Los Angeles is a city of image and imagination: a vast urban expanse filled with buildings and streets, yet relatively free of famous landmarks. There is neither an Eiffel Tower nor a Times Square, no Big Ben or Golden Gate Bridge to symbolize the complex essence of the city. Ironically, its recognizable landmarks such as the Hollywood sign, City Hall, Watts Towers–even Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland–carry powerful connotations that transcend their association with Los Angeles.
The city lacks a concrete identity. Intangible and often transcendent qualities such as light, air, smog, and sunshine have come to define it. Despite its impressive environment, surrounded by mountains and perched at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the face of L.A. is virtually anonymous.
Every artist responds to the vagaries of the city in a unique way, but themes recur. For this show, the works were arranged into three conceptual and thematic groups: observation, imagination, and motion. Beginning with works in the observation category, I started the show off with a lithograph by David Hockney. Perhaps no other artist has defined our perception of 20th-century Los Angeles as much as this artist. Pool I, the work I chose to feature, is an aqueous blue print depicting the comer of a swimming pool. The diving board casts a narrow, abstract shadow into the pool’s depths as the water’s surface reflects a shimmer of patterned crosshatching. Hockney’s ability to take a simple subject and transform it into a meditation on space, place, and drawing–the crux of his work–is beautifully illustrated.
A meticulous untitled watercolor from 1986 by Peter Lodato and Helen Lundeberg’s Double View, an acrylic on canvas, were hung near the Hockney print Both are interior/exterior views and capture a quality of dreamy light and timeless atmosphere particular to Southern California. From different generations (Lodato is considered part of the 1960s Light and Space School, while Lundeberg is a Southern California arts pioneer who first received national recognition in 1935), these two artists relate directly to each other and to Hockney through the abstract geometry in their work and their emphasis on space, volume, and light.
Installed nearby were examples by three other artists that also emphasize the special light found in L.A. Malibu Canyon Road, Fog, a tonal, foggy landscape by Larry Cohen; La Omega From Sunset Strip, a small-scale nocturnal view by James David Thomas; and Across the Street, Palm Trees, a smoggy view of palm trees and power lines seen across rooftops at sunset by Stephanie Sanchez, exemplify the show’s vapor theme. From different traditions, eras, and disciplines, all three of these artists, plus Hockney, Lundeberg, and Lodato, arrive at a strangely similar coherent synthesis of the surreal sense of the fight and atmosphere of L.A.
Dreams and fiction are qualities natural to Los Angeles. The city’s most prominent industry, Hollywood, holds powerful sway over what is perceived as real. As a result, imagined or invented locations are often portrayed as observed reality in paintings. This characteristic comes full circle in the work of Michael Chapman, John Kilduff, Gifford Myers, Astrid Preston, Frank Romero, and Stephanie Sanchez. Often based on direct observations of the complex, jumbled streetscape, their artworks use its buildings, billboards, and urban grid as compositional tools and starting points to freely interpret the city. Kilduff and Sanchez offer a faithful, “true” depiction: Their portrayals are both straightforward recordings of the visual information before them and studies in abstract patterning. Chapman, Myers, Preston, and Romero, by contrast, reinvent the city while telling its story; their works are ripe with allusions and hinted narratives. In Chapman’s Houses in Long Beach, the 1920s apartment buildings and the parked cars in front of them seem alive. They interact yet still hide their secret, like people standing in a crowded line. Astrid Preston’s Mask of Night portrays dark trees and roadways illuminated by streetlights–a familiar nighttime scene in any suburban neighborhood. Her depiction conveys a naivete that contradicts its sinister sense of foreboding and suggests an untold story.
Fiction is the subject of Mark Bennett’s 1995 ink and graphite drawing Home of Francis “Gidget” Lawrence. The drawing depicts the floor plan of the home of the main character of the 1960s sitcom Gidget, as the artist imagines it. This fiction is then twisted by “locating” the house at an actual address identified in Pacific Palisades, within the context of the physical and real city of L.A. The result is a fiction based on fiction based on reality.
Movement, too, is a natural state in LA. Constantly in flux, with a landscape that actually moves, the city celebrates motion and change as its civic persona. The works by James Doolin and Robin Palanker illustrate this particular feature. Doolin’s Connections and Palanker’s Interstate 5, picture the powerful, sweeping bridges and overpasses that make up much of the city’s omnipresent freeways. These conduits, canals, and arteries are the city’s lifeline, linking it in a swift transportation web, but they are also massive unbending constructions looming large and still on the landscape. Ironically, Palanker pictures a towering freeway overpass broken, collapsed, and rendered useless by a recent earthquake
No show about L.A. would be complete without a work by Edward Ruscha, an L.A. icon and creator of icons. Included in “City of Vapor” was his succinct pastel Hollywood is a Verb, a depiction of those words in block letters floating over a solid-tone background. This piece sums up the ambiguity of L.A. by presenting an amusing contradiction and play on words: an obvious reference to moviemaking, the city of Hollywood itself, and the frenetic nature of both.
In Los Angeles, the earth–terra firma elsewhere–moves and shakes, and the clear blue sky is hidden beneath layers of fog and smog. Fictions seem real and the actual wakening world dreamlike and surreal. As these qualities converge, the artists who live and work in this elusive city strive to interpret its effects and capture the true reality of Los Angeles.