“The Invisible Obvious,” 2021. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Ray Carofano

This Changes Everything: A Conversation with Blue McRight

For Blue McRight, making art involves immersion in science and natural history; her inspirations range from arcane botanical illustrations to her personal experience as a scuba diver. Drawing from diverse sources, she has skillfully assimilated an amalgam of visual, cultural, and scientific ideas. Based on the architecture of natural forms, McRight’s abstract imagery is informed by the specificity of real things, combined with a deep concern for the fate of the environment. Her objects are at once familiar and deeply strange—at first glance, they seem directly derived from nature, and then not. The materials differ from what they imply, and any initial realism falls away in the oddity of how they are assembled, added to, and displayed. These impure objects are seemingly one thing, but materially and subjectively, they are completely different and alien—emblems of the Anthropocene.

Awkward and unnatural presences, they seem pre-scientific, deeply coded with aesthetic and metaphysical content. Aside from the humor built into the details—the implications of sexuality, the play with revealing and concealing—there is an undertone of grief for what has been lost. Simultaneously a celebration of the natural world and an elegy for it, McRight’s work stands in as a marker of those losses, illuminated by a beauty that also bears an aura of hope.

Lure, 2020. Salvaged metal bait cages, curtain rings, and lead weight, nylon nets, and thread, 19 x 4 in. diameter. Photo: Ray Carofano

Kay Whitney: I’ve been familiar with your work for about 10 years, and I’ve been struck by a consistent conceptual through-line that binds everything together. Your work evokes the natural and the domestic, the ocean and drought-ridden California. How did you come to be interested in issues related to the environment and water?
Blue McRight: My interest in water as subject matter began in 1979, when I was working as a wilderness guide in the mountains of New Mexico. You could drink the water then, from any stream or lake. Seemingly overnight, that came to an end—the water was polluted forever. Later, when I moved to Los Angeles, I saw Caltrans painting dead grass green because of a drought (one of many). The incongruity of that action sparked my interest in the lawn as a site of environmental conflict and economic disparity. For years, I addressed these issues in various sculptures and installations that used many kinds of found objects and materials related to water, drought, and systems of water distribution. The found objects included real and artificial grass, grass paint, recycled containers, vintage canteens, lawn ornaments, used books, and hand water pumps.

During this period, I learned to scuba dive. Literally being immersed in my subject gave it a whole new meaning and dimension. Over time, what I witnessed in the underwater wildernesses of the world has infused my being and shaped my artistic practice. I have developed a visual and metaphoric language in response to what I’ve seen and learned.

When I first traveled to Indonesia for a dive trip in 2012, we visited an extremely remote and pristine area. During 10 days of sailing, we saw no evidence of human impact save for a few tiny villages. Seven years later, we visited the same area, and I was shocked and saddened to see how much plastic trash was in the water, in places where there was no habitation for miles around. When I returned to the United States, I began to volunteer at beach cleanups and thought about how to use plastic trash as a material for sculpture. I started to collect discarded plastic straws, nets, and lids.

Installation view of “Quench” at Samuel Freeman (now Iris Project), 2013. Photo: Samuel Freeman

KW: How did you express these experiences in your work?
BMcR: In 2012, I presented the exhibition “Quench” at Samuel Freeman gallery (now Iris Project) in Los Angeles. Using found objects such as vintage sprinklers and nozzles, garden hoses, lawn ornaments, dead tree branches, and a cast iron hand pump, “Quench” featured more than 50 sculptures wrapped in black elastic bandages secured with intricate networks of thread. They were connected to each other and to the walls by black garden hoses snaking across the gallery in a kind of three-dimensional drawing.

These peculiar hybrid sculptures—part creature, part hardware—were dark and solid. The density of “Quench” then led to an exploration of transparency; I unmoored the networks of thread forming the elaborate surfaces of the sculptures from the objects. Instead of closely sewing and weaving a web around a solid object, I let the nets—nylon, jute, waxed cord, rope—take their own shapes, holding nothing but air. I began using canteen slings, tarred rope cages that formerly contained glass fishing floats, plastic mesh bags for produce, and other found nets related to water to form armatures hosting diverse colonies of knots, lines, rings, loops, lumps, and growths.

