Astrid Preston: For The Trees
Blue McRight: Gather
Craig Krull Gallery, Los Angeles
By LITA BARRIE September 26, 2023
Dual exhibitions of Los Angeles women artists Astrid Preston and Blue McRight at Craig Krull Gallery reveal interesting parallels between their work, which would not have been obvious before they were shown together. Craig Krull is a strong advocate of L.A. women artists—particularly in recent years—and likes to pair exhibitions that open interesting dialogues between different artists’ work.
Astrid Preston’s tree paintings and Blue McRight’s underwater sculptures share a devotional quality in the meticulously detailed, labor-intensive way they are handmade over a long duration of time. They both live and breathe their art processes: McRight, by scuba diving oceans around the world and carefully researching deep sea creatures, and Preston, by taking photographs of trees in gardens and forests she visits- especially in Japan and France. Preston uses these photographs as source material, then meditates on their subjective significance to the memories of landscapes she carries in her mind along with Japanese, Chinese, French Impressionist and Renaissance painting she loves. Both artists’ works contain a strong ecological message, but it is more poetic than didactic, because the two work from a deep engrossment in their subject matter which is both emotional and intellectual, which in turn, resonates with the viewer.
Preston and McRight also share a love of never-ending patterns they observe in nature that recalls William Blake’s inspirational words: “To see a world in a grain of sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” Indeed, for both artists – much like for the great poet Blake – any tiny geometric pattern in nature contains a greater cosmic truth when we look at it attentively and allow our imagination to flow. For McRight, it might be a “snowstorm” of hundreds of tiny, one-inch transparent sea creatures migrating from the deep ocean floor that she observes when scuba diving. For Preston, it might be the snowflakes she sees through her car window while driving. These unusual patterns inspire a cosmic fascination which makes both artists lose themselves in a reverie, or dreamy meditation, or fanciful musing they share with us through their meticulous artworks.
Preston has explored fractals for many years, while McRight has explored fishing nets which have similar geometries. They both juxtapose close-up and distant views of these recurring patterns—much like a zoom lens—to play on multiple perspectives and realities which provide different views for contemplative and aesthetic consideration. For McRight, a fishing net is an instrument of death, but it can also be hoisted with pulleys and yanked down with lead weights as a play on balance and counterbalance. By contrast, these nets can be stretched as a tapestry grid or draped to create a sense of movement. Preston uses fractal patterns which are an evolutionary design we see throughout nature—from the most famous fractal, the Mandelbrot set, to honeycombs, crystal growths, eroded coastlines and starry skies—in superimposed grids over meticulously detailed representations of forests. In her new paintings, the pixels are more subtle, and create the feeling of a mirage or a dreamscape to remind the viewer that the landscape is a mental construction.
Both Preston and McRight magnify tiny geometries they observe in nature, which gives their work a surrealist edge, `a la Magritte. In Preston’s new paintings, she magnifies snowflakes from dots, to glowing orbs, to larger rectangular shapes, in order to form a web-like grid over distant representations of tree forests. In a thematic parallel, McRight’s salvaged fish nets are a habitat for tiny sea forms, which recall an underwater forest. While their mediums may differ, each artist explores universal geometries throughout nature which have the cosmic significance Blake espoused.
Entering the gallery, one first sees Preston’s Forgotten Trees, which uses illusionistic perspectival space to create multiple points of view. This is obviously a reference to French Impressionism—except that Preston’s puzzling image of hazy trees with partially abstract autumnal leaves only exists in the mind’s eye as a distant memory. By contrast, her recollection of a forest of trees is almost completely abstract in Dissolving Memories. In Bones of the Forest, the sharply rendered slender tree trunks are the only clear geometry, while the dense foliage is abstract, and this keeps the viewer’s eye moving around the painting, because there is no single focus to delimit or contain a natural world that is in itself ungraspable and infinite. Of course, we have all been acculturated by traditional western art landscape conventions to believe that idealized landscapes exist, when they are really an artifice. Preston is steeped in Chinese and Japanese art in addition to David Hockney’s skewered multiple perspectives, so she is deft at playing off traditional western landscape tropes only to deconstruct them in bewildering paintings that are simultaneously beguiling. She calls her paintings “re-descriptions” which are “a way to understand human consciousness in relation to lived experience.”
In the main gallery space, McRight’s installation also plays off aesthetic juxtapositions to raise questions, but her sculptures are read through the meanings of her materials and hand-making techniques. She juxtaposes macro and micro scale, by repurposing fish nets as habitats for tiny imaginary sea creatures made from plastic straws, remnants of discarded clothes, plastic bags and red threads using tying, knotting, stitching and crocheting techniques, while also creating fanciful creatures from repurposed plastic and debris. On one wall, she even hangs small sculptures inspired by sea anemones, which are tiny treasures made out of trash. McRight’s work raises awareness of ocean plastic pollution by showing how plastic and debris can have aesthetic and poetic value when artists create a space for trash to enter a cultural dialogue. In this regard, McRight’s work has strong affinities with Liz Larner’s amazing sculptures of the horrific beauty of a plastic Pacific paradise of polluted sea foam made from plastic detritus.
Preston and McRight belong to the era of aesthetic ambiguity because nothing ever means just one thing in their multi-layered work. Things are turned upside down, viewed from different perspectives, repurposed and decontextualized which makes us acutely aware that the meaning of the things around us never resides in the thing itself - because it is always subjective. We assign meaning and value to things and our way of seeing might be partially acculturated and even habitual but we always have the power to change our blind spots and see things in a different light or from a different angle as these exhibitions show - but we sometimes need artists to show us the way. Rarely have I seen this important function of art realized as well as Preston and McRight realized it in these dual exhibitions.
On view September 2 through October 14, 2023. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author