‘Radical Seafaring’ Review: A Time for Aqueous Art

Water Mill, N.Y.

'Radical Seafaring," at the Parrish Art Museum, claims to have identified an international trend—artists situating their work in rivers and oceans—that I was skeptical even existed. While it's easy to list writers and film directors who have explored the dramatic potential and unique sensations of life on the water (Homer and Steven Spielberg, for starters), the theme has not figured conspicuously in art since the decline of maritime painting in the 19th century. Undaunted, the exhibition's organizer, Andrea Grover, believes that the body of "off-shore" work created over the past 50 or so years constitutes a movement: the aqueous equivalent of Land Art.

She may be on to something, especially in her catalog essay where she can expand her roster of names. The 25 artists and artist collectives she has assembled, from the U.S., Brazil, Japan and various European countries, are a ragtag bunch of Conceptual artists, environmental activists, professional and amateur scientists, pranksters, dreamers, unorthodox boat designers, and an expert wood carver.

Their water-related objects and drawings, photographed or filmed performances fill the middle rooms and hallways of the museum—located only a few miles from some of the finest beaches in the Hamptons—in a spirit of benign anarchism. As might be expected, not many of these artists have booming commercial careers. Anyone happy to set up house on a barge or raft has values in common with those motivated to work outside the gallery system. Both are opting out of the mapped route to success.

To secure a tradition for her speculations, Ms. Glover includes work by Land Art pioneers Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheim, both of whom did projects on the water or under the sea. (Smithson's design for a barge planted with trees, his "Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan" was realized posthumously in 2005.) Drawings from 2005 by Chris Burden for a planned route by a robotically controlled 30-foot sailboat are a further attempt to find precedents.

Bas Jan Ader, the Dutch Conceptual artist who inspired a romantic cult after he disappeared in 1975 while crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailboat, is represented here by a slide show with audio-tape accompaniment he planned before his voyage: a recital of sea chanteys sung by a chorus of nine singers.

There is no shortage of utopian projects. Both R. Buckminster Fuller's "Triton City Model" (1968) and Ant Farm's "Dolphin Embassy" (1974-75) imagine a time when communities would live in elaborate floating structures.

One room here is dominated by "Old Hickory"—a hulking, ramshackle wooden raft that branches up like a tree house. Built from scavenged materials by the Brooklyn artist Swoon and her crew, it's a DIY rebuke to the standard comforts of bourgeois life. (They steered it and two others, uninvited, among the sleek yachts in the lagoon during the 2009 Venice Biennale.)

The rows of plastic flotsam that Mark Dion has arranged in his "Cabinet of Marine Debris" (2014) form a partial inventory of the garbage clogging our oceans. The work also seems to be a wicked parody of Damien Hirst's colored dots and bottled pharmaceuticals—a suggestion, perhaps, that certain contemporary artists qualify as environmental polluters.

Not everyone here is a Conceptual artist. Michael Combs comes from a Long Island family that has built boats and duck decoys for decades. The four horseshoe crabs he has carved out of cedar for his "Daisy Chain" (2016) are joined he ad-to-tail, one of their typical mating positions. Hanging on the wall like a suit of Surrealist armor, it exhibits a craftsmanship lacking elsewhere in the show.

The timing of "Radical Seafaring" is unfortunate. Its genesis surely predates the time when thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East began to fill overcrowded vessels in hopes of safe passage across the Mediterranean to Europe. But against the weekly reports of drownings, artists who mess around in boats can look silly, at best. A photograph from 2015 by Doug Kuntz, the last in the catalog, shows a pile of orange life vests left on a Greek island by refugees. The essays fail to acknowledge that mass migrations over water have a long and sometimes ugly history, especially for those shipped off from their homelands against their will.

Ms. Grover's idea of a movement nonetheless seems valid and pertinent. Walking through the galleries, I found myself thinking of numerous works—Allan Sekula 's "Fish Story," Tacita Dean's "Teignmouth Electron," Edward Burtynsky's "Water," Matthew Barney's "River of Fundament"—that could have been included.

The Parrish is to be commended for a show that touches on the concerns of eastern Long Island, with its fishing and boating cultures, and its 17th-century townships founded by seafarers. As ocean levels rise and, as some predict, drinking water becomes a resource as precious as oil, more artists will no doubt be engaged by these issues, perhaps even along these fabled shorelines.

Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

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