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The Art Historians of Southern California & Getty Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA 
Teaching and Writing the Art Histories of Latin American Los Angeles


October 6, 2017

The Getty Center, Los Angeles

Recollecting and Connecting Overlooked Art of Cali/Cali:
Alicia Barney and Women Environmental Artists of California       


Gina McDaniel Tarver

Associate Professor, School of Art & Design, Texas State University

There are many women artists who were pioneers of environmental or eco-art, and who, within the history of environmental art, remain under-recognized. One such artist, Alicia Barney, who was born in Cali, Colombia in 1952 and began her career as an artist in the late 1970s. One of her works, Diario-objeto II, Pratt I (1978–79), is currently on display in Radical Women at the Hammer Museum here in Los Angeles. As one step in a new research project that is in its fledgling stage, I want to recover a history of her art and place it within a larger story of women environmental artists—important examples of whom are from California (the other “Cali”). So, today will show some examples of Barney’s early work and go on to draw a few comparisons with eco-art by Californian women.

In 1977, while attending the Pratt Institute in New York, Barney began the series she titled Diario–objeto (Diary-Object). The series is made up of found objects—natural and human-made, many of them bits of trash—that she collected in various places and on different days; these were attached with transparent tape or strung on hanging wire structures. Some displayed objects the artist found on the city streets of New York. Others, in contrast, showed objects she collected on a Colombian island in the Pacific. Seven of these wire structures comprised her MFA thesis exhibition. Barney arrayed her found objects chronologically, following the order in which she encountered them, and Incan kipus, which are knotted string devices for recording information, were the inspiration for this type of hanging diary. The Diario-objeto series relates to the artist’s ritual of taking long walks while fasting, resulting in an altered state of consciousness in which she says the objects would “call to her.”[1] She proposed these collections as slices of life. When she moved back to Cali in ‘78, she took the series with her and re-exhibited it shortly after returning, in Cali’s City Hall.

Barney created a second Diario-objeto series in ‘78 and ‘79, in Colombia. In this second series, she experimented with different ways of displaying the objects. Separately contained inside plastic bags as they are here, they look somewhat like evidence from a crime scene. The new methods of display, though, grew out of necessity. Cali is a tropical environment, which meant that the organic objects she had collected quickly disintegrated, eaten by bugs and rats and decomposed in the humidity. The plastic was a protective measure ensuring greater longevity. Once again, the objects in each “picture” (as I choose to call them for now) come from a variety of different sites. Some include things she bought back with her from New York. Other things she collected on trips to the beach or countryside. Others, with leaves and flowers pressed between sheets of Plexiglas, suggest a link to scientific study, to the kind of Age of Enlightenment botanical expeditions that were foundational to the development of modern art in Colombia—since the first art school in the country was founded in conjunction with one of these expeditions. It is worth noting that one of Barney’s ancestors, Francisco José de Caldas, was famous as an early naturalist, a colleague of Alexander von Humboldt and a member of Colombia’s first botanical expedition, the Real Expedición Botánica.

The almost anthropological approach to these various objects, and especially the contrast between natural and human-made objects that reveals the way our consumer culture invades and contaminates not just the urban environment but also beaches and forests, is lost, I think, in the Radical Women exhibition, since only one artwork from the series is included, and it contains objects from an urban environment.[2] Also lost is what comes across to me as the artist’s intensive process, evident through repetition and variation, that led to her becoming increasingly aware of her environment.

When Barney created these series, she was not yet thinking of herself as an environmental artist, although through this process of collecting and examining, she contemplated the issue of environmental degradation, which was already important to her. Soon she produced artworks that consciously dealt with pollution. In ‘81 and ’82, for example, she documented pollution in Cali’s river, the Río Cauca. Barney took trips to the source of the river and to fifteen points along it. She collected several liters of water from the source and smaller samples downstream, and she photographed the river and the boatmen who rowed her. In the gallery, she displayed specially constructed shallow tanks, filled with the clear water from the river’s source. Inserted into these tanks were test tubes containing the other water samples, suspended above a map of the river that is etched into the bottom of the tanks. The tanks, with the test tubes and the map, look scientific, yet they also overflow a scientific approach in their aesthetic impact, which comes partly from the ghostly etching of the map and the attention to display. Barney also collaborated with a scientist, who analyzed the water samples. She included the results of the analysis in the exhibition. The documental aspect of the work links it strongly not just to science but also to conceptual art, and to artists such as Hans Haacke who are associated with both conceptual and eco-art. Her artworks such as Río Cauca were the first ecological artworks in Colombia, and she is perhaps best-known for these, although even within her native country her work deserves more attention.

