California Abstraction at OCMA

California’s landscape is polarized. The land of freeways and warm weather encompasses both the country’s largest city, Los Angeles, and some of its most desolate desert regions. This contrast in landscape continues to inspire a number of artists who take varying approaches to representing our large and sunny state.

Courtesy of OCMA

Courtesy of OCMA

Organized by chief curator Dan Cameron, who first became inspired to present an exhibition highlighting California’s unique landscape while perusing the museum’s vast holdings shortly after he began working at OCMA two years ago, “California Landscape Into Abstraction” explores the way 90 artists, who have all lived or worked in California, have represented and responded to both the natural and built environment surrounding them. Its time frame spans from the modernist and realist movements of the early twentieth century to the postmodernist movements of the century’s second half, such as conceptual art, pop art and minimalism.

Presented thematically, “California Landscape Into Abstraction,” which opened on Dec. 15, incorporates the work of artists such as Ansel Adams, Ed Ruscha and James Turrell, and media such as painting, photography, video and sculpture to present a way of life that is uniquely Californian.

“A persistent theme in California art over the past century is the charged relationship between abstraction and landscape,” says Cameron. “Today it’s still considered heresy to connect California Impressionism to later abstract, minimal, and conceptual art, but as a museum that collects from both ends of the spectrum, it seemed like there was more we could bring to the conversation.”

The exhibition’s use of thematically organized galleries, in which works such as Elmer Wachtel’s “Landscape,” from 1922, an impressionistic representation of a California mountainside at sunset, are juxtaposed with Frederick Wight’s “Sun Descending,” from 1985, which depicts the sun at several positions in the sky simultaneously, certainly encourages such conversation among viewers.

While impressionists such as Claude Monet, and later those working in California, painted the same landscape or building at different times of the day to make use of several forms of natural light, Wight’s work combines each of these kinds of light into one work, making for a disorienting color palette, yet they both make use of quintessentially Californian outdoor aesthetics.

Making use of unconventional media, Alan Sonfist’s work examines the California landscape through a topographic lens, while Kori Newkirk’s “Hutch” examines the same landscape through a cultural lens. In nine works from his “Earth Paintings USA” series (presented as one work), Sonfist literally makes the landscape into artwork by placing earth from various regions of California, respectively, onto canvases of equal size. Newkirk creates the image of a home in a pastoral setting using artificial hair and plastic beads hanging from a metal bracket. The hanging chains of beads are meant to resemble cornrows.

While several works in the exhibition take Los Angeles as their focus, such as Larry Cohen’s “View from Creston Drive/Taft Avenue” and Drew Heiztler’s “Untitled” (Baldwin Hills, Venice Beach, the LaBrea Tar Pits), most examine the vastness of California’s agricultural fields, or beautiful coastline. Lewis DeSoto’s “Kingdom” works superimpose images of a human brain and hand, respectively, over black and white photographs of the sea to illustrate the connection between humans and the sea.

Oscillating between land and sea, rural and urban, representational and nonrepresentational, “California Landscape into Abstraction” demonstrates that the monotony, yet unmistakable beauty, of California’s characteristic deserts, massive rock formations, and saguaro cacti almost begs to be represented differently from how it appears.