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In AKAG exhibit, Linder uncovers WNY’s history of environmental pollution

Joan Linder

Joan Linder sketches as part of the Sept. 2 M&T First Fridays @ the Gallery. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published October 14, 2016

“I work here and make my life here with my family, and wonder where this pollution actually ends … in our backyard? In yours?”
Joan Linder, associate professor
Department of Art

An astute observer of the mass-produced and mundane, Joan Linder has spent much of her artistic career creating painstakingly hand-drawn images with a quill pen and ink: kitchen sinks full of dirty dishes, piles of junk mail — even the raw musculature of a gross anatomy cadaver, its chest split open.

In her latest collection of drawings, now on view in a show titled “Operation Sunshine” at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the UB faculty member shifted her focus without leaving her trademark obsession with minutiae, choosing to expose the impact of toxic pollution in Western New York.

Linder spent the past four years sketching what she found after parking her car in forgotten post-industrial landscapes throughout Buffalo, Tonawanda and Niagara Falls. The latter was home to the infamous Love Canal disaster, where thousands of pounds of toxic waste were discovered to have been dumped, buried in a site then redeveloped as a residential neighborhood. The waste eventually caused serious health issues for many residents.

In works ranging from life-size to large-format — one even accordions along 45 feet of shelving in the gallery’s Link exhibit space — Linder captured scrubby weeds and stones near barren brownfields, and endless chain-link fencing around shuttered WWII-era manufacturing plants. She debuted the works at the former New York City gallery, Mixed Greens, before expanding the project with more sketches.

To better inform herself, Linder, an associate professor in the Department of Art, talked with scientists, borrowed a Geiger counter to observe lingering radioactivity and conducted hours of research in local libraries, historical societies and in the UB Archives’ Love Canal collection. Documents she found there from the Manhattan Project era include propaganda about the superfund sites, as well as yellowed, historical images of a landscape long gone and forever damaged.

She then carefully hand-reproduced dozens of these materials, creating what she calls her “Toxic Archives” — in reality, perfectly scaled drawings rendered with meticulous attention to detail. Coffee and cigarette stains, redacted type and all.

“I think a lot about what’s buried, literally, whether that’s pollution from decades ago or documents buried within an archive,” Linder says, adding that the Albright’s suggestion to hang the show in the basement corridor gallery seemed a natural place to begin and end the visual narrative, down to the industrial-yellow walls curator Holly Hughes painted for the exhibit.

During two sessions at the Albright-Knox, Linder spent several hours live sketching so the public could watch her process, and she also gave a gallery talk. It is fitting, she says, to hold her first solo museum exhibit in Buffalo. “I work here and make my life here with my family, and wonder where this pollution actually ends … in our backyard? In yours?

“This has been a journey of discovery for me; I’d been living here for years and never knew this region’s connections to industrial, chemical and radioactive pollution and the war effort,” Linder says, adding that she hears from the gallery that Buffalonians are staying for a full hour to take in the show, which travels to Grinnell College in January. “I think the work can have a conversation here and outside Western New York because it allows a deeper look into one community’s troubled environmental legacy and asks the question: How is all this connected?”

Linder’s work was supported by fellowships from UB’s Humanities Institute and Techne Institute for Arts and Emerging Technologies, and residencies at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Montalvo in Saratoga, California. She also has shown her work throughout the United States and in Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Japan and South Korea. In 2015, selected Love Canal sketches were part of a group show, “Ground,” at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery in Buffalo.

“Operation Sunshine” is on view at the Albright-Knox through Oct. 30.