This exploration became the “Undescribed Variations” series, which continued the small scale of the “Quench” sculptures, but used the surface of the wall as an element of each work, suspended inches away on a thin rod, casting networks of shadows. Nets allude to formal and narrative relationships, to transparency, volume, and negative space. Loss, capture, and longing. Weight and weightlessness. The “Undescribed Variations” seem creature-like but are totally abstract. The series is a prelude to my current body of work, which continues to speak to water issues but has an increased focus on the ocean. The title “Undescribed Variations” refers to a term used in marine life taxonomy to classify what has been observed but not yet named. I learned about this after becoming a scuba diver in 2003, and later a citizen scientist conducting underwater fish surveys for REEF. Consistent exposure to the underwater wilderness began to permeate my visual art practice. The more I learned about and witnessed the organic processes of life, death, sexuality, reproductive behaviors, and gender fluidity in marine creatures, the more inspired I became.

Installation view of “Undescribed Variations” at Roberts Projects, 2018. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Brian Moss

KW: In one sense, you’re very much a studio artist. You make your work alone, and it’s the culmination of a number of issues, including the climate crisis, that are important to you. But there’s another aspect of your work that goes out into the greater world and intersects with a concerned community for which your work is both artwork and informational tool. Do you consider yourself an activist?
BMcR: I do, and I don’t. The beach cleanups have been my main form of activism, other than writing letters and voting. I don’t typically do social practice projects, but in 2019, when I was working on ideas about ocean plastic pollution, a curator saw my work and thought the ideas were compelling. She felt I had something valuable to share in terms of making art with community members who don’t ordinarily have an opportunity to make artwork. She meshed me in with several projects she had organized at Angels Gate, a community art center in San Pedro, right by Los Angeles’s Harbor. I did some research and learned that sea level rise at the harbor was eventually going to be 72 inches. I decided that my project, Fathom, would address sea level rise and plastic pollution because those were things I was already thinking about. I was working on “Undescribed Variations” and thought I could easily transition something like those pieces to the community setting. I wanted to have people make vertical hanging sculptures six feet—a fathom—tall. My studio work lent itself to this project since it’s easy to show people how to tie pieces of plastic together—you can’t make anything complicated in a two-hour workshop. 

I was already doing beach cleanups, so I got a lot of material from the Surfrider Foundation. The workshops created the opportunity for me to meet Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He had just come back from the Garbage Patch and had anchored in Long Beach. We hit it off, and he donated some of his famous trash for the project.

Fathom was a turning point in my practice. It renewed my dedication to the idea of using upcycled and salvaged materials in my work—it’s important to try to sequester at least a tiny part of the plastic waste stream into artwork. I have ideas that lend themselves to this kind of more public practice, but it’s not my primary focus—I’m too introverted, I like working in the studio, but as a lover of wilderness and a lover of the ocean, I can’t stay on the sidelines. Someone said to me recently, “You know, this is so overwhelming, the news is so bad. What are we supposed to do?” And I said, “Make art and try to spread some mindfulness around the issue.” If that’s artist activism, then I’m an activist.

Fathom, 2018. Mixed media, including salvaged ocean plastic objects, lids, nets, and rope, dimensions variable. Photo: Cecilia Koger

KW: You told me that you were struck by a line from the introduction to Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993). Hickey says that his essays were “largely driven by the antic engine of curiosity.” Why do you identify with this notion?
BMcR: I’ve always been a very curious person. I read widely on a range of topics, I look widely and experience widely because I’m curious about everything. This curiosity can be very impulsive, leading down rabbit holes that don’t go anywhere. Overall, though, it’s led me to all kinds of richness in my life and my work. Hickey describing his writing as being driven by an “antic engine” is priceless. It implies something not random but playful and spontaneous in the action of curiosity. An engine is something that drives you, you’re having an impulse and following it, taking action to explore what it is that has sparked and resonated with you. Curious is what I am, how I make my work—it’s both spontaneous and deliberate. I’ll read something and think, “Oh, I want to know more about that.” I allow myself to follow my curiosity, to be driven by this “antic engine.” It’s what makes me who I am, enables me to bring influences into my work that are far outside the norm of traditional art-making.

