Nature Worship at MASH Gallery
Through November 10th
By Betty Ann Brown
..and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough? ~Vincent van Gogh
Formidable curator Andi Campognone has assembled an impressive array of Los Angeles artists for the stunning “Nature Worship” group show now at Mash Gallery. The exhibition features works by Kim Abeles, China Adams, Kelly Berg, Kimberly Brooks, Rebecca Campbell, Terry Cervantes, Samantha Fields, Sant Khalsa, Laurie Lipton, Haleh Mashian, Catherine Ruane, Allison Schulnick, and Lisa Schulte. (In support of total transparency, I should admit that I consider many of these artists good friends. This is not surprising since the LA art world interweaves personal and professional relationships…but it does complicate critical objectivity.) No one can do justice to the work of twelve artists in a single review, so I will focus on seven artists whose work stands out (to me) in this exhibition. (I am always aware that another writer or viewer might very well see this totally differently.)
Entering the gallery space, I was struck by the powerful physicality of Kelly Berg’s volcano painting This Island Earth (2017). Berg slathers on pounds of paint and sculpts them into dense, volumetric textures. She builds her painting surfaces on metal mesh, plexiglass and other media to create craggy black ravines. Molten orange slides down dark rock walls and green clouds explode around their intersection. I stand in front of it and see again the spectacular photographs of the eruption of Kilauea in May of this year…but Berg translates the documentary images into resonant icons. Looking at Berg’s powerful painting, I am reminded of Aristotle’s assertion–more than two thousand years ago–that “Art completes what nature cannot bring to finish. The artist gives up knowledge of nature’s unrealized ends.”
Across the gallery, a painting by Kimberly Brooks (Fawn, 2018) performs a similar function, i.e., translating the always-changing infinity of nature into a concrete, contained image. Brooks states that her work focuses on memory, representation, and reality. As we remember our experiences in nature, we all re-write them. Brooks executes that rewriting through the visual codes of avant-garde art, morphing “natural” color and form into expressive (abstracted) representation. She reduces her palette to silvery green and pale, fleshy orange, then mixes descriptive passages with swampy drips and fluid brushwork.
Rebecca Campbell’s Night Watch (2011) presents a beautiful young woman seated in an overgrown garden in what appears to be the front (or back?) yard of a “Spanish style” California home. A flashlight is abandoned at her feet; the sun sets in a wedge of sky seen above the house’s roof. The woman turns aside wistfully, her face marked by florescent orange highlights on creamy white skin. Campbell’s brushstrokes are as insistent and adroit as Edouard Manet’s. Like that great French master, indeed like his predecessor Diego Velazquez, Campbell has the capacity to employ impressionistic abstractions to achieve realist impact. This is brush painting at its very best.
Not all of the paintings are based on traditional brushwork, however. Samantha Fields’ Dynamic Messaging (2018) is a tour-de-force of airbrush technique. In this example, she depicts dozens of brightly colored balloons rising over a veritable inferno. The background of flames lining the jagged contours of distant mountains recalls views from my Cal State University office windows of the fires raging across the San Fernando Valley. Fields often depicts environmental disasters, but here she juxtaposes the horrors of devastation with the glorious, childlike (and perhaps hope-filled?) buoyancy of balloons. Because his best-known work is titled Inferno, I think of Dane Alighieri when I look at Fields’ work. And I remember he said, “Art, as far as it is able, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master; thus your art must be, as it were, God’s grandchild.”
The fiery presence of Fields’ work (and of Kelly Berg’s) is countered by the halcyon beauty of Sant Khalsa’s Arroyo Seco photographs. During her time as a visiting artist at Pasadena City College, the artist explored the Arroyo Seco Watershed of the LA River, especially the Colorado Avenue Bridge area. Instead of focusing on the concrete behemoth’s domination of its natural surroundings, Khalsa found architectural details that, in their pale blue shadows and sunlit gold highlights, invite quiet moments of contemplation. Each photograph becomes a serene intersection of planes, pastels, and tranquil triangles of azure sky.
Catherine Ruane’s Dance Me to the Edge (2016) has a similarly contemplative effect. A large disc is surrounded by twelve smaller circles. Each is limned with images from the California desert, e.g., Joshua trees in blossom, a moth against a night sky, seeds, pods, and succulent spines. Ruane travels through the mysterious threshold between the physical and the mystical, aware that the closer we get to nature, the deeper our understanding. As Albert Einstein famously wrote, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
Terry Cervantes is a ceramic artist. She has turned her remarkable technical skills to creating stoneware and porcelain rocks that serve as “relics of her memories.” Each stone has a distinct appearance and, by extension, a unique emotional charge. Some are densely patterned, others roughly hewn. Some resemble ancient vessels, others appear marked by prehistoric hands. Much of Cervantes’ earlier work was finely crafted vessels with tight black drawings on their smooth white surfaces. In contrast, these works have a raw immediacy and almost subliminal appeal. I kept lifting them and enjoying how good it felt to hold them. Not much art invites handling in this way.
All of the art in “Nature Worship” is both well executed, and conceptually intriguing. This is true of Kim Abeles’ Enchanted Forest (2009), China Adams’ pen drawings of symbolic rock walls (Guard I and II, 2017), Laurie Lipton’s Personal Effects (after The Wave, by Hokusai, 2016), Haleh Mashian’s stunning line of rainbow-hued trees in Natural Rhythm (2018), Allison Schulnik’s Misfits (Porcelain), from 2007, and Lisa Schulte’s Singularity of Light (2018), based on Queen Palm seed pods. It is truly a not-to-be-missed exhibition.
1325 Palmetto St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tues-Thurs : Noon – 6 pm, FRI : Noon – 9 pm and SAT : Noon – 6 pm