On Color and Crisis: Nedret Andre’s Art and Activism

Uprooted, Massachusetts painter Nedret Andre’s latest solo exhibition at Beacon Gallery, demonstrates how an artist can use basic elements—color, line, form, and value—to make incisive, abstract statements that go beyond the realm of pure art.

Uprooted
Uprooted, 2018

“Uprooted” references two related, environmental phenomena. On the one hand, it recalls the wandering proclivities of the European green crab (Carcinus maenas), an invasive species from the Baltic and British Isles that is almost admirable for its ability to adapt to waters around the globe. On the other hand, it draws attention to the rapid depletion of native seagrass beds in New England and beyond, which are literally being uprooted by these crabs. (The global rate of seagrass destruction that Andre cites is 2 football fields an hour.)

This set of circumstances is particularly perilous now as seagrass is a critical component of healthy coastal ecosystems—it captures blue carbon, which otherwise contributes to climate change when released into the atmosphere. Through a sensitive approach to the emotional qualities of color, gesture, pattern, and texture, Andre creates paintings that express a holistic approach to this crisis, meditating on everything from the crabs’ frenetic energy to the desolation of destroyed seagrass beds.

Andre has been developing an abstract approach to this subject for years. “Everything begins with color,” she told me back in the fall of 2016, when I first visited her South End studio to write about a previous solo show, Immersed. This is certainly true of her painting process. Her works are built on patches of azure, lemon, orange, pink, and green that glimmer where they meet. Frail lines, often black, weave through these shifting hues, sometimes elegant and sometimes anxious.

Despite its abstract beauty, Andre’s art tackles a very concrete problem. In the same studio visit, I was fascinated to hear how frequently she participates in fieldwork with marine ecologists and environmental activists. She maintains a blog where, instead of chronicling her studio practice, she posts underwater shots of marine eelgrass (Zostera, a form of seagrass), documents volunteers bagging the green crabs, or summarizes the New England Aquarium lectures she attends. In fact, this March, she joined more than a hundred scientists at Zosterapalooza, an annual eelgrass conference. Whereas many painters list influences in terms fellow artists, Andre cites local scientists: Boston University’s Alyssa Novak, or the Environmental Protection Agency’s Phil Colarusso.

Afterthecrabarrives.jpg
After the Green Crab Arrives, 2018

Immersed was a brilliant show, boasting frequent notes of undiluted ultramarine, fuchsia, and yellow. Recently, Andre expressed dissatisfaction with these “too nice” colors. Is raising awareness about an environmental crisis allowed to be aesthetically pleasing? While her signature blues and yellows are still as vibrant as ever, in Uprooted muted greys, ochers, and whites are introduced with greater frequency, and more paintings are allowed to express anxiety, discomfort, or sadness in their composition. A work like After the Green Crab Arrives is soft and desolate. As Andre states, “The invasive green crab changes the terrain. Leftovers sand, shells, and this new ‘settling in’ begins to happen.” The painting depicts a world in mourning, deprived of seagrass, of strong hues, and of energy.

Thenextstop.jpg
The Next Stop, 2018

The Next Stop embodies another new approach. This large painting is bursting with energy and vibrant—almost vicious—color. Fuchsia, hot pink, lime green, orange, and bright white marks battle for space, overlapping and confounding one another the way individual tags on a frequently graffitied wall lose legibility. “I wanted to capture the raw energy a green crab has for survival,” Andre explained, while at the same time expressing a desire to create “surface tension and a symbolic seagrass language that is non-legible.” Similarly, the claustrophobic frenzy of angular marks in 160K conveys a mind-boggling fact—each female green crab is capable of producing approximately 160,000 offspring at a time.

As both an advocate and a painter, Andre concerns herself with fluidity and fluctuation. Colors continually shift in brilliance and hue as they move across the canvas, evoking sunlit surfaces, foggy harbors, and dappled shallows. One piece is an ode to the beauty of seagrass. Another is devoted to a green crab’s destructive energy. What remains steadfast is her immediately recognizable sensitivity to color, gesture, and balance. In her lines and luminous washes, Nedret Andre continues to demonstrate both the vitality and the fragility of our coastal ecosystems with a dedication that is truly admirable.

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