Critical Regionalism

Spaces. “…In A Most Dangerous Manner”. Curated by Steven Lam and Sarah Ross. Clevland, OH. January 29 – March 26 2009.

Text by Yates McKee, from the exhibition catalog

“This micro-exhibition by the Ohio University School of Art Critical Regionalism Initiative (CRI) presents a dynamic cross-section of ongoing artistic research concerning the entanglement of physical landscapes, ecological systems, and socioeconomic histories in Appalachian Ohio, with special emphasis on the past, present, and future of coal and the political conflicts surrounding it at local, national, and planetary scales. Encompassing a wide range of methodological approaches, formal techniques, and art-historical legacies including the diagrammatic, the archival, the documentary, the indexical, the monochromatic, and the picturesque, Research Sites aims to explore the status of regionalism as a conceptual horizon for practices involved with the emergent “geographical impulse” in contemporary art.[1] Rather than claim to present a definitive portrait of Appalachian Ohio from which an essential “regional aesthetic” might then be distilled, Research Sites is an avowedly provisional, incomplete, and at times contradictory series of site-specific inquiries whose combined effect is to put into question the boundaries and identity of the very region from which they take their inspiration. Rather than a negation of regional specificity, however, this questioning is motivated by a concern to simultaneously intensify our sense of specific sites and histories while placing them in relation to expanded scales, narratives, and networks of economic, political, and artistic activity. Among other things, the expanded field of research engaged by the CRI encompasses the ever-intensifying emergency of planetary climate change, a politico-ecological crisis within which the Appalachian region in general has long been involved due to its central place in both the production and usage of coal as an energy-source.

[…] While coal extraction remains a major economic factor in greater Appalachia, the industry has suffered a decline in southeastern Ohio over the past half decade. However, the legacies of coal continue to mark the micro-region within which Ohio University is located, and the state of Ohio more generally in a number of ways, connecting them to broader politico-ecological processes and conflicts that exceed the ideal of a “bounded place-form” invoked by Frampton. Exemplary in this regard for the purposes of Research Sites is the phenomenon of acid mine drainage, which provides the basis for the conspicuous monochromatic ambience of the current exhibition. Without the pumping equipment used during the working life of a mine, abandoned coal shafts inevitably become flooded, providing an ideal environment for colonies of bacteria than feed upon the sulfur contained in coal. This bacterial activity catalyses the erosion of mine-walls, releasing the elements–especially iron and sulfur–otherwise stored in the surrounding coal-soil into the accumulated water. When oxidized in water, these byproducts of bacterially-induced erosion combine to create the highly acidic residue that then spills out into surrounding watersheds, destroying their capacity to support plant and animal life and staining the river-bed with a distinctive ochre sediment.

Working with activists from the local nongovernmental organization Sunday Creek Watershed Group and OU environmental engineer Guy Reifler, the artist Matthew Friday has used this mine drainage residue to develop the signature regional paint that covers the gallery walls of Research Sites. As elegantly charted in the eco-conceptual network-diagrams he has realized in collaboration the Spurse group, Friday draws on Bruno Latour’s challenge to engage the undecideable interactions between “chemical reactions and political reactions,” non-human actors and human actors, geological histories and socioeconomic histories.[2] Yet Fridays project also speaks to the major art-historical problem of monochromatic abstraction and the perennial question of how such a mode of painting could be justified once figurative representation was no longer a horizon of the medium.

While Friday is in dialogue with all of this contested legacy, his painterly experiment with acid mine residue is unique in that it treats color as a mnemonic index of a micro-scale ecological crisis. In other words, the painted surface of the wall is not composed to figuratively “represent” a specific site or history, but bears witness to both in its very materiality. In drawing on what Frampton would call the “universal technique” of the monochrome, Friday thus both addresses and displaces and the specificity of local sites such as the Sunday Creek watershed, releasing them from their enclosure in a “bounded place” into a broader network of both art-historical discourse and politico-ecological concern. “



Matthew Friday’s graduate  Interdisciplinary Seminar students:
Heidi Bender, Greggory Boutelle, Bryce Brisco, Tiffany Carbonneau, Meredith Carr, Jeremy Cody, Mark Cole, Virgina Graham, April Felipe, Robert Hawikins, Yurika, Hirata, Nathan Lareau, Yuanyuan Li, Carrie Lingscheit, Dominic Lippillo, Benjamin Stout, Jeff Lovett, Alberto Torress Cerrato, Leigh Wetterau, Jason, Nein, Elizabeth Dobson, Caitlin Nolan, Patrick O’Connor, Fran Oriti, John Sanders, Dawn Stechschulte, Natalie Tornatore, Danielle Wyckoff.

Ohio University faculty and staff:
Yates McKee, Dr. Guy Riefler, Dr. Jennie Klein, Dr. Bernhard Debatin, Sonia Marcus, Dr. Judith Grant, Dr. Margaret Pearce, Dr. Mary Finney, Dr. Harold Perkins, Dr. Geoffrey Buckley, Dr. Katherine Milton, Nathan Berger, Dr. Royal Mapes, Dr. Gene Mapes,

Generous financial and technical support was provided by:

  • Arts for Ohio
  • Aesthetic Technologies Laboratory of Ohio University


[1] See Nato Thompson, ed. Experimental Geography (2008) and Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat, eds. Radical Cartography (2006).

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1989), 1.