Weston exhibit ‘By This River’ makes a splash
BY STEVEN ROSEN · JULY 8TH, 2015 · VISUAL ART
By This River, the new group show curated by Michael Solway at downtown’s Weston Gallery through Aug. 30, is as refreshingly clear in its concept and intent as a sparkling mountain stream. It has the added benefit of offering much excellent work, including several pieces by an artist associated with the 1960s Fluxus movement who is now enjoying a rediscovery, Ben Patterson.
I should first say I have grown perplexed with the intellectual complexity of some group shows in which the relationship of the work to the exhibit’s theme needs long curatorial explanation because it isn’t evident in what we see. It’s the artistic equivalent of writing in code. Yet, at the same time, I’ve grown bored with shows having simpler, broader themes — they often are banal and unchallenging.
By This River strikes just the right balance. It has an active and thoughtful curatorial voice. Its theme is about how we long to live close to bodies of water and the effect that desire has on us — and nature. That has intellectual depth, yet you get it just by looking at it. And you get more of it the longer you spend with individual pieces.
The idea for By This River, which features six artists, goes back to 2006 when Solway had his own gallery (with wife Angela Jones) in Los Angeles and discussed rivers with Patterson, who was born in Pittsburgh. (Solway is now the director of Carl Solway Gallery, which his father founded.)
Los Angeles is a great place to think about urban rivers, because the trickling, concrete-sided Los Angeles River is both a civic joke and the goal of dreamers seeking restoration. If only they had more water.
Patterson provided this show with five pieces, several of which date at least in part to 2006, and one is much older. Two in particular stand out. His “Los Angeles River Concrete Poem,” which is large enough and in enough sections to be considered a sculptural installation, is both witty and poignant. Five wooden support barriers each support a cast-concrete slab through which a channel of water trickles (and then is recycled from pumps and hoses in overhanging cups).
There are three large inflatable palm trees between these wooden barriers, recalling Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” and you smile at Patterson’s parodying of this city’s alleged river.
Except it’s deeper than that.
Each of the separate sections Patterson has created corresponds to a section of the river itself — Sepulveda Basin/Balboa, Downtown, Estuary and more. And accompanying each are clipboards with laminated digital photographs showing material Patterson found at the river, presumably from the corresponding section. There are lovely plants and flowers, but also litter and garish graffiti.
On each concrete slab itself, Patterson has inscribed words whose appeal is not necessarily in their meaning but rather in the way they look or sound when spoken aloud. These are examples of “concrete poetry,” a form that sees the artistic possibilities in words as pure objects.
Besides the gentle “concrete” pun, there is a message here to the viewer: Look at things in a new way; see the possibilities in everything, including the Los Angeles River. As a notice by the clipboards tells us: “Poetry is where you find it: Search for sources here.”
Another of Patterson’s works, “Pond,” is primarily a set design for performance (he gave a very short one there on opening night). But it works as Minimalism, too — an art movement that didn’t really exist when Patterson first devised “Pond” in 1962.
Blue tape delineates a 72-by-72-inch grid on the Weston’s upper-level floor; several mechanical toy frogs populate the individual squares. Step back from it a little and you can feel the presence of an actual pond.
By dint of his status, Patterson is By This River’s lead artist. But my favorite works are by Jacci Den Hartog, a Los Angeles-based artist who has shown at Solway Jones. She creates magical illusions of dimensionality in her drawings and watercolors and especially in her wall-attached sculptures of flowing, cascading water.
The two sculptural pieces are the most impressive — they are, of course, three-dimensional in actuality, but they seem so forcefully full-bodied, so forward-moving, that you can almost feel their spray. In 2008’s “Coming Down” and 2008-2009’s “Day Hike,” she has used acrylic paint on polymerized clay to conjure stretches of running water.
Jutting from the gallery walls (but attached at crucial, subtle points to bear the load), they remind of Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke sculptures, but also invoke nature as much as Contemporary-art comparables.
Of the two Den Hartog pieces, I prefer “Day Hike,” as it is like a piece of blue river with no obvious beginning or end. It just comes out of the wall and goes back into it, presumably to renew itself.
Also noteworthy are San Francisco artist Jim Campbell’s two transfixing, low-res video artworks, “Divide” and “Untitled (Birds),” and Pasadena-based Steve Roden’s puckish “touch strings seep sleep pluck,” a 2015 two-channel video work in which guitar strings appear stretched across old photographs of the Ohio River. A visible hand pulls at them to create sounds. It’s a form of river music very different from a steam calliope.
Roden’s other pieces didn’t move me as much, and the UV-coated prints of New Haven-based marine photographer Gregory Thorp’s “Ohio River Series” look slick.
How much time should you spend with By This River? You can spend long enough to watch salt crystalize, which is what happens in New York artist Dove Bradshaw’s “Negative Ions II,” a new iteration of a time-based piece she first showed in Copenhagen in 1996.
Here, 1,070 pounds of salt — from a mine on Avery Island, La. — form a Hershey’s Kiss-shaped pile on the floor of the gallery’s lower entryway. Suspended above it is a funnel that slowly drips water down onto its peak.
Over time, this process allows for a crystalized core, thus changing the physical properties of this half-ton mass in a slow, insistent way, like water carves out rock and hillsides to form canyons and river valleys.
By This River allows all sorts of opportunities to think about our relationship to water, while also providing art to spend time admiring.
BY THIS RIVER continues through Aug. 30 at Weston Art Gallery inside the Aronoff Center for the Arts downtown. More info:westonartgallery.com.