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UP FRONT: GALLERIES

City's river a flood of inspiration

Two exhibitions capture the gritty and intriguing stream that bears Los Angeles' name.

March 08, 2007|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

THE Los Angeles River is the river that won't die, despite human efforts over the last century to channel and cement it in. Recently there's been a heightened awareness of this feature, thanks to new plans to restore the river and its banks to a more natural state -- and perhaps thanks to some art shows that remind us of its existence and poetry. Last year, the Skirball Cultural Center featured photography and video in "L.A. River Reborn." Now there are two gallery exhibitions on two sides of town: "Poured in Place: 72 Los Angeles River Bridges" at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica and "5 Models Afloat: Art Inspired by the L.A. River" at Gallery 727 in downtown L.A.

"Poured in Place" is a small solo show by Douglas Hill, a commercial photographer known for his work with architecture and interiors. In 1995 he was hired to shoot several downtown bridges by a contractor who was retrofitting them. "I found that I was going back more than I needed to," said Hill, who began taking an interest in the bridges as subjects for art photography. He took some of his own shots and showed them to Tim Wride, now interim head of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Wride suggested that he do all the bridges.

All the bridges? There are 72 alone between Riverside Drive on the north end of Griffith Park and Queensway Bay in Long Beach, the last bridge before the river flows into the Pacific Ocean. Although most are for cars, about a dozen are for trains, pedestrians and pipelines.

Hill took to the idea. Starting in April 2005, whenever he had downtime from assignments, he set out on day trips and began shooting the bridges, often two to three a day. He located them on Google maps, parked nearby and trekked down to the river searching for interesting angles.

Fifteen photographs from his portfolio have been selected for this show. Taken from riverbed or riverbank level, they all show some water -- whether a wending stream or a trickle in a cement wash. "I wanted to show the relationship between the river and the bridge," said Hill, a low-key man who speaks with some deliberation. "The context was quite important to me." He shot digitally, using his Hasselblad, and produced square color images.

Of course, there was plenty of graffiti and trash lurking in the pylons and the shallows -- Hill doesn't avoid them in his photographs. "I almost hate to say it, but I actually found it interesting," Hill said. "I'd go back and found it constantly changing." Then he pointed to an exception -- a photo showing names written in a formal font decorating a remote cement wall by the Colorado Street extension. "This one looks quite old, and it seems to be a dedication of some sort."

Another shot, a long shot of the railroad bridge south of Del Amo Boulevard, captures both natural and unnatural detritus -- in the foreground, a scraggly tumbleweed sits in the water, and an overturned shopping cart is behind it. The river is cemented in on either side, and a series of stark electric towers, posed like giant robots, run along the right bank.

There was much beauty to be found on his forays, Hill said. He was drawn to the older bridges with their vintage architectural details. The sky-high interchange loops of the 105 Freeway were stunning "as feats of engineering."

By and large he avoided other people, but one day at the Glendale Boulevard bridge, he found a man reclining on the bike path. The man was staring at the bridge and the stream flowing under it, and the photographer snapped that nearly pastoral scene.

"This is Part 1," Hill said. "Part 2 will be from Riverside to the Valley, where there are another 65 bridges. I got a lot out of doing these, but there's still plenty to say with the rest I haven't shot."

Diverse views

Gallery 727 is also celebrating the river in "5 Models Afloat." Eighteen artists, mostly from the L.A. area, were selected by curator Helen Campbell, and the works include paintings, drawings, photographs and multimedia.

There aren't too many straightforward depictions of the river here. The small paintings of Ichae Ackso, the pseudonym of a young downtown artist, turn the river into a series of geometries. Leo Limon, known for decorating concrete drainage pipes around the Arroyo Seco with whimsical cat heads, has rendered a few of these on canvas. Photographs of the river by Bill Johnson show a decidedly romantic view, including one of the 6th Street Bridge at night, its streetlights flaring with ghostly light.

In the back room, Army Corps of Engineers drawings of recent proposals for developing several areas along the river are posted on the wall. They seem like very serious blueprints that will be pored over and debated for years to come.

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