Review for The Nature of LA

Four southerners ponder the human condition.

By DeWitt Cheng

May 7, 2008

We Bay Area chauvinists occasionally feel the need to compare the Best Place on Earth to NYC or LA, nice places to visit, certainly, but somehow (sniff) unsuitable. There's finicky regional essentialism in our art world, too, painting LA as the Other: our shallow, giddy dark side, the antipodean land of the 101 and the 5. In reality, however, regional style in this digital age global art market is pretty much extinct; the art map for better or worse has no center(s). In The Nature of LA, Angelenos Samantha Fields, Portia Hein, Stas Orlovski, and Andre Yi examine our human condition, within and apart from nature, in universal, metaphorical terms, from their diffuse, suburban, austral megalopolis.

Fields' airbrushed acrylics of opulent but menacing skies derive from her adventures in Midwestern photographic storm-chasing. An ardent environmentalist, she sees her synthesized but convincing skyscapes — roiling, furrowed, knotted clouds set above shards of silhouetted terrain, or enveloping tiny airplanes or helicopters — as falling within the Hudson River School of moralized transcendentalist landscape, embodying messages for us latter-day materialists: awe at nature's might, and awfulness for what we have wrought and brought on ourselves. Hein's untitled oil and watercolors look at nature from an environmental angle as well (she cites John Muir as an influence), but, with their simplified drawing, reduced palette, use of collaged elements, and air of reconstruction based on memory, they're iconic, symbolic depictions of the landscape as a force for renewal and growth; her trees are vaguely anthropomorphic, and her rays of sunlight something more than just scenic optical effects; nature's our last best hope. Orlovski's mixed-media works draw on a wide range of imagery to explore the recontextualization of fragments; in "Sculpture with Butterflies," a pedestal holding a toppled marble woman's head stands amid shattered torsos and legs while butterflies, metaphors for metamorphosis, alight and flutter. Orlovski's recurring birds, moons, fragmented architecture, and scale disjunctures recall Cornell and Ernst, who also mined the past, respectively (but not respectfully), for poetic nostalgia and philosophical subversion. Yi draws the abandoned mining infrastructure of the American West — mines, sheds, etc. — in a style combining detailed Western realism with Eastern orthogonal perspective, infinite space (though here painted in muted neutrals), and swirling scroll-like forms suggestive of water, wind, dragons, and time's vicissitudes; eternity pervades temporality.

Through June 28 at Traywick Contemporary (895 Colusa Ave., Berkeley). or 510-527-1214.

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