Many of Pam Longobardi’s recent sculptures and installations have focused on the dire problem of ocean-dumped plastic, the assorted junk that ends up on beaches, in ocean gyres and waterways, and, fatally, in the stomachs of birds, fish and marine mammals. Longobardi often describes her research trips to such places as Hawaii and Greece as emotionally draining, so when the Atlanta artist returns home, she finds solace in making paintings. It can be difficult to reconcile the rigor of her environmental work with the detached formalism of her paintings, but Longobardi sees common threads between the two. Her exhibition “Endless” included sculptures but centered on a selection of large-scale paintings on copper panels and a series of small paintings on Yupo, a paper made from plastic (all works 2012 or 2013).
For four works titled Anthropocene, measuring up to 5 feet high, Longobardi used materials like sulfurated potash and sodium chloride to oxidize expanses of copper, pouring and wiping different mixtures over the surfaces, with unpredictable results. Her painted additions of tiny human figures and other details transform the works into vast landscapes pocked with caves, crevices and craters. Swirling eddies of pigments and patinas merge to create areas of craquelure resembling sunbaked mud. The scenes appear otherwordly due to small painted flourishes and touches of glitter, while their shared title—a term proposed by scientists to designate our current geological era, in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet—keeps them decidedly earth-based.
Each of Longobardi’s new paintings on Yupo is a jewel of color made from gouache, enamel and ink. Most are casual abstractions tentatively offering hope, though Tsunami features a large blue wave churning with debris, a reference to the flotsam carried to Alaska by ocean currents after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, which unleashed the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Longobardi recently won the $50,000 Hudgens Prize, given by the Hudgens Center for the Arts in Duluth, Ga., for her ongoing “Drifters Project,” begun in 2006 in Hawaii, where the sight of a beach choked with plastic debris led to a dramatic shift in her work. She began addressing the issue of ocean pollution in sculptures and installations assembled from found items—such as fishing nets, lighters, bottles, containers and polystyrene objects—gathered from sea caves, beaches, rivers and other waterways. Like an archeologist, Longobardi can recount where she found each of the items she has collected.
One of the “Drifters” pieces on view is a suspended stack of worn-down chunks of Styrofoam that resembles a spine. The other is a 19-foot-long wall-mounted grouping of various plastic objects: a toothbrush, a baby spoon, doll parts, a lid for a cleaning product named Endless, after which the exhibition is titled. These objects are arranged in a line by size, starting on the far left with a single bead of Styrofoam and ending on the right with a series of buoys and net floats.
A small panel painting of the sun setting on the ocean hung nearby. Longobardi sees it as representing the “ideal”—unspoiled nature—while the plastic works convey the reality. It’s an urgent and important distinction to make, but the banal scene falls short in conveying the magnitude of what’s being lost.