Published on Carets and Sticks, July 28, 2014
It is difficult to write about mountains. Many have done so, and herein lies the challenge. The symbolic usages of the geographical feature throughout history have loaded it down with a profusion of associations, art historical, cultural, and psychological. Often in contemporary art, where beauty is evoked, irony must also be a key player; sincerity towards nature is not typically considered the avant-garde. For this reason, when I came across a show simply titled The Mountain Show, at Office Hours (a newly minted artist run space in downtown LA), I assumed hipster irony was at play. The title at first irked me as sounding knowingly pastiche. Yet, with a breath of fresh air, The Mountain Show, checked its irony at the door, and instead got to something much more heartfelt. Move over Thoreau.
Making work in an urban city that is hugged on one side by the Pacific Ocean, and on the other the San Gabriel Mountains, the four artists and one writer on the show roster create a complex mood that explores our plural relationship (as Angelenos) to the landscape that encases us. The particular poignancy of these mountains in relation to Los Angeles is their constant presence looming above the city. We are in their foothills, stuck in traffic on The 10, and they stand guard, always visible, still and strong. In the foothills, one is physically separate from the mount, and certainly nowhere near the peak of it. And so, here in the foothills, we are in a constant state of longing.
“But, in this city, I am never not seeing mountains. This comforts me a lot. I have been focusing on the place where the city turns into something rural. The valley leading to the mountains, the same piece of land. It changes what my handwriting looks like.” (1)
The work in The Mountain Show evokes varying stages of bodily relation to the wild natural world. The context of urban life is never far from thought. Kaeleen Wescoat-O’Neill’s low slung and figurative Body Pillows (2014) slump over each other, resembling two bodies atop each other in bed, too lazy to get up and make the morning coffee. A knee propped here, an arm crooked there. The work locates the body as site, evoking Zhang Huan’s iconic photographic performance piece To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain.
After we consider ourselves, looking inward, the next logical step to look outward. Katie Shapiro’s black and white photo series (Possible Failure at Schnebly Hill Vortex, Sedona, AZ, 2014) create a rhythmic symmetry around the small gallery; creating false windows to the outside landscape. That is, as much as photographs can resemble windows in a 10 X 15 ‘ gallery space that is built inside a larger warehouse space. Like Magritte’s Le domaine d’Arnheim (1949), a circular loop of perspectival information is present; inside looking outside looking inside. We are still protected by the white walls of the gallery space; the relationship to the exterior remains a cerebral one.
Wescoat O’Niel’s colorful Climbing Holds (2014) sprinkled throughout the gallery walls visually unite the exhibit, and deliver us closer to movement up the mountain. If Daniel Hawkins’ Flat Mountain Formation (2012)acts as a thesis for the show as one enters the space (the first elicitations of a formal mountain that the viewer encounters), Ryan Kish’s small oil painting, Goverment Site (2013), acts as an opposing bookend. One last glance towards urbanism as the viewer exits the gallery space. Though, it is not until reading Amina Cain’s writings, which accompany the exhibition in a succinct yellow booklet (The Energy of Victoria, 2014), that we finally venture out of the gallery space. Her prose shares stories ripe with longing – for an understanding of self, her husband, and for the mountains. After traveling to them, she returns to her writer’s chair, looking out again. Her text in a bold red, breathes a certain life into the exhibition, and the insistence on varying perspectives of location in the writing, informs the visual pieces present.
There is this primal instinct within us to conquer the mountain. Yet, somehow the artists in The Mountain Showhave not over-internalized the implications embedded in evoking such a trope as a mountain, rather they cooly throw a stone towards the mountain. While slightly mute of any didactic underpinning, the dream like connections between the artists and writer’s work are refreshing; like placing cool cucumbers on sun weary eyes.
The work doesn’t feel the need to climb the mountain and yell off it’s summit – it’s happy to dwell in the foothills.
Office Hours is located at 2159 Sacramento Street, and open Saturdays from 2-6PM and by appointment.
The Mountain Show will be on view through August 16th.
For more info and photos, visit the gallery’s website HERE.