Overburden, by Jessica Plattner, surveys the impact of human industry on the natural environment - particularly in Alberta. Plattner’s attentive oil paintings depict rolling hills and fertile lands accented by archeological ruins and industrial detritus. Ominous man-made systems and structures loom. Pipelines invade the landscapes. The resulting extraordinary realms created by Plattner are inhabited by an array of beautifully rendered flora, fauna, and children. We see the artist’s own daughter (and model), at play, exploring this world, suggesting nostalgic and emotional associations of childhood. Elements of magical realism permeate the environments within the paintings, proposing realities that are almost too strange to believe.
This body of work questions romantic ideals of the wilderness and sets this at odds with the changing reality of the natural world. Over time, man has carelessly implanted non-native, invasive species into his domain with ruinous effects on the ecosystem. In Plattner’s paintings this is evidenced by the inclusion of exquisite, exotic animals coexisting with native species in abstract if not absurd harmony.
The word overburden, literally meaning an excessive weight or load (physical or metaphorical), that is too heavy to bear, also has significant meaning in the mining industry, where it refers to an ecosystem (or other material) existing above an extractable underground resource. With this in mind, when approaching Plattner’s works we must balance the beauty we see with the potential for disaster.
Plattner’s images embrace both existentialist ideas regarding the human experience of the world and the struggle to mine meaning from life. The artist admits that, inspirations and associations aside, her work manifests anxieties of parenthood and trepidation for future generations. These fantastic paintings create a wondrous space for such uncertainties to dwell.
Jenny Willson-McGrath, Director/Curator, Art Gallery of St. Albert
Exhibition Essay by Joanne Marion, Esplanade Art Gallery
In Jessica Plattner’s newest oil paintings a host of exquisitely rendered animals, birds and children populate verdant landscapes that are littered with archeological and industrial ruins, with strange remnants of conduits, pipes, holding tanks and mechanical systems. The terrain is reminiscent of southeastern Alberta and Tuscany, Italy, both of which are subject to considerable debate and controversy surrounding resource extraction. (During Plattner’s 2012 artist residency in Italy two major earthquakes in nearby Emilia-Romagna may have been triggered by fracking.) Plattner’s work is sombre yet not pessimistic in its contemplation of the effects of human industry on our environment. The exhibition’s title comes from the work of Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley. Plattner shares his existential approach to the world in tying personal experience to her work and thereby creating meaning and authenticity in a possibly meaningless world. It’s a delicate and fine balance which Plattner achieves by infusing the paintings with a magical and fantastical aura that nonetheless embraces our everyday lives.
Joanne Marion, Esplanade Art Gallery
The grass is green, the skies are blue, and the animals are frolicking as animals are wont to do.
But there’s something wrong with the otherwise beautiful and pristine landscapes in Overburden, Jessica Plattner’s new exhibit at the Art Gallery of St. Albert. There are pipelines a-plenty, all snakelike and jutting unnaturally out of the dirt and worming their pathways above ground in weird directions. Life goes on for the animals but the presence of these pipes is practically alien and indeed perturbing.
The Fulbright scholar and art instructor at Medicine Hat College explained that it’s the Alberta experience that made the most difference in inspiring her to develop this series. When she moved here from the northwestern United States, she began to see the oil and gas industry from a different perspective.
“I meet a lot of people who work in the oil and gas industry and realizing how much people’s lives are tied up in it. It’s not as simple as you think. Coming from Oregon where we flatly demonize the whole industry, moving up here I think I have a more complex view of it.”
She also listens to a lot of political and social commentary on CBC Radio while she works. That kind of engaged discussion about everything from the economy to the latest oil spill can’t help but prompt a creative response as she paints. That, plus it keeps her from the loneliness and isolation of working in a studio for long hours all by herself. “Something about hearing voices helps me get my work done.”
Overburden itself borrows its name from an industry term to define the earthy material that is above an area of interest because it contains coal or bitumen or what have you. In the exhibit, the overburden seems to have been switched around as what lies above are those burdensome pipelines.
The imagery sparks thoughts of surrealist landscapes like those of Max Ernst. The artist prefers to think of herself in terms of magical realism instead despite the fact that it most often is used to refer to a literary genre.
“The surrealists were more separated from the truth of real experience while the magical realists are trying to make visible what’s really there.”
She resonates more with that term, she indicated, noting that she also lived in Mexico during her Fulbright years. Those experiences were pretty influential to her.
This is the first time that the full exhibit is available to the public. Half of the works were previewed last year at Medicine Hat’s Esplanade Arts and Heritage Centre.
Plattner will be in town to open the exhibit on Saturday, April 2 from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Before she hosts that (coupled with an artist talk and an exhibit walk-through), she will be conducting a mixed media diorama landscape workshop for kids at the gallery. Details can be found through the gallery.