The Artists of the Film MANA
Lancaster Museum of Art and History
June 21 -- August 31, 2014
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, AUG 2014
It’s pronounced “MAH-nah” -- an untranslatable Polynesian concept that refers to an elusive but ubiquitous sense of awe-filled connectedness to the patterns and powers of natural forces -- especially the ocean. The current exhibition at Lancaster Museum of Art and History (MOAH) highlights the work of ten visual artists whose lives and studio practices are defined by the presence of mana in their conciousnesses and on their canvasses. They are the same ten artists who are featured in the new documentary film MANA, directed by photographer Eric Minh Swenson, which unpacks their individual relationships to the ocean as an allegory for creative momentum.
Popular Jungian-style analysis of water as a stand-in for the subconscious makes a lot of sense; you dream of a roiling ocean, a placid lake, an icy woodland brook, etc. and an emotional match is easy to grasp. And surfing as a metaphor for riding the creative wave is just as straightforward. The artists in the film speak insightfully about the operations of intuition, focus, and clarity in a personal sense -- and equally passionately about the magic of surface qualities, scale, the role of color, the play of light, luminosity, transparency, undulation, and reflection in a formal sense. Not everyone in the movie is currently an avid daily surfer, though all either are or have been, and all are at least enamored of the oceanside culture, living in either greater LA or on the island. MOAH for its part is dedicated to its geographical region and its particular spirit and history, and committed to a curatorial embrace of the current cultural moment across all media, valuing individual visions of a shared place, like a real-time time-capsule. And there is a quality about this show (and film) that is in perfect alignment with this mission, speaking to the diverse expressions of this waterlogged community.
Most of the work technically exists within the boundaries of traditional genres like painting, sculpture, and photography -- within which arenas they each succeed in defining their own territory, articulating an eclectic array of stylistic, narrative, and material-driven work along the abstract/symbolist/conceptual continuum. As a group they explore the shared topic at hand in as many stylistic modes as there are artists -- in fact, more, as several artists exhibit work in more than one medium. Ned Evans shows both painting and dimensional resin works for the wall, demonstrating the power of light and both saturated and diffuse color in two and three dimensions. While the radiant, gradient orange of the painting invokes the honey-drip of the setting sun despite its geometrical arrangement, the cluster of smaller cast resin drops and puddles come closer to being water than to depicting it. Similarly, Alex Weinstein’s painting is an abstraction, more gestural and expressionistic than Evans’ but no less evocative of the low-hanging sun. Weinstein’s concrete cubes are topped with a layer of wave-motion like frozen riptides; blending hard surface with soft algorithms in a way that again, more embodies than depicts the water it represents. Casper Brindle makes paintings whose shimmering horizon-line vistas seem to change their surface qualities with the directionality of ambient light and viewers’ movements -- sometimes literally changing color due to his use of dichroic pigment. Again, though stylistically singular, we have an example of evocation both rather than and in conjunction with depiction in regarding the sea. His sculptural installation (a school chair on a slightly raised, highly reflective dias, the whole awash in a ceiling-mounted projection of cosmic, nebulous, sparkling light) is both captivating and witty, and refers it seems to time spent staring out the window at school, dreaming of the surf to come.
Evocative quasi-documentarian photographs by Ken Pagliaro portray surfers doing their various alone and together things, paddling out en masse as a memorial gesture, ebulliently riding their chosen crests, contemplating the stunning natural perspectives only available out on the water. They are eccentric, experiential, archetypal, and personal. Restrained, conceptual oceanic topographies are also Steve Fuchs’ happy place -- except rendered in milled wood as topographic patterns that express the fractal quality of ocean water as bas relief drawing made with precision and patience.
There is a decided prevalence of specific materials which tether the group to specific Los Angeles history and art history -- stencil, collage, spray paint, digitalism, resin, foam, fiberglass, automotive paint, surf wax, light & space, finish fetish. Notable is Eric Johnson whose undulating, glimmering, glass-like, watery resin works are simultaneously abstract paintings and natural-sciences style dimension rendering of wave form, not unlike Weinstein’s sculptural blocks. Johnson achieves both solidity (mass) and luminosity (refraction), and by hanging them on the wall, the cast shadows discover their own part to play in the sculptural experience of the work. Alex Couwenberg makes paintings that also have a slightly sculptural aspect to them -- in that the multiple layers of textured pigment used to construct his engineered supernovas are build up off the surface, so that the interplay of color, style of mark making, and a physicality of the surface elements not usually associated with the kind of hard-edge abstraction he practices all have a role to play in his explosive engineering of a rich, luscious tertiary palette.
Painters Ben Brough and David Lloyd each take on certain kinds of specific imagery, cultivating versions of the laid-back surrealism fostered by the topsy-turvy visual culture in Surflandia. Across Brough’s rough and tumble bleached color fields are scattered emblems of the people and their habits in a deceptively simple style that seems sparse but contains multitudes. Lloyd creates a multidextrous jumble that through contemplation resolves its unique deployment of trompe l’oeil, geometric hard-edge, and splash-bangs into a proper picture. Some of the most engaging work across the show deals with the overall sensibility of the time and place -- beyond fine art, embracing the attendant culture of music, film, fashion, youth, and sun-worship. That’s where Craig “Skibs” Barker really comes in, with an impressively elaborate installation so unique, quirky, eclectic and exuberant that it threatens to steal the show, but instead contextualizes the whole in a veritable chapel to nostalgia, pop art, and pretty girls. Amid a sprawl of vintage objects (mannequins, knick-knacks, old TV sets playing expertly collaged video clips juxtaposing the sweetness and subversion that characterized the OG surfing generation at the pinnacle of its dope-friendly good life, high-heel shoes, hand-painted signs, copies of Vargas drawings made by the artist’s grandfather, and ads for hosiery only Don Draper could love) by turns collected, appropriated, inherited, and transformed -- amid this orderly tumult one finds large and small paintings in their proper context of vintage, salt-taffy sex appeal.
This post is dedicated to the memory of skate and surf legend Jay Adams of Zephyr and Lords of Dogtown fame, who died suddenly on a surf trip to Mexico during the time of this writing. He went out doing what he loved the most -- chasing mana.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Huffington Post, The Creators Project, Vs. Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Montage, Desert Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, sometimes exhibits her photography and publishes short fiction, and speaks in public at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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