Culture  Falling out of nature’s favour

Joshua Barndt’s latest exhibition attempts to make sense of environmental degradation

From emerging global environmental changes to increased air pollution and urbanization, civilization is subject to growing environmental stresses across the world. What has emerged is a vulnerable population, simultaneously affecting and being affected by these environmental conditions. As artist Josh Barndt sees it, the question is: can one person really make a difference? Is humanity hopeless in the face of the environment’s degradation? Barndt addresses these issues in his latest exhibit, “Leaps of Faith.”

Barndt’s answer is not uplifting. Consisting of a selection of contemporary art pieces, the exhibit explores the triviality of human life in relation to the immensity of nature. “Leaps of Faith” is comprised of two distinct groups of work. The first section, “Free Fall,” is a multimedia exhibit, its pieces ranging from paintings and video clips to life-size photographs, occasionally illuminated by eccentric white lamps. Through contrasting visual images of humans falling, the artist expresses his pessimistic outlook. He draws individuals in free fall to express humanity’s collective powerlessness in the face of critical issues. The goal, according to Barndt, is to “exhibit the vulnerability of human life in relation to the severe and daunting disasters of the environment.”

Barndt wanted to capture humanity as “having no feet left on the ground.” To this end, each image presents a unique group of individuals, completely unlike the last. Some faces smile while others are sullen, some are clothed and others naked, some are young and some old. The outcome is honest; everyone, despite their age or social class, can feel defenceless at times.

Indeed, none of the paintings display any sort of imagery that could betray their connection to environmental issues. In fact, the portraits of individuals falling are all painted against a plain beige background in order to create the effect of timelessness, thus providing the audience with an opportunity to interpret the images on their own terms. Through this ambiguous stylistic choice, Barndt allows the audience to engage with the concept of human vulnerability and come up with their own personal explanations of the work. Environmental issues become simply one out of the many causes of the instability in human life.

While the pieces are fascinating, Barndt’s vision of humanity did appear overly cynical. “I admit I am too pessimistic,” he confesses. “After completing [the paintings in ‘Free Fall’] my grandmother came to see my work, and her first response was, ‘Where is your sense of hope?’” As a result, “Leap of Faith” closes with a two-piece exhibit called “Affirmations.” One particular image consists of a life-size photograph of Barndt’s grandmother with a three-dimensional light beam in front of it. This work represents his grandmother’s affirmation of hope and faith despite all the prevailing issues in the world. Barnt explained that with “Affirmations,” he wanted to “represent the optimism that I couldn’t project in my own work.” The incongruity between the two sections of the exhibit – the images of people falling versus standing, and the drab beige backgrounds in “Free Fall” versus the bright white colours of “Affirmations” – make the juxtaposition all the more interesting. Yet it is with “Affirmations” that the exhibit really feels complete, and a vision of hope is presented to the audience.

With his work in “Leaps of Faith,” Barndt displays a great deal of talent and a sincere understanding of the current social worry over the degradation of the environment. The initial response to the exhibit is a feeling of shock – the first image is an unexpected portrait of an elderly women falling with an intense look of fear in her eyes. As the exhibit continues, however, the audience understands that the work is not purely pessimistic. Rather, Brandt’s last portrait, as introduced by his grandmother, offers us “the promise of the sun coming out of the storm.”

Leaps of Faith is up at Galerie SAS (372 Ste. Catherine O. suite 416) through December 5.