When Claude Levi-Strauss fled Europe before World War II, he booked passage on the same ship as Bertrand Goldschmidt, a physicist who became one of the directors of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.  In May 1941, the great anthropologist had the principles of the atomic bomb explained to him and wrote in his diary:

The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe.  The first things we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown in the face of mankind.

In “The Atomic West,” Lynda Rockwood explores the ramifications of noxious by-products with a series of multiple-part sculptures.  Pieces made over the past three years have been presented in several group exhibitions, but only at Seattle Pacific has Rockwood been able to present several of the works together in a one-person show.  She took full advantage of the opportunity, repainting the gallery walls, sealing and waxing the concrete floor, and expertly lighting the individual objects to achieve a hermetic yet rigorous presentation of chemical metaphor.

Rockwood is especially interested in a scientific and sociological interface, creating a kind of laboratory sculpture.  With exquisite craft and obsessive attention to material, she creates a rigorous array of chemical paraphernalia and natural form.  Stainless steel shelves, cast iron clamps, and lead weights contrast the detached phenomena of the atomic industry with the secret life of rocks.

But “The Atomic West” is neither aloof nor impartial.  The beautiful work is full of sadness and warning, as Rockwood presents fossils and shells as indicator species for the long-term legacy of nuclear fission.  One segment of Duality, a multiple-part work, contrasts a small image of an atomic explosion with concentration camp inmates.  This comparison of two experiences of human suffering, held inches apart with specimen pincers, acts as the core of the installation, the problematic balancing of innocent lives.  Displayed near a sea urchin shell under magnifying lenses, it is clear that all species lose in this atomic equation.

Unfortunately, the didactic statement posted in the gallery detracts from the artist’s larger metaphors.  “The plumb bob represents the Hanford dichotomy,” Rockwood writes, reducing her mysterious, formal sculptures to signposts.  They are quite more.  Like Levi-Strauss, Rockwood eloquently speculates on the personal and environmental ramifications of political decision.  Whether the atomic west’s “noxious by-products” are nuclear or cultural remains to be seen.

Helen Lessick

Review.  The Atomic West Series, Reflex, December 1995