Merion Estes’ “Lost Horizons” at CB1 Gallery
by Lorraine Heitzman
On view through February 19th
Merion Estes’ imaginary landscapes currently on view at CB1 Gallery conjure up scenes of fantastical terrains and seascapes altered by the artist’s hand and threatened by human intervention. The visual and psychological dualities she employs bring a menacing dimension to the work not immediately apparent in the face of her colorful, decorative sensibilities, but past the surfaces of her dense patterning are mountains thrust into contorted shapes, planets suspended under ominous red skies and sea urchins crouched beneath turbulent oceans. Her high key colors and gestural marks often obscure the otherwise genteel landscapes. Is that an explosive spark of creation or the combustible end to life?
The twelve works shown here were inspired by the title of the classic 1937 Hollywood movie, Lost Horizon, Frank Capra’s quirky paean to utopia made on the verge of World War II. When Estes created this series, between 2007 and 2011, the world was facing other threats; terrorism and global warming were increasing and gaining a foothold in our imaginations. Estes focuses her eye on the vulnerabilities of our own Shangri-La and suggests that although we create our utopian visions, we are capable of destroying them too. However dark these thoughts are, it must be said that this series is an energetic, poetic expression of mystery and obliteration, not a somber warning. This is especially true of her painting, Cooling Trend, a bombastic piece confronting the issue of climate change.
Perhaps Estes’ greatest strength is her ability to seamlessly integrate opposing things. The works on paper that constitute Lost Horizons are wonderfully contrary; they are delicate and subtle as well as bold and occasionally brash. Her color-saturated palette is contemporary but also references muted Japanese prints and antique scrolls. Estes delights in juxtaposing cool and warm colors and uses marbleized paper for both its linear qualities and organic shapes. But in the end all the materials merge down in service to her singular vision, to appreciate our wondrous natural world.
In this spirit, Estes’ work is reminiscent of the invented landscapes by Joseph Yoakum, an outsider artist discovered in Chicago and embraced by the Hairy Who. Yoakum used ballpoint pen and watercolors to draw and paint loopy vistas from his imagination with the same abandon that Estes brings to her work. Both create places they have never been to, but where Yoakum’s timeless landscapes are fanciful and idealized, Estes instead gives us a cautionary tale and shows us what we may lose.
Merion Estes has been creating art in Los Angeles for over four decades and has been teaching for the last fourteen years. She represents the hard earned longevity that women artists strive for every day against many odds. With stellar shows like Lost Horizons, one hopes that she receives the recognition she deserves and that her work continues to flourish. That would be a utopia we could all embrace.