KW: Did you read Four Essays on Beauty because you are interested in beauty? Is it a concern in your work?
BMcR: Beauty plays a role in my work as a way of empowering it. I have been doing a lot of reading about it: The Heyday of Natural History by Lynn Barber (1980), which talks about 19th-century conceptions of nature and culture; Hickey’s Four Essays, which comes at the idea from a completely different perspective; Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us (2017). Beauty has the edge of ugliness in it—that’s why I’m so interested in beauty in nature. Seduction enables female empowerment—it relates to sexual selection, Darwin’s corollary theory to natural selection. This is still controversial because of the way it brings up the female role. What was horrifying to the Victorians, and still is for some, is the idea that female aesthetic preferences and female sexual desire, independent of male coercion or adaptation to the environment, drive the process of mate choice by creating and shaping the incredibly varied and extravagant forms of ornament and sexual display seen in nature, directing the evolutionary future of a species. In Darwin’s corollary, females make the decisions about what is attractive to them and then choose who will be their sexual partner. The idea that the development of natural beauty comes down to female agency across all species, including humans, resonates with me.

I Do it By Myself (detail), 2021. Nylon nets, cotton socks, used plastic bags and bubble wrap, and thread, 36 x 7.5 in. diameter. Photo: Alan Shaffer

KW: What are you currently working on?
BMcR: I’m using salvaged and found objects, such as rope, fishing nets, fish and crab traps, bait baskets, and other instruments of death, as well as plastic trash, as both subject and material. My palette has expanded from the earth tones, whites, and blacks of “Undescribed Variations” to include red and blue—the colors of internal organs. These pieces have also become much larger. Far taller than a person, they have come away from the walls and are suspended from the ceiling in groups. I want to immerse viewers in the installation, to surround, seduce, and engage.

Diving has provided me with a rich trove of imagery and knowledge from which to create a visual and metaphoric language. Works such as I Do it By Myself (2021) embody ideas about self-fertilization and sexual ambiguity. Strobila (2020) is reminiscent of a particular phase of jellyfish development. My current body of work, “The Invisible Obvious” (2020–present), refers to what is right in front of us, but not seen. Whether it is the hidden, mysterious underwater realm itself or the urgent problem of ocean microplastics, “The Invisible Obvious” speaks to the sea. Remembering the large, elaborate bamboo fish traps I’ve seen underwater, I began to acquire salvaged metal bait baskets, fish and crab traps, and commercial fishing nets. Though porous, they carry the weight of phantoms. They speak to life and death, capture and escape. They enable my formal and narrative exploration of transparency, weight, and weightlessness, color, texture, and volume. As in “Undescribed Variations,” these fraught objects form the scaffolding of the sculptures in “The Invisible Obvious.”

This series is fabricated almost exclusively of salvaged and upcycled materials. Aqua Culture (2021) is a hybrid of cast net and landing net, both captive and capturer, its rips, tears, and sutures held in tension and balanced by a counterweight of old plastic net floats. We Were Here, and We Were Never Here (2020), Sea Stack (Red Spine) (2021), and Bait Purse (2020) consist of found plastic straws or nets, used metal bait baskets, and thread. They embody the paradoxical condition of being present and absent simultaneously. Creatures actually lived and died in these pieces—they were here. Ghost Net and Fool’s Gold (2020) and After the Gold Rush (2021) incorporate discarded commercial fishing net studded with tarnished plastic beads from a broken necklace, nylon nets, used mesh bags for Christmas trees and Hanukkah gelt, and parts of a salvaged crab trap and landing net.

This Changes Everything, 2020–ongoing. Salvaged plastic straws and thread, 109 x 125 x 1 in. Photo: Ray Carofano

My mind is in the gutter, constantly looking for plastic straws in the street and on the beach. Along highways and at gas stations, I gather this fallen fruit from the filthy orchard of our consumer culture. I insist that plastic trash can be beautiful as material for artwork, forcing us to confront the possibilities of what we thoughtlessly discard, giving agency to the rejected as it assumes space in the realm of cultural dialogue, alluding to what is overlooked and wasted.

The title of the largest piece in this body of work, This Changes Everything, refers not only to those times in my past when I experienced something that was irrevocably transformed, but also to the present-day catastrophe of microplastics that are now everywhere. It consists of thousands of used, clear plastic straws that I have tied together with red thread in an organic grid. The red threads coursing through and between the straws suggest the circulation of blood. I envision the sculpture as a huge wall piece that dwarfs the viewer. It speaks to the fact that nanoplastics have the ability to—and indeed are—crossing the blood-brain barrier in all living creatures. They affect cognition. They are making us dumber and dumber with every sip of water, every breath we take. This changes everything.