When the modern city dweller contemplates nature, it's often framed by a car window. Our highways may take us past woods, rivers and rocky cliff faces, but our traffic jams allow us to contemplate them in enforced solitude. This shared experience informs the work of the Los Angeles artists currently on display at Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center. As curator Mery Lynn McCorkle explains, "When you're on the road, you're looking at mountains, you're looking at palm trees."
Minus the palm trees, this describes the plight of the Nashville commuter, and McCorkle sees a parallel between the American South and Southern California that informs their respective art scenes—both are "very nature-based." That concern courses through Southern Exposure, the show McCorkle has assembled at Ruby Green. Its overall coherence is all the more surprising because McCorkle didn't suggest a theme to the artists she chose. Rather, she selected artists whose work engages with nature and asked them to submit their favorite pieces.
One case in point is Tao Urban's enormous ink drawing "Everyone Needs Their Own Walden." In this piece a stylized mountainside extends upward without receding into the distance, as if on one flat vertical plane, while patches of trees, shrubbery and bare ground repeat with slight differences across the white background. In subject and technique, Urban's piece is a witty update on traditional Chinese landscape painting, which represents rivers tumbling down steep, wooded mountains. But unlike the idealized landscapes in that genre, Urban's drawing acknowledges the effects of human activity: forest alternates with patches of cylindrical stumps, and the occasional stubby, innocuous-looking car appears.
Nevertheless, realism isn't a priority for Urban. His trees are drawn with a geometric exactitude that would make them appear mass-produced, if traces of underlying pencil sketches weren't visible underneath. As such, they somewhat resemble acres of chess pieces, or Lite Brite pushpins. The exhibit labels his piece as "Wallpaper," and that title suggests its affinity with a "lower" form of art, the decorative objects that adorn our homes. But while the fictional plants found on wallpaper, shower curtains and sofa cushions are anonymously uniform, these images are intentionally irregular or even messy, focusing the viewer's attention on painterly strokes of ink or watercolor.
In a similar vein, Alison Foshee contributes a series of inkjet prints created from pen-and-brush drawings. They depict semi-abstract, almost surreal hybrid plants: "Brush 6" represents a sort of wreath created from grasses, flowers, trailing vines, ears of fungus, leaves both spiky and curlicued, and abstract inky swirls. The drawing is at once delicate and a virtuosic display of draftsmanship. While it suggests Foshee's careful observation of nature, what's really "represented" here are the individual traces of the artist's hand.
If Southern Exposure is a show about nature, it's nature for—and by—anxious city dwellers. Collage artist Cherie Benner Davis admits as much, saying that her work with maps "points to the complexity of this metropolis, as well as the difficulty of navigating its vast terrain." Her collages mutilate AAA maps of Los Angeles and Orange County, exploiting the cognitive dissonance between the maps' soothing pastel colors and the stressed-out reality they imply. The technique results in irregularly shaped works that construct impossible communities: Her freeways sprawl in torturous loops, impinging inappropriately on the residential grid. In "Map III," roads end in spirals, while "Map II" depicts a highway system that's both self-enclosed and torturously complex. Sound familiar, Nashville?
McCorkle, herself an L.A.-based artist, was asked to guest-curate the exhibit after impressing the gallery's directors with her solo show there last year. Ruby Green's Daniel Lonow suggests this is the type of project the space can afford to risk—it's the only local gallery to be part of the Warhol Initiative, which provides grants to small visual-arts organizations. Because it doesn't depend on retail sales, Lonow says, it can "show stuff [larger institutions] would never do." (Ruby Green is also distinguished by its now-suspended practice of hosting noise-rock shows, something Lonow says they "may still do from time to time.")
The pleasures of Southern Exposure, which includes many small, unframed drawings, are low-key and intimate, and Ruby Green's space is cozy enough to draw viewers in. This is only to be expected, according to McCorkle, who draws a parallel between her line of work and another local point of reference: country songs. "They're all about communication," she says. "Art's no different."
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