Considering how radically the American landscape has changed in the last hundred years, it's surprising that the genre of figurative landscape painting has changed so little. Today, the majority of such work still espouses 19th century ideals. It is produced largely to celebrate the already acknowledged sublimity of places like New England, New Mexico and the Oregon coastline, and is relegated largely to the tourist market.
While photographers have consistently approached their contemporary environment--in its banality as well as its splendor--with contemporary eyes (note the work of Karin Apollonia Mller, reviewed below), painters have been slow to follow suit.
Todd Brainard is a happy exception. His quietly complex paintings of Los Angeles, now on view at Roberts & Tilton, move beyond the traditional emphasis on beauty and grandeur--ideals that don't quite apply to the hazy landscape of L.A.--to address exactly what it is that makes this particular place compelling at this particular time.
In Brainard's view, it is the atmosphere of the city. Thus, while the paintings are fairly conventional in composition--most are long-range views from the hills--the air that seems to fill them is rich and strange, thick with the grime, moisture and never-ending sunlight that we breathe every day.
To most Angelenos, the paintings will be instantly familiar. We've driven those roads; we know that type of greenery; we've walked on that shade of soil.
An eeriness creeps in, however, as one looks more closely. The skies are not quite right. One is a dusty shade of orange that looks like a peach smoothie; another is a magical cocktail of yellow and green, one shade layered above the other; another is candy pink.
One particularly vibrant painting depicts a white oil pump, a white house and a red fence, all illuminated with brilliant afternoon light and set against a violent mantle of yellow and purple. These are admittedly simplistic descriptions; in truth, the colors are downright baffling in places. It is difficult to define the various shades and to calculate their exact chemistry. But their effect is all the more intriguing for its complexity.
Brainard's work does what good contemporary landscape painting should do: It reminds us of where we are in the physical world, recasting our real surroundings in relevant artistic terms.
Roberts & Tilton, 6150 Wilshire Blvd, L.A. (323) 549-0223, through Aug. 11. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Capturing a Sense of the City: The landscape that Karin Apollonia Mller explores in her large color photographs, on view at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, is a daunting place: hot, dry, dusty and deserted. In each image, the sky is white and the land is a half-hearted interaction of tan and dull green. The air seems to be infused with a thin, chalky powder.
The most verdant of the scenes--a wooded ravine that leads to the ocean--looks only reluctantly fertile. In most of the other views, the earth is plowed bare or covered over with concrete.
The photographs on display were taken in and around Los Angeles. All are wide, expansive views, most captured from a high vantage point. A few include people, usually alone or in small groups, but they are entirely incidental--subordinate to the graceless sprawl of the city and its suburbs.
In one photograph, a developer stands on a small island of tar paper in an enormous sea of plowed dirt. In another, a homeless person sleeps beneath an orange tarp in a muddy downtown lot. The insignificance of the figures--they're difficult to spot within the compositions--only intensifies the eerie silence of the spaces they occupy.
The most visually stunning of all the photographs depicts a desert brush fire shot at fairly close range; it seems to embody the sense of danger that is only implied in all the others. In the foreground of this work, dirt and scattered brush as-yet untouched by the fire glow in crisp gold, white and orange tones; in the middle-ground, orange and blue flames dance weightlessly and with a cruel sort of delight. The flames emit enough white smoke to obscure both the brush and the sky and make the image seem like an abstract composition.
There are as many different L.A.s as there are photographers, painters, filmmakers and writers to represent it. Mller's depiction is not as glamorous as some, nor as fearful as others, but it captures a number of uncomfortably familiar sensations: the depressing banality of concrete, the empty chaos of the city's unmanageable sprawl and the loneliness that can creep into the soul with the flat, white, midday heat.
Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. (323) 525-1755, through Aug. 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.