A crowd gathered under the rafters and art-deco chandeliers of the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, and the fifteen-piece Aaron Olson Ensemble began with the low strum of a bass guitar, continued into a bright piano melody that later became the distorted sound of a nightmare, and finally moved into a powerful brassy conclusion without ever losing its warm aural undercurrents. Aaron M. Olson’s eight-minute score for Allison Schulnik’s stop-motion animation EAGER (2014) achieved the kind of joyful melancholy implicit in being a living creature on this earth—and delineated the existing emotional landscape. I am compelled to talk about music in this review because the inclusion of this live accompaniment to Schulnik’s floral film was indicative of the kind of poetry inherent in Landscape City. The work in this show investigates the psychological and emotional relationship between humans and their landscape—specifically that of Southern California—and how that construct is undergoing a rapid revision as we move into an uncertain future.
Allison Schulnik’s EAGER is a jumble of grotesque and beautiful scenes that begins with a dance of skeletal female figures who communicate with their long, stringy hair, since their faces are absent. They come in contact with a gauzy, blue-stained witch and a comically sad clown–horse with an erect, red, swinging dick. Then one woman unzips the others’ stomachs to wear them like backpacks through a wild and carnivorous forest of flowers and trees reminiscent of the garden of live flowers from Alice in Wonderland. The influence of choreographer Pina Bausch is apparent, but so too the terrifying early psychedelic cartoons of the 1930s. What this lavish animation encompasses makes words feel ineffective, but any attempt would have to include life, death, rebirth, sex, competition, nature, self-expression, female empowerment, and reproductive power—thanks to all of the rotting, deformed, and beautifully hand-sculpted figures. Schulnik even places herself in the work in a photographic stop-motion sequence, wearing a costume that resembles the blue clay witch. This is the first animation for which the artist has commissioned accompanying music; in the past, she used existing music from artists. Schulnik says that working with Olson was her first collaboration, and the creative agency this allowed is evident in the film.
The paintings from Los Angeles-based Jake Longstreth’s series Particulate Matter (2013–2014) are meditations on mark making and form. Using the hills surrounding Los Angeles as subject matter, Longstreth makes small, precise brush strokes to create the depth of the topography while leaving the sky a perfectly smooth gradient. Los Angeles is a city of sunlight, but if you live here, the quality of the light becomes one of the only indications of a passage of time—the color of the sky and the light reflecting off of the surrounding hills is powerful—and indicative of the season, levels of pollution, cloud cover, and moisture. Longstreth somehow, almost magically, manages to capture not only the varying qualities of light on the hills, but the feelings they invoke as you see them change daily from your house or the freeway.
Peter Scherrer’s expressionistic oil paintings of the California desert are rich tapestries with layers of symbols built into the landscape. Craggy mountainsides become human characters, trees turn into snakes, cacti resemble testicles—there are a lot of possible and probable hidden reproductive organs—as well as a dagger perched precariously at the edge of one painting. This landscape is a purely subconscious one, where each element has a personality and life of its own, but none of it feels sinister. Scherrer’s landscapes feel like old friends making themselves known.
Jesse Wiedel’s strange, somewhat crude paintings of low-life characters in small California towns are the only pieces that directly deal with civilization in the show, although the civilization depicted is a surreal fiction. In The Tropics (2014), a woman dances for a man with his pants down around his ankles outside of a motel called The Tropics while a sleepy-looking alien lumbers behind her. In The Incinerator (2013), a pair of terrifying meth-head men walk both toward and away from