Review: As drought deepens, nine L.A. artists think about water

The small, nondescript mural at the entrance to Confluence, a modest but timely track 16 exhibit on water issues related to the Los Angeles River, is emblematic of what follows.

For LA River Paper, artist Emma Robbins collected small fragments of matted seaweed, leaves and bird material from the water, then sewed the fuzzy pieces together with reddish thread into an irregularly shaped sheet. It is handmade paper that merges natural formation and artistic intervention – in other words, a confluence. The word describes both the general process of the coming together of separate things and – in particular – the specific connection of two rivers.

What is the other river running through Robbins’ LA River Paper? A captivating video by AnMarie Mendoza proposes a provocative response: a river of humanity.

Stitched clumps of seaweed, leaves and bird material.

Emma Robbins, LA River Paper, 2018; Algae, leaves, bird material, thread

(Sean Meredith / Track 16)

“The Aqueduct Between Us,” a 39-minute oral history, features water images around the city, including natural streams; the concrete flood control channel leading from the San Fernando Valley to the sea; the elegant fountains in front of the elegant Department of Water and Power building, the 1965 downtown landmark designed by AC Martin and Associates in international corporate style and at the top of any list of great modern architecture; and parts of the centuries-old engineering marvel, the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Sewn together, they form the fluid basis of human existence in the city.

And, not by the way, for the slow ruin.

Almost the entire state of California is now classified as experiencing severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, the three worst levels recorded by the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center. We are not just in a drought, we are in a mega drought.

Water images in the video are interspersed with short, concise interviews with numerous indigenous people, mainly Tongva and Paiute. “Water is life,” they repeat—a simple, immortal refrain that echoes against Southern California’s more than two-decade drought that is steadily turning into an epic catastrophe. In Mendoza’s wonderfully succinct video (also available on YouTube), the near invisibility of today’s indigenous people in a place where genocide began more than 175 years ago, merges with the typical inconspicuousness of critical water issues from the everyday consciousness of city dwellers.

Confluence was cleverly organized by artist Debra Scacco, whose contribution is an ink and water drawing. Its abstract, marbled linearity is composed of an interaction with the wind, which moves the liquid materials on the sheet until they dry. Like Robbins paper, it is one of several works that refer to related actions between artist and natural forces.

Installation view of photographs, video and a hanging sculpture.

Installation view of Confluence featuring water-related work by Lane Barden, AnMarie Mendoza and Blue McRight

(Sean Meredith / Track 16)

Lauren Bon takes a not dissimilar approach in a composition consisting of a puddle of evaporated rainwater on a black foil. The whitish residue leaves a mottled impression. Circular and spotted markers are reminiscent of a sky map – roughly speaking, where the rain came from.

Bridget DeLee’s “InBetween” also crosses territory. Suspended horizontally from the ceiling, the base of a palm leaf (called a crownshaft) is pierced by long braids of black synthetic hair held in place by wooden pony beads. The fashionable strands hold a second leaf hanging under the first one and then fall through it to the ground. The leaves and braids form a hybrid of crowns, one naturally occurring and the other culturally created.

Kori Newkirk, one of two men among the show’s nine performers, soaked superabsorbent polymer beads, which are used in vases to keep floral arrangements from wilting, in river water and then spread them in a thin layer on a clear vinyl sheet spread out on the Floor. The moisture slowly evaporates from the beads as the show goes on, leaving intertwined pieces of sediment that shift—a Pollock drip painting from the river, so to speak.

In Newkirk’s floor work, color appears to have leached out of the polymer beads as they dry. Elsewhere, a general absence of color characterizes these works, which rely on neutral tones. Absence is itself a holdover, the remnant of an established tradition that has set aside the irrational delights of color to signal seriousness in art since conceptualism rose to prominence in the 1970s.

Fragments of color appear entangled in the materials of Blue McRights’s “Night Dive,” a suspended assemblage of ropes, pulleys, a chunky metal hook, and mismatched plastic nets and hair ties woven into decorative layers. It’s like sculptural salvage after being dragged through a mud of sea debris – festive streamers salvaged from debris.

A hanging sculpture made from palm leaves, synthetic hair and wooden beads.

Bridget DeLee, “InBetween,” 2021; Palm crown shaft, synthetic hair, wooden beads

(Sean Meredith / Track 16)

And color, of course, is an integral part of Lane Barden’s mesmerizing grids of aerial documentary footage that appear as if they were taken by a drone. Beginning with a bright green athletic field in the San Fernando Valley at top left, his pair of grids follows frame by frame the embattled urban path of the embattled river through four dozen aerial images, eventually ending in the sky-blue Pacific Ocean below on the right.

The main exception, however, is Alicia Piller’s enchanting “Extinctions,” a sculpture whose palette of red, white, and blue is clearly not random. The central element is a toy-like wooden gun that is stuck upright through a shark’s gaping skeletal jaw. Layered strips of vinyl and leather drape from the top, which is roughly the height of a person standing, and cluster into turbulent whorls around the floor. Dotted with human teeth and deflated balloons, the textiles are embalmed in clear, glittery resin that holds everything in place.

Piller works with material accumulations of the discarded, and her composition oscillates between the microscopic and macroscopic in a way loosely reminiscent of Elliott Hundley’s work. The rifle, pointedly described in the object’s material list as being of colonial style, evokes the genocide of the Native Americans; The shark’s jaws are ricocheting off the ongoing annihilation of the oceans, with more than a quarter of these fish currently at risk of extinction, according to the World Wildlife Fund. As Los Angeles reels through its driest 23 years in 1,200 years, the sculpture is an unsettlingly festive maypole that’s simultaneously brutal and sad.

All is not lost. Putting the sculpture’s title “Extinctions” in the plural adds a queasy air of future continuity. As they say, the earth doesn’t care much about climate change as it will just shrug off humanity and continue on its way. Mega drought, dammit.

A work of art spread out on a floor using absorbent polymer, river water and vinyl.

Kori Newkirk, “DTR”, 2022, super absorbent polymer, river water, vinyl

(Sean Meredith / Track 16)


Where: Track 16, 1206 Maple Ave., No. 1005, Los Angeles, CA 90015
When: Wednesday to Saturday, 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and by appointment. Sunday – Tuesday closed.
The information: (310) 815-8080, track16.com

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-08-22/drought-artists-confluence-track16 Review: As drought deepens, nine L.A. artists think about water

Sarah Ridley

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