“In Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains, it is not always clear which side is losing.” – John McPhee
As I stood in the gallery, a single thought struck me.
This is what it feels like to live in Los Angeles.
For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in New York City. Despite all of its diversity, New York, like many other American cities, remains an inescapably urban experience.
Coming to Los Angeles was a literal breath of fresh air. I immediately took to all of its natural pleasures. I loved how nature and the city stood side by side. Los Angeles is defined as much by its mountains, ocean and deserts as its freeways and monuments.
Of course, this is exactly what has always drawn people to the Southland.
And yet, there is a lingering sense of what author Mike Davis describes as a “malice toward the landscape.” We love living at the edges of wilderness. We also fear it. The inevitable wind and fire and rain fuels an undercurrent of anxiety. So we attempt to control it and call it progress.
Local artist Lisa Adams’ dazzling new show at CB1 Gallery beautifully captures the complex and often contradictory experience of living in Los Angeles.
America The Beautiful consists of a dozen paintings, each one depicting a layering of the natural and built environments. Drawing on familiar images like Griffith Park water towers, the LA River and graffiti, Adams tells engaging stories filled with tension and mystery. By combining social critique and personal mythology, Adams creates dreamlike worlds in the best surrealistic tradition.
“On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands necks. Anything can happen.” – Raymond Chandler
That quote was made famous by Joan Didion in her brilliant essay, “Los Angeles Notebook.” The piece describes the effects of Santa Ana winds on human behavior. Anyone who has ever felt that warm dry itch and the feeling of dread it inspires will know exactly what she’s talking about.
It’s the same feeling I get viewing Caput Mortuum. The empty streets, the architectural silhouette (the Huffington Post described the structure as a “John Lautner homeless shelter”) and the heat. The unrelenting heat.
With her work, Adams joins a rich history of artists and writers who both celebrate and lament the complicated proposition that is Los Angeles.
But don’t get the idea that the show is all doom and gloom.
In fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of America The Beautiful is its stubborn optimism. Rainbows emerge from tree trunks. Flowers sprout out of broken rock piles. A duck floats peacefully in the shadow of industry.
Yes. There is hope.
Quite a lot it turns out.
This is also a work that demands to be experienced firsthand. It’s the only way to fully appreciate the color, scale and sheer physicality. Viewed up close, one can see how Adams has painstakingly combined mediums and styles to create layers of meaning.
CB1 Gallery recently moved from its former downtown location to the gritty industrial corridor south of central downtown. For me it provides the ideal setting. Outside are convoys of semi-trucks lined up at loading docks. Forget the glitter of Hollywood. This is the backstage machinery that drives the show here.
Inside the gallery is cool, quiet space to contemplate the beauty and mystery of the world around us.
Yeah. That pretty much sums up LA for me.
America The Beautiful runs through October 31st.
1923 South Santa Fe Avenue
Los Angeles, 90021