Joan Didion once said, “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.” And as a new exhibit at Wilding Cran Gallery suggests, maybe Didion was right—maybe fire is the “truest expression of the L.A. landscape.” It certainly feels that way lately, as climate change continually lengthens Southern California’s already interminable fire season.
For generations, artists have drawn inspiration from a city that seems to always be burning, both literally and metaphorically. Curated by Los Angeles contributor Michael Slenske, L.A. on Fire (opens November 16) offers a look at the city’s smoky, singed reality through the lenses of more than 50 L.A. artists, from Polly Borland to Ed Ruscha (naturally). Here’s a preview of the work and their experiences of the burning world in their own words.
“I was a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara—an aspiring New Waver—when I painted this. The city just seemed very fragile to me, It was so dependent on cars. That just seemed like a dead end. It still does. It’s part of my apocalyptic fun time vision. Growing up in the Valley when I was a kid the smog was really, really bad. It was worse then than it is now in some ways. Everything just felt like the end: there were always fires and earthquakes and California was always about to fall into the ocean. It’s nothing like on the scale we have today, but L.A. has always been burning.
I hadn’t really found my signature back then, but this painting is not really out of the ordinary for how I work today. I clearly had the same kinds of obsessions and humor. In this painting the freeway is collapsing from an earthquake and the palm trees were on fire. It think it’s prophetic, that kind of nihilistic view. I think anything of lasting value is going to have meaning at different times, not only when it was made. Artists are always looking into the future. I’m an optimist, but at the same time I’m a realist. All the writing was on the wall back then, but nobody was ever hesitating or slowing down.”
“I moved to Silver Lake from Echo Park around 2000 and Griffith Park caught on fire when I was living across from it. I started to paint these fires. It seemed like a good time to start making landscape paintings because the landscape was completely changing and I was trying to make sense of these changes and to make it more abstract almost as a coping mechanism. The fires are so intense that I find the need to transform them so I can live with them. I became interested, and still am, in forgotten or transforming urbanism, those spaces that are part of the idea of a forgotten city inside the city. Spaces where things aren’t taken care of or neglected. I mix all of these contradictions in the drawings, which I make with colored ink, airbrush and intricately cut paper. Some of this paper appears to float or fall off the piece, which references the context of fires and destruction and fragility of the landscape and also draws attention to the technique. It’s a very precarious urbanist equilibrium in this city, one wind in one direction or another can burn everything down.”
“I revisited the L.A. Times photo by Kirk McCoy of an Angeleno man stealing diapers in a shopping cart with a wall of flames in the background behind him. The idea of being that present, to grab essentials for your children, in the middle of a chaotic inferno like that is a very gripping visual narrative. One that painfully details the desperate mindset the city was in. The image still holds so much weight for me, and I felt compelled to paint it given the other side of that history I understood from my father. What my father saw as a riot and looting, I’m sure this anonymous man saw as a moment of uprising and survival. I wanted to capture the emotional border where those two perspectives met.”
I was in L.A. in my studio listening to the news in December 2017 when the Creek Fire happened. It killed 29 horses at a ranch in Sylmar and some of the horses were locked into their stalls. This pot has more sgraffito on it than any other piece I’ve ever done because I just couldn’t stop scratching into the clay, the only way to soothe my anxiety during the fire was to keep carving into the pot. There was also a fire with racehorses in San Diego that affected me. I realized someone as neurotic as me shouldn’t have moved into the foothills of Altadena after 16 years living in relative safety in Echo Park. There are flames, horses, birds a mountain lion, and a coyote painted on the pot. It was really a piece born out of fear and anxiety and sadness. I just remember all this scratching was cathartic for me, perhaps some remembrance of the animals scratching to get out of the path of the fire. It’s sad and poetic somehow that you fire the clay to solidify the marks.
“This painting is referring back to the original name of the city. The Spanish governor of California, Felipe De Neve, named it El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles Sobre el Rio de Porciuncula in 1871. I painted the background with this fiery sunset, referencing these sunsets from my balcony and the title of this show. I also took pictures of the downtown skyline from Little Tokyo, and then I placed this Japanese goddess, the Queen of the Dragons, hovering ominously over the skyline with this dragon coiling around her and the office towers. It’s unclear what her motives are, but I’ve painted her eyes in a way that suggests she could be protecting us or meditating on how we’ve been behaving and what we’ve made of ourselves. She represents these powerful forces, much more powerful than us, that could be a premonition of things to come. Like a huge earthquake or a fire.”
“Fire Streak No.3 is part of a larger body of work, all done with exotic metals on woven glass canvas. The title, “Fire Blankets,” embodies the superposition of safety and destruction. A Fire Blanket is an industrial ready made used to smother flames. Here, it instead cradles the inferno of the glimmering, gemlike metals that gild its weave. A blanket offers warmth and so does fire, but where the former promises protection, the latter poses ruin. It’s the quintessential paradox of this sunny, apocalyptic town.”
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