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Content hits us harder when it’s echoed by context. So it felt appropriate that a show about our complicated relationship with the natural world should take place in Thousand Oaks, a sprawling suburban city better known for gated communities and parking lagoons than the trees after which it’s named, built in a valley that twentieth century movie-men have fashioned into every backdrop except itself. It felt equally appropriate that the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (CMATO) is housed in nature’s spiritual antipode: the second floor of The Oaks, an indoor–outdoor, Spanish-baroque-inspired shopping mall, the largest in Ventura County. Landscape Through the Eyes of Abstraction, CMATO’s current show, showcases work by six Los Angeles artists, none of whom we would instantly think of as landscapists per se. Yet together, they suggest that it’s hard to talk about Southern California abstraction without a nod to the region’s ecologies.
Coming out of the postwar, Venice Beach, finish fetish scene, Charles Arnoldi attracted attention in the early 1980s for subjecting blocks of plywood to the crude, violent cuts of the chainsaw. In Welfare (2011), which is on view at CMATO, you can see nicks and splinters in the jewel blue paint that’s smeared across the wood. It may lack the exactitude of the resin or fiberglass that many of his peers were using at the time, but that’s precisely the point—Arnoldi cares about surface as much as your John McCracken or Craig Kauffman, but he’s wrapped up in the primal, totemic energies that predate surfboards and aerospace.
Light and Space, CMATO’s presentation reminds us, is essentially a statement about nature, a chest of tools used to bottle Southern California’s atmosphere. Laddie John Dill’s “light sentences”—horizontal and vertical tubes punctuated by multi-length segments of colored gas—flatten Southern California’s geography into basic oppositions not unlike segments of binary code: light and dark, low and high, the sun’s rise and set into an ever-receding horizon. Indeed, the mere inclusion of Arnoldi and Dill subtly writes nature into abstraction. Just as both artists sat on the peripheries of the respective movements into which they’re now grouped, their works at CMATO prompt us to shift our attention from the formalist causes to the environmental contexts that shaped postwar Southern California art.
Other works in the show explore the strange, rubbery worlds where nature and culture intersect. Claudia Parducci’s 23 Columns (2018) is a series of hand-stitched tubes hanging from the third gallery’s ceiling. Knitted from jute twine and stained with charcoal-colored dye, the porous and partially shriveled forms conjure the ruined temple implied by the title, but also a wildfire-ravaged forest and a troop of trumpet mushrooms that grows out of one. Echoing 19th century Romantic fascinations with the frailty of human ambitions, Parducci’s piece contextualizes man-made monuments into larger, intransigent cycles of destruction and rebirth.
Nature and culture clash, by contrast, for Kim Abeles, whose miniaturized model landscapes occupy the exhibition’s final room. Looking for Paradise (Downtown Los Angeles) (2004) showcases a canopy of artificial trees with thin, skyscraper-scaled trunks that pierce the surface of a two-dimensional aerial map like acupuncture needles. Too absurdly tall to provide meaningful comfort and shade, the trees bear resemblances to the date palms imported to California in the 18th century. Imagined fantasy landscapes, Abeles reminds us, play important roles in urban development.
It’s a fitting conclusion to an exhibition in a mall designed in step with old booster fantasies about a new Mediterranean. Southern California has become a sprawling megalopolis because of its mountains, arroyos, and golden hour light—those things have shaped artistic responses. And while people have had a lot to say about the consequences of human development, ranging from paeans written to the interstates to false prophecies about killer bees, Landscape Through the Eyes of Abstraction’s strength has less to do with any call for conservation than the suggestion that Southern California culture, no matter how plastic or abstruse, remains inseparable from the environment from which it grew.
Language Through the Eyes of Abstraction runs from February 18–July 31, 2022 at the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (350 W. Hillcrest Dr., 2nd Level, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360).