ONE WORK: Carlos Almaraz, Echo Park Lake, 1-4, 1982
On view at LACMA
by Betty Brown
(N.B.: This is the first in what I hope will be a series of essays focusing on a single artwork. It seems to me that one of the most important things art can do in our fast-paced, virtual/digital world is to force us to slow down and spend time looking. Hopefully, the One Work essays will effect an appreciation of the art that unfolds over time, as well as understanding that builds to broader insight.)
Carlos Almaraz (1941-1989) was working on Echo Park Lake in 1982 when I did the first of what has become a long series of visits to artist studios. To contextualize: I had moved to Los Angeles in 1978 as a traditional art historian specializing in Ancient Latin American art. An old friend who was working as the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle came into town and took me to the studio. Meeting Carlos turned me around; after that encounter, I found myself compelled to abandon historic art to write about Chicano artists and, eventually, contemporary artists of all races, genders, ages, media, and conceptual perspectives. Carlos and his paintings quite literally changed my life.
At that point in the early 1980s, Almaraz was working in an expansive studio in downtown LA. The four panels that were to become Echo Park Lake were elevated on large cans of house paint and leaned up against the concrete walls. The quadriptych exploded–as it still does–in vibrant color and almost frenetic energy. It was luscious, hypnotic, seductive. As I gazed at it, everything else fell away.
The four panels were sold to different collectors. The exhibition at LACMA marks the first time in 30 years that they’ve been together. And it may be the last… which is a shame because they are truly spectacular. The way they occupy the viewer’s visual field is stunning. From a distance, the images have a vibrant naturalism. But up close, the represented objects dissolve into loose, vigorous strokes of intense pigment.
Almaraz’s brushstrokes are so active and dynamic that they appear impulsive, as if created in an urgent rush. But slow looking allows the rhythmic dance of painted marks to emerge. Thick bars of impasto contrast with thin zigzagging lines, and calligraphic flourishes are anchored by parallel curves that spiral across the wind-tossed water’s surface. Flattened discs of water lilies, floating across the rippled lake, are outlined in burning orange. Being an art historian, I can’t write the words “water lilies” without thinking of the Impressionist Claude Monet. Indeed, Almaraz seems to be channeling the French master in certain painterly passages.
Slow looking also compels viewers to see Almaraz’s sophisticated and controlled use of color. Complementary juxtapositions abound: bright red palm trees standing in a dark green grove; orange waves over sky blue water; yellow arches behind a purple bridge. I remember that Monet said, “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” He added, “Try to forget what objects you have before you–a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, ‘Here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow,’ and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own impression of the scene before you.” I imagine Almaraz felt the same way.
Many of today’s prominent artists are applauded because of the concepts they present, rather than for the style or technique of their presentations. Carlos Almaraz spent the last decade or so of his much-too-short life grappling with the imagery of our city and allowing the way he painted to be as important as what he was depicting. Echo Park Lake, the masterpiece of his later years, is painted with such passion and intensity that the landscape vibrates with the heightened fervor of our urban environment. Plus, it’s beautiful.