Life in an Age of Toxics Seen in O.C. Show : Sculpture: In creating ‘The Smog Collector,’ Kim Abeles says, ‘Sometimes I feel like Chicken Little. But the sky really is falling!’


A photo from a book that her mother kept on the coffee table still stands out in Kim Abeles’ mind. It shows Pittsburgh at about 2 in the afternoon. All the lights are on in the polluted city; filth and soot have turned daylight dark.

“I must have looked at that picture a thousand times,” said the artist, who lived in Pittsburgh as a child. She was discussing the roots of her latest project, “The Smog Collector,” a witty, ironic and idea-oriented installation that she sees as a personal attempt to bring “some order to the chaos” of life in the toxic age of smog alerts and global warming.

“Sometimes I feel like Chicken Little,” said Abeles, who makes assemblage art and sculpture. “But the sky really is falling! The world can’t heal itself, you know.”

Abeles discussed “The Smog Collector” a few hours before she completed the multiroom installation at Laguna Art Museum’s South Coast Plaza satellite, where it will go on view today and remain through April 21.

Central to the work is a dinner table, cheerily set with supper for two, in a room with a baby’s highchair, also bearing utensils and things to eat. Pictures adorn the optimistic, sky-blue walls, a TV is in the corner and a curtained window looks out beyond this happy home.


But--as with the day-for-night photo of Pittsburgh--what you see is not necessarily what you get.

The table’s legs are actually made of painted car mufflers, and the items of “food"--which appear to be etchings on the table’s glass surface--actually are one-dimensional images made with toxic elements trapped with smog-collecting stencils that the artist placed on her downtown Los Angeles roof.

“I make a stencil of an image, like a plate of food, and place it on the roof” for seven to 40 days, Abeles said. “Then I really let the environment do what it’s going to do.”

The resulting depictions of spaghetti, garlic bread and green beans composed of gritty granules of “diesel, fallout from factories nearby, common dirt” and other pollutants “materialize a concept,” Abeles said, to make immediate and tangible a horrible reality that many do not fully grasp or tend to ignore or deny.

“It’s really pulling something from the air, trying to take something that seems invisible and (showing) it to somebody, so they have some sort of comprehension of that thing that they can’t see.

“It isn’t that anyone doesn’t know that there’s smog. But there’s something about seeing it so isolated in an image that transforms it. People think (smog is) over there somewhere, that they’re not breathing it.”

Abeles, who addressed acquired immune deficiency syndrome in an earlier installation, said she wants to goad viewers into action. Other smog-produced images include a human skull and internal organs and a picture of beautiful, dark-green pine trees covered with a thin veil of stencil-collected grime.

“If people realized what was in the air, I’m sure they would start to call their congressmen. Ninety-five percent of the pollution today is preventable with the technology we hold.”

She admitted that she sometimes comes “dangerously close” to preaching, but she said she is wary of heavy-handedness and worked to imbue this piece with some wit and humor--and a magical quality.

For instance, the ethereal dinner table chairs, made of “smoggy” brown transparent chiffon, “float” inches above the floor, suspended from the ceiling with clear monofilament.

“One thing I found with the AIDS work,” she said, “is that if people get really depressed with shows like this, they just want to leave as fast as they can. People don’t want to hear about this.”

Born in Missouri, Abeles, 38, received her master’s degree in fine art from UC Irvine in 1980. There, in connection with her thesis on Shingon Buddhism, she created constructions incorporating kimonos, popular works that gained her some renown.

More recently, she has made installations that embody a wide range of ideas and concepts, from the way secondhand information becomes popular lore, to the myths that enshroud cultural icons, to the complex movements of the sun and moon.

She said she spent several months “collecting” smog with her stencils and collecting other found objects, as she has for previous projects addressing the environment. She said that once, intent on getting a relatively smog-free photograph of the San Gabriel Mountains, she made a straight, 16.5-mile trek north from downtown Los Angeles to the base of the mountain range, cutting through people’s homes and back yards.

“The Smog Collector,” which Abeles described as both a science project and metaphor, evolved after a fruitless, frustrating year spent trying to get the South Coast Air Quality Management District to do something about a factory near her downtown home that was, she said, “spewing formaldehyde” into the atmosphere.

“There’s no way through the red tape,” she said. “I didn’t get anywhere, so on a personal level, I needed a way to . . . well, I’ve been using the word retaliate, . . . sort of deal with the issue and at least pretend I was giving some order to the chaos.”

“The Smog Collector,” an installation by Kim Abeles, goes on view today and continues through April 21 at the Laguna Art Museum’s satellite at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Admission: free. Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information: (714) 494-8971. Abeles’ work will also be shown in “System/Situation: The Narrative in Kinetic Sculpture” at Fullerton’s Muckenthaler Cultural Center from Jan. 19 through March 3. Information: (714) 738-6595.