In their treatment of environmental and ecological art, most exhibitions, art history textbooks, and specialized art histories concentrate on the large-scale works of male artists such as Robert Smithson, Alan Sonfist, Richard Long, and Mel Chin. As is typical in the art world at large, men dominate the stories told about environmental art, whether through exhibitions (like Radical Nature), general survey texts (such as Land and Environmental Art), or focused scholarly studies (for example, To Life!). It is easy to see why monumental earthworks and such are so well-known and frequently studied: they have a strong visual impact, a demanding physical presence. The work by Barney, in contrast, is much smaller in scale and quite precarious in terms of materiality. The art of the Californian artists I will show today shares these characteristics and also is strongly based in performance and ephemerality. There are female artists, such as Nancy Holt, Helen Mayer Harrison (working in collaboration with her husband Newton Harrison), Agnes Denes, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who have a place in current histories; however, other innovative women who pioneered both environmental and ecological art are overlooked. Furthermore, surveys of this kind of art hardly ever mention Latin American artists, although there are a couple of exceptions, such as Ana Mendieta and Cecilia Vicuña. So, one of my goals is to insert Barney’s work into a broader, and somewhat unknown, art history by comparing it to environmental art by other women artists, paying careful attention to differences as well as similarities. Not surprisingly, since California has been at the forefront of environmental activism as well as being the site of some of the most extreme environmental disasters, many of the artists who pioneered eco-art lived and worked here. Women are notable among these artists, yet for the most part, they, like Barney, are largely absent from the histories. I will begin my recollection of these artists with another collection of trash, one that resonates with Barney’s Diario-objeto series.

In 1970, Jo Hanson began sweeping the street outside of her San Francisco home. At first, the act was an aesthetic one: she wanted to beautify her neighborhood. She wrote, “Evolving into an eco artist couldn’t have been farther from my mind when I went out to clean the 180 feet of my twelve-foot wide sidewalk in my windy new neighborhood …. The term ‘eco artist’ didn’t exist then….”[3] As she swept, though, she began to keep some of the trash and to examine it as evidence of the wastefulness of consumerism, of social problems such as drug use, and of socio-cultural changes such as those introduced by Hippies. Eventually, she came to see her daily sweeping as an artistic process, and gradually others, such as the city’s sanitation workers, became collaborators in the process as they got to know her and began to arrive frequently to haul away much of the refuse. In 1980, she displayed the trash she had collected, organized into forty notebooks, at the San Francisco City Hall, with the sponsorship of the city’s refuse committee and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition also included interviews Hanson videotaped with sanitation workers and videos made by artists, at Hanson’s invitation, on the theme of trash.

I have not found any images of those notebooks and their contents, but Hanson described them, so for now I will let the verbal description stand in comparison to Barney’s Diario-objeto series. Hanson wrote that she found


very personal notes and letters …, parking tickets, photos and negatives, bills, collection letters, cancelled checks and bounced checks, grocery lists with creative spelling, religious tracts, ZigZag papers for rolling joints, drug paraphernalia, rock posters, advertising, cigarette packages, food packaging, newspapers, books, political and social protest, anti-war artifacts …, prison discharge papers, medical records, clothing, and much, much more.[4]


You can see similar items in Barney’s Diario-objeto series, though the impulses that led each artist to collect such items were distinct: to begin with, one had to do with a fixed location and the other with a kind of trance-state wandering. And even though both artists collected, arranged, and displayed trash, they took on, and led to, very different mechanisms of display and engagement.

Barney has exhibited her work mostly within museum or gallery settings, and she remains the primary author of the work, while Hanson consistently located not just artistic practice but also artistic display outside of conventional art institutions and worked toward community involvement. Hanson was an early artist-in-residence, in 1981, at Crossroads Community (The Farm) in San Francisco; she conducted a bus tour of illegal dumping sites in San Francisco in 1982 as part of an International Sculpture Conference; and in 1990 she founded the innovative artist-in-residence program at the Sanitary Fill Company in San Francisco, now called Recology. These distinctions between Barney and Hanson, and between their projects, relate not just to diverging artistic visions but to differences in institutional structures and possibilities in the U.S. and Colombia. In Colombia in the 1980s, there was no strong environmental movement and little possibility of working with non-art institutions, and galleries and museums represented a useful platform for drawing attention to environmental issues.

Collaboration became a hallmark of eco-art by women in California, as seen in another artwork from the 1980s that resonates with Barney’s Diario-objeto. As part of the Contemporary Arts Forum held in Santa Barbara in 1987, Ciel Bergman and Nancy Merrill created the single-room installation Sea Full of Clouds: What Can I Do? Using sand, rocks, and non-biodegradable trash that they collected from local beaches, they created a space for meditation “as a forum for ecological inquiry.”[5] The space included a “noticing wall” where visitors were encouraged to contribute traces of their reflections by writing on the wall.

