The relationship between humans and the natural world has become more and more fraught in the past 150 years, due to the expanding understanding of the environment and our effects on it. Joseph Smolinski explores both facets of that relationship in “Second Nature.” In his meticulous, exacting works, Smolinski takes a critical stance toward society’s casual acceptance of potentially catastrophic developments in the future.
In his 2014 3D animation, Colony Collapse (2014-2015), Smolinski shows, in one long shot, a landscape filled with contemporary ecological disasters. Through thick, falling snow, the camera moves past oil rigs, cornfields, cities, a fallen drone, and an abandoned pickup truck. When it reaches the figure of a dying bee, the camera slows and pans warily over the insect’s body as it perishes. The deaths of bees (described as an ecological “canary in the coal mine”) in recent years have been tied to excessive fossil fuel consumption, monoculture farming, militarism, and nuclear warfare (as suggested by the nuclear winter-like conditions).
Another series of drawings depicts various animal species that have each been tagged with a tracking device, such as those used by research biologists. With anatomical detail similar to the iconic works of John James Audubon, Smolinski examines how our understanding and study of animals has changed and become more technological and distant. Biologists no longer need to kill and mount animals in order to study them, but rather are able to monitor species around the world from remote locations. Small insects, as in Checkerspot Butterfly (2014) and Roman Snail (2015), are affixed with tiny radio tags; Honey Bee (2014) reprises the image found in Colony Collapse. Drawings of white animals demonstrate Smolinski’s virtuosity: Polar Bear and Silver Wolf (both 2014) are spare and photorealistic, yet simultaneously vibrant and evocative of the wild.
Fall Out (2013), a graphite and ink drawing with acrylic paint and colored pencil, is the most mythological of Smolinski’s work here, depicting a tree glowing brightly, resembling both the Biblical burning bush and a mushroom cloud on the horizon. His renderings of mankind’s interactions with nature, both benign and violent, synthetic and organic, are never passive; animals are frequently depicted as they resist man’s control. In showing these struggles, Smolinski points to the need to develop a new dialogue on man and the nature, with values of beauty and critique at its core.