Locke store called Strange Cargo. Again the beauty and uniqueness of the Delta and its fragility are the subjects here. Both films are artful and moving and warrant a trip to the gallery.

A satellite show with works by the Harrisons, Enlow and Stark is up at Sacramento City Hall in an outreach to those who don’t go to art galleries.

Though I have some reservations about the show at Verge, I have to say that I learned a lot and it brought the problems with our water policies and the politics surrounding them to me in a new way. It made clear the incredible beauty of the Delta, which has inspired so many artists in our community, and its endangered state.

It is also interesting, as Verge Executive Director Liv Moe, pointed out, that the Harrisons, Sayler, Morris, Stark and Enlow all hail from different parts of the country and have examined issues all over the world yet have focused on Sacramento and its Delta as crucial points of interest.

Sacramento Meditations

  • Where: Verge Center for the Arts, 625 S St., and Sacramento City Hall, 915 I St., Sacramento
  • When: Through Aug. 16 Verge hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday- Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday
  • Cost: Free
  • Information: 916-448-2985,