Postcards depict Pacific garbage island

Gianna Tansman/Staff

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In the North Pacific waters between the coasts of San Francisco and Hawaii, there is a massive vortex of swirling trash, a giant island of plastic. Ocean currents trap years of pollution into these trash formations, which occur throughout our oceans. When a massive tsunami rocked Pacific waters in 2011, it sent trash migrating across the ocean in all directions.

Walking along Ocean Beach in San Francisco, one might very possibly find a Chinese Cheetos wrapper, a Chang beer bottle or a McDonald’s bag with Korean writing washed up in the sand. These universally recognized consumer goods contribute to trash islands, which are far enough from any coast that no country will claim responsibility. Such criticisms about pollution and consumerism in the context of international relations serve as the launching point for Lordy Rodriguez in his newest show at Oakland’s Pro Arts.

The artist, who was born in Quezon City, Philippines and raised in Louisiana and Texas, worked with curator Eric Murphy to create his contribution to Pro Arts’ 2 X 2 Solos, a series of solo exhibitions featuring commissions from emerging and innovative Bay Area artists. The gallery selected Rodriguez and three other artists from a pool of more than 100 nominations by art professionals in the Bay Area.

Upon first entering the gallery, one might have a similar experience to that beach-goer in San Francisco as one discovers consumer products hung on the walls and displayed atop ledges. Closer observation reveals Thai, Chinese, Korean and Japanese writing scribbled across all-too-familiar logos. “If we see the [yellow] arches, we don’t need to be able to read the Chinese writing,” Rodriguez explained at the opening Friday evening, which coincided with this month’s Art Murmur. “We know it’s McDonald’s.”

The exotic trash, some of which he actually acquired from overseas, is, in reality, not so exotic at all. This commonality of visual languages is at the core of all of Rodriguez’s work. “The first visual language that I appropriated was the map,” he said as he gestured toward the painted postcards, tacked on the walls of the exhibition space. Hand-drawn with graphic markers but made to look computer-generated, the series, “Postcards 3/11,” (a reference to the tsunami) are meant to depict various Pacific trash islands.

The amorphous quality of these islands brings to light the constant evolution of maps “from the hand-drawn map to the printed AAA map” and now “to the next step of going digital and totally ephemeral.” Rodriguez’s postcards capture the constant changeability of modern maps as well as of these formations of moving garbage. Even the act of sending a postcard itself has become completely antiquated as we move on to email, Facebook and other immediate means of communication.

Rodriguez’s comments on communication trickle down to choices he made in designing the postcards. The vivid colors, sharp lines and almost cartoon-like patterns which fill the cards’ lands and waters have a universally appealing aesthetic to them. Designers of consumer products similarly aim to capture a worldwide aesthetic.

The Asian letters and characters, which are also layered upon the maps form yet another visual language. Their shapes, so foreign from Roman letters, “become just as important as the colors and the patterns in the products.”

As he spoke, Rodriguez often alluded to the close relationship between visual languages and ecological criticisms, as though the two were intimately bound. “It’s almost inherent in the language,” he says. “Art historical events, fundamentally, are about these visual languages. [They] act as a vehicle to start making comments or criticisms about things like the environment.”

In this show, Rodriguez spotlights objects that combine foreign languages with collectively recognizable images in the form of consumer items. He calls attention to problems with pollution especially following natural disasters. He also materializes trash islands, making what are most often invisible to the world completely real, comprehensible and concrete.

Anna Carey is the lead visual arts critic. Contact Anna at [email protected]