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Kelly Richardson’s ‘Legion’ sends a distress signal from the future

A disquieting mixture of fear, awe and nervous energy pours from the video work of Kelly Richardson, the Canadian artist who has turned her preoccupation with the future of the planet into a series of stunning and sometimes terrifying landscapes.

“Kelly Richardson: Legion,” a midcareer survey of the artist’s technically pristine work, is on view in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery through June 9.

As visitors step into the large east gallery of the Albright-Knox’s 1905 building, they will encounter what is likely the largest and most overwhelming video installation they have seen outside of an IMAX theater.

“Mariner 9,” on view in the United States for the first time and recently acquired by the Albright-Knox, extends a full 43 feet across the gallery’s longest wall. The living painting, named after NASA’s 1971 space orbiter, presents an imagined vision of the surface of Mars 200 years hence. Its craggy and windswept landscape is littered with the blinking and whirring detritus of NASA’s exploratory missions of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Those abandoned rovers and rudimentary installations amid the swirling Martian dust, Richardson has suggested, may well be transmitting signals back to a dead planet that has exhausted its own ability to support life.

In other rooms, similarly immense and unsettling video projections show animated scenes of breathing primordial swamps, desolate moonscapes with eerie holographic trees flickering in and out of view, enchanted wildlife prowling across otherwise empty forests and cars perpetually spinning their wheels in midair.

The universe Richardson has constructed for this show is bleak and devoid of all but the strangest forms of life. It has precedents, as Albright-Knox curator Holly E. Hughes writes in her illuminating catalog essay, in sources as seemingly disparate as the sweeping romantic landscape paintings of the late 18th century to the B-horror and science-fiction films of the 1970s and ’80s.

The handsome catalog that accompanies the show features a range of intriguing theories about how Richardson’s work explores the notion of the sublime, that strange mixture of hope and fear that reveals something uncomfortable about the depth and darkness of human desire.

But far beyond a mere exploration of a fascinating historical concept, her work strikes me as a fairly straightforward warning – albeit a mysterious and beautiful one – that our planet is on an accelerating path toward destruction.

“I’m interested in that contradiction at this critical time in human history when current predictions for our future are not just unsettling, but terrifying,” she told The News in a February interview.

In another installation, “The Erudition,” we see a strange moonscape (or possibly post-apocalyptic Earthscape) on which tall, undulating pines appear and disappear like the holographic projection of Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars.”

As in all of Richardson’s living paintings, we’re meant to write our own narratives for this unsettling scene, which could be humanity’s last desperate attempt at palliative care for a ruined planet. But even though she leaves the questions unanswered, it’s clear that she is prodding us to project our minds farther into the future than we’re comfortable doing. Richardson’s major gift – in addition to her technical facility and her embrace of beauty as a way to prime us the disturbing undercurrents snaking through her otherwise sumptuous work – is the way she seems to look back from the future.

For frequent visitors to the Albright-Knox, Richardson’s work can be seen as an obvious outgrowth of the concerns of other artists the gallery has recently exhibited. The stunning landscapes of photographer Victoria Sambunaris, for instance, are preoccupied, as Richardson’s work is, with the ways humans have perforated the natural landscape.

The data-driven projections of Jennifer Steinkamp, the subject of a 2008 survey in the gallery, are an antecedent to Richardson’s work, which has been technically polished to the point that most viewers are unable to distinguish what is real and what is computer-generated.

In the end, that distinction isn’t nearly as important as what the work says about the path we’re on. Some curators and experts might balk at the notion that Richardson is one of her generation’s most ingenious environmental activists, allergic as they are to art that seems to endorse a specific political message.

But Richardson’s haunting glimpses of the future – more than Earth Day slogans, more than the photographs of Sandy’s aftermath and perhaps even more than documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” – may be the images that stay with us the longest.


What: “Kelly Richardson: Legion”

When: Through June 9

Where: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.

Admission: $5 to $12

Info: 882-8700


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