Earth shattering explosions, red buttons, fallout shelters, a city reduced to dust. At the mention of nuclear weapons, any combination of these images might run through your mind. (And we don’t blame you given the apparent insistence of certain world leaders to keeping nuclear apocalypse at the forefronts of our minds.)
New York-based painter Eric LoPresti seeks to push past this instinctive apprehension to explore more complicated truths.
“If you really have a profound fear of something and you can’t visualize it, it becomes untethered and you start reacting very erratically,” LoPresti says. “I think that’s where we are as a culture and I think that’s a mistake.”
In his upcoming solo exhibition, “An Ocean of Light,” LoPresti explores the legacy of nuclear development and testing in the United States as well as the often overlooked desert landscapes where this testing occurs.
The exhibition, which runs from April 12 through May 26 at Burning in Water, will include oil paintings as well as digital print collages and works on paper. This diverse body of work provides the viewer with various entry points as she acquaints herself with these intimidating subjects on a more intimate level.
The title of the show comes from the writing of Joan Hinton, an atomic physicist in the 1940’s. Hinton used the phrase in her eye-witness description of the Trinity Test, the first nuclear weapon detonation.
LoPresti’s exhibition builds upon this theme of disorientation — most obviously through the unlikely juxtaposition between the technological and the natural, but also through the presentation of his subjects.
You might expect to see mushroom clouds or airstrikes, but rather, his paintings depict underground nuclear detonations, craters, and even the cement and scraps of steel which evidence previous tests.
“I don’t paint nuclear weapons. I paint the aftermath, I paint things related to them, I paint how we see them,” he explains. “What I’m interested in is not the explosion, but how we react to it.”
This curiosity about Americans’ relationship to nuclear weapons has inspired much of the artist’s work, particularly when these reactions expose the tense relationship between American ideology and nuclear technology.
“Nuclear weapons are a product of our cultural values,” he says. “Our cultural values include innovation, they include the landscape, they include the west, and they unfortunately used to include the idea that America was a wide-open land, freely available for westwardly-expanding, mainly white people to use as they pleased.”
LoPresti grew up in eastern Washington State, where he developed an early respect for massive, barren lands and their awe-inspiring scale and power.
“I like the fact that it can look bleak. If you actually sit down and watch you’ll see all sorts of things going on,” he explains.
In some ways, the desert acts as a foil to the nuclear; the raw naturalism of the terrain emphasizes the artificiality of the man-made weapons. Yet these subjects also share certain similarities — they’ve both become overlooked aspects of the American cultural and physical landscape.
But just as LoPresti critiques the oversimplification of the nuclear narrative, so does he counter stereotypes of the desert, so often misunderstood to be empty and lifeless. By contrast, LoPresti’s pieces celebrate the unique desert landscapes of California and New Mexico, accentuating their ecological diversity with vibrant detail and color — LoPresti’s not-so-secret fascination.
Several of the paintings feature rectangles of color which break up the otherwise naturalistic scene which LoPresti calls “color chips” — a device he’s experimented with in previous exhibitions.
“I like seeing disrupted imagery where it’s clear it’s been mediated, annotated, marked up and commented on,” he admits.
And, if commenting and annotating reminds you of social media, you’re on the right track. LoPresti believes that learning the story of nuclear weapons can provide a useful blueprint for other negotiations with technology, warfare and the environment on a mass scale — from Instagram and Twitter to global warming and cyber attacks.
“If you’re interested in how technology is changing your life personally, then understanding the story of nuclear weapons is very important,” he says. “[Nuclear weapons] are somewhat of a template for all other stories about technology. They’re templates for how we, as a society, as a culture respond. I don’t think we have a full grip on what these weapons mean for us as Americans and people on Earth.”
LoPresti believes a critical understanding of these weapons is our best chance at a safer future while these weapons exist.
“I would be happy in a world without nuclear weapons,” the painter adds. “But given that they seem like they’re sticking around, we should understand them and take a closer look.”