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In one of her devoted, often fanatical paens to Los Angeles, Eve Babitz mused, “In Los Angeles, it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.” Olivia Hill captures the slipperiness of our local mirage in Strike-Slip, her current solo exhibition at Bel Ami, paying particular attention to Southern Californians’ tenuous relationship to nature. A curious combination of uninspired city planning and inspired moviemaking mediates this relationship (“Los Angeles isn’t a city. It’s a gigantic, sprawling, ongoing studio,” as Babitz put it). But these oil paintings aren’t flanked by plastic palm trees. At first, they appear to capture the verisimilitude of capital “N” nature.
Depictions of Mammoth Mountain showcase the overwhelming scale of nature available to Angeleños who seek it out (No Snow, No Problem, Mammoth Mountain Facing Northwest 37°37’57.0”N 119°01’25.0”W, 2022 and Mammoth Mountain Looking South 37°37’48.7”N 119°01’35.7”W, both 2022). Hill includes degrees of latitude and longitude in her titles, as if to say, this is real. She does the same in View Point on Angeles Crest HWY 34°13’43.5”N 118°10’58.4”W (2022), where a display of neverending peaks and valleys is only eventually halted by a sliver of blue sky. The precise coordinates in the aforementioned paintings prove helpful when you come face-to-face with the coordinate-less Bat Cave in Bronson Canyon (2020) and are reminded that there’s no escaping the clutches of the Hollywood machine. This cave isn’t nature—it’s the ongoing studio that Babitz waxed on about in her musings on the city. It’s where 1960s Batman stored his Batmobile and did his best sulking. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger. It seems almost quaint to imagine hiking this canyon without a film crew around. The work’s title foils Hill’s painterly approach to the cave, which she portrays as an unadorned landscape devoid of telltale anchoring icons—once the Bat Cave is invoked, the scene goes from an indistinct natural setting to one we associate with half a century’s worth of artifice.
Hill’s painting of a backyard pool in La Cañada (Pool in La Cañada 34°13’08.0”N 118°10’58.0”W, 2022) could signal the way that urban sprawl makes nature inaccessible (to which pools offer a strange, makeshift solution), but even that harkens back to our city’s culture of illusion. What it really makes me think of is David Hockney, and the way that his Southern California pool paintings conjure the surprisingly debaucherous backyards of the San Fernando Valley—see Boogie Nights (1997)—or, the pool as a mere set piece at parties on Hollywood hotel rooftops, where no one jumps in.
Hill’s paintings pretend at an exactitude to which they don’t actually deliver. At first appearing as tributes to Southland nature, upon second glance, they cause whiplash. Their initial realist facade only further impresses upon us the underlying truth: our communions with nature are characterized by delusion. Frenzied finishes are revealed; unmistakably human smudges are suddenly glaring; and the distorted, almost oxidized quality of each painting comes to light. While there isn’t a single person featured in any of the 12 paintings, their footprints are everywhere. (Perhaps most notably in Man on the Moon -00.57,023.49 E, 2022 and Tire Mark in Yucca Valley 34°12’27.9”N 116°26’17.2”W, 2022.) It’s unclear if our mark-making—the souvenirs we leave behind when we exit nature—are a gentle kiss to remind our vast natural landscape that it’s a bona fide Hollywood star or a destructive kick that reduces it to a deteriorating backdrop we can always fix in post. Hill revels in that lack of clarity with Strike-Slip, her painterliness inviting, but not forcing, viewers to confront their relationships with nature before ultimately settling back into whatever fantasy they choose to spin up. The comfort of the illusion always prevails.
Olivia Hill: Strike-Slip runs from July 23–September 17, 2022 at Bel Ami (709 N. Hill St. #105, Los Angeles, CA 90012).