'Ecotoons': laughing through the tears

November 17, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In Canadian Adrian Raeside's cartoon, two men sit by a lake, gazing at the bucolic scene of water and woods. One speaks:

"What a beautiful spot . . . the cry of the loon . . . the stillness of the lake . . . the scent of the pine trees . . . a truly pristine wilderness . . . let's develop it." In a way it's funny, but you can't laugh because it's so true and so terrible. We're destroying our world and it doesn't look like we're going to stop.

In recent years, the ecology has taken a place right up there with politics as a subject for cartoonists. "Ecotoon: Our Endangered Planet," now at Towson State University, brings together about 100 cartoons by artists from around the world, each addressing the subject. This show has an impressive history: It played at the Citizen's Summit on the Environment in Moscow in 1989 and the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and is now on an international tour.

Cartoons are a form of humor, but if you're expecting a barrel of chuckles from this show, think again. A somber mood and a stark look characterize most of these works. That's in part because of the seriousness of the theme, but it also may have to do with the fact there's no single, recognizable villain to blame.

It's possible to be pointed about an issue, and amusing at the same time, by poking fun at an individual. It's harder to be funny about a faceless problem that's so big and multifaceted that, apparently, nothing much can be done about it.

In these cartoons, fields of tree stumps signify the deforestation of he planet; oil slicks covering the seas, or even the world, and factories belching smoke denote the terrible problems of pollution. But who's going to stop the cutting down of trees or the shipping of oil? Who's going to shut down the factories?

To take on so enormous an issue is, in a way, as futile as Don Quixote attacking a windmill. It's not surprising, therefore, that the image of Don Quixote occurred to two cartoonists, Koraksic Predrag of Yugoslavia (he's attacking a nuclear plant) and Gussein Magomaev of Russia (he's attacking smokestacks).

But why include both, when surely an equally compelling but different cartoon could have been used to represent one or the other? Why also use two images of a tree tied to a smokestack (by Diego Herrera of Canada and Anatoly Stankulov of Bulgaria)? Some overlap is inevitable when there are 100 works on the same general subject, but in these cases the similarity is so great that it looks like the artists were copying one another, which surely they weren't.

But that's a minor complaint about a show that is as effective as the ineffectiveness it depicts. It's effective in depressing the viewer by stressing the gloomy outlook and how insignificant our efforts are. In the cartoon by Signe Wilkinson of the United States, a platoon of cars comes at the viewer, every one of them spewing pollution into the air and every one of them bearing a bumper sticker that says "I Attended Earth Day."

In the cartoon by Derambakhsh Kambiz of Switzerland, a man has invited another into an alley and opened his coat to show what he has for sale.

It's not watches.

It's not feelthy peectures.

It's a flower.


What: "Ecotoon: Our Endangered Planet"

Where: Holtzman Gallery, Fine Arts Building, Osler Drive, Towson State University

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Dec. 1 (closed Nov. 24-27)

Call: (410) 830-2808

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