The prevalence of collaboration and community involvement in California eco-art is also linked, as Jo Hanson explained, to the feminist movement, and accordingly this art might be described as “ecofeminism” and distinguished from better-known works of environmental engagement.[6] Hanson wrote: “It was feminist art that fulfilled the aims of conceptual art in empowering artists, collaboration among artists and with communities, advancing life and social experiences/issues as appropriate subjects of art. This was my trail in discovering that my work was ‘environmental art.’ I have never felt related to the land artists of that period who used Earth features and nature as their materials.”[7] Similarly, Barney consciously distinguishes her work, with its precariousness, from “the monumental macho.”[8] She has always considered herself a feminist, and her feminist beliefs are “intertwined in the very fiber of the work,”[9] but there was no feminist movement in Colombia to foster collaborative projects among women. Social norms regarding gender is another important contextual difference to be considered in comparing Barney’s works with those of California women artists.

 Turning now to Barney’s Río Cauca as a basis of comparison, Barney’s works also resonate with those of Betty Beaumont, who began making eco-art in 1969 as a student at California State University, Northbridge. Beaumont’s photographic series Steam Cleaning the Santa Barbara Shore in California (1969) and Barney’s Río Cauca both document water pollution. Beaumont created her series in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and the ecologically damaging use of high-pressure steam to clean it up. While Barney’s Río Cauca is the first visual artwork about water pollution in Colombia, Jennifer González notes that Beaumont’s series is one of the first visual accounts of an environmental disaster by a Californian artist. As Gonzalez describes it, “Her photographs depict a small figure dressed in protective clothing carefully cleaning individual stones, surrounded by a wasteland of oil-blackened shoreline, suggesting both the futility and the necessity of a human response to such catastrophes.”[10] Like Barney, Beaumont drew from an ideally objective means of recording facts (in her case, documentary photography) but exceeded the parameters normally associated with that practice, through careful staging that gave the photographs metaphorical as well as documental meaning.


A final comparison I will make today is between Río Cauca and a collaborative work called the L.A. River Project. Students of Wilson High School in Los Angeles, led by their teacher Susan Boyle and in collaboration with the multimedia artist Cheri Gaulke, created this project which, as Lucy Lippard describes, “culminated in a 1990 student installation centered on a ‘river’ of video monitors offering an array of images of trash-filled water, surrounded by photographs, a chemically-analyzed water sample, river artifacts, evidence of wildlife… and interviews with residents, politicians, and poets.”[11] Gaulke later made an artist book based on the project. A similar impulse is behind these two works: to explore an issue, pollution and degradation of the city’s river, that literally runs through the city, noticeable and distressing, yet not acted upon by the government. The Smithsonian Institution adopted the L.A. River Project and toured it nationally, so in its time it received more attention than Barney’s Río Cauca, which proved to be ahead of its time in Colombia, where only recently has pollution, especially of waterways, become a major theme in contemporary art and only now are local governments being held to account for their role in damage to the environment.[12]

These fascinating parallels begin to reveal the multiple intertwined roots of a global art movement (with “movement” used in a very general sense) that responded to and sought to foster environmental awareness and action. Recuperating the stories of these women is not just about equity. As we plunge deeper into our age of global warming, their stories are more relevant than ever and may have the potential to move individuals, perhaps especially women, to realize their own power and to act.


[1] Alicia Barney, correspondence with the author, October 1, 2017.

[2] This observation is not meant as a critique of the exhibition Radical Women, which placed the artwork in a different context than that of environmental art, one instead based on the idea of embodied experience.

[3] Jo Hanson, “My Adventures as an Eco Artist,” LAND Views: Online Journal of Landscape, Art & Design (Summer 2003),

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nancy Merrill, “Artwork: Sea Full of Clouds,” She Is Anyway (artist’s website), 2016–2017,

[6] Jade Wildy, “The Artistic Progressions of Ecofeminism: The Changing Focus of Women in Environmental Art,” International Journal of the Arts in Society 6, no. 1 (January 2012): 53–65.

[7] Hanson, “My Adventures.”

[8] Alicia Barney, correspondence with the author, October 4, 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jennifer Gonzalez, “Landing in California,” in Art/Women/California, 1950–2000: Parallels and Intersections, eds. Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 229.

[11] Lucy Lippard, “The Garbage Girls” (1991), in The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art (New York: The New York Press, 1995), 262–263.

[12] The contamination of rivers in Colombia is a major theme, for example, in recent work of Carolina Caycedo and Clemencia Echevarri.

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