through March 23, 2019
LAUNCH LA, Los Angeles
Written by Lorraine Heitzman
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men James Agee and Walker Evans documented the unimaginably harsh lives of several tenant farmers and their families in the Deep South during the Dust Bowl of the nineteen thirties. Using prose and photographs they painted an indelible portrait of a hardscrabble existence that was forged by an environmental disaster and made worse by the Great Depression.
In Paradox California, the fine show organized by James Panozzo at LAUNCH LA, Chelsea Dean and Osceola Refetoff depict another desolate environment in another time. The two artists focus their attention on neglected and derelict places much like those immortalized by their predecessors, but the results are more romanticized and abstract. And instead of including the inhabitants, they rely instead on the landscape and the man-made environment to convey their story. Dean and Refetoff are attracted to loss, ruin, and the detritus of abject poverty, not just from the unforgiving climate, but sometimes, one senses, from the self-inflicted kind of destruction. Nevertheless, each use different approaches to capture what they call the paradox of California, and the pairing of their work adds richness and depth to the show as a whole.
A quality both artists share is the golden glow that pervades much of the work. This is not the golden hue of dried grasses that inspired the name the “Golden State”, but the color of the desert sand and lumber bleached by the sun. Both artists make much of the sunlight; Dean literally incorporates gold into her work by including flecks of gold leaf into her mixed media works, while Refetoff plays with sunbeams and sunspots. These uses of gold are sometimes employed ironically to counter the expectation of glitz and glamour associated with the color, but they also remind us of the power of the sun to destroy life through droughts and fires.
Both artists are drawn to the forlorn qualities of ramshackle cabins and ruined and abandoned buildings and the California desert provides them with a rich supply of both. Refetoff centers many of his images on windows that are portals to more hopeful circumstances. One photograph, “Remains of the Fruitland Fire-Dawn-Thermal, California” focuses on the view through a hole in the wall where a window was once positioned. A circular solar flair directs attention to the sunrise beyond the deconstructed building and it is only upon closer inspection that one notices the absence of a roof or floor. The view is not remarkable, but the brilliant, golden light signifies hope amidst the blight. “Window With Wire” and “Tiny Cloud-Cinco, California” and “Love, Faith, Hope-Cinco, California” are also composed around a singular, centered window, as if to signify a more appealing reality beyond the frame. Refetoff effectively contrasts the ruins in the foreground with idealized vistas that reveal a more romantic rather than cynical viewpoint.
Dean takes a more formal and abstract strategy with her work. She often depicts the isolation of the desert, not only for the symbolism and mood, but because her predilection as an image-maker leans towards a minimalist’s sensibility. “The Peril and Promise” is one of the larger artworks in the show and also one of the more sparse compositions. The hand-cut photographic image of an abandoned shack in the foreground appears dwarfed against a dappled sand-colored background signifying the vastness and emptiness of the desert. Small flecks of gold leaf are scattered across the entire piece with a larger stream leading from the front door like a dry riverbed of fool’s gold. As the title suggests, one man’s ambition ended here and all that remains is the constant desert and the vestiges of his unfulfilled dream. “A Spiritual View” literally transforms a window from an abandoned homestead. In this stunning work, the reflective film that was originally applied to the window has developed a random pattern of circles where it has failed to adhere and the edges have lost their integrity. In front of this golden backdrop, there is a photo of a worn sofa, ripped and faded from exposure. Here the gold suffuses the work with an ethereal atmosphere, contrasted against the pedestrian furniture.
In Paradox California, the collaborative piece by Refetoff and Dean, the artists present an image of hard economic times and offer the promise of daylight glimpsed through a cutout window. In the show as a whole, they consistently mesh the realities of poverty, unforgiving weather, and natural disasters with the hope and allure of prosperity and better days ahead. Cleverly curated, this exhibit is an apt metaphor for the strivings of a city such as Hollywood, built on dreams, and is also an insightful meditation upon where we find our country at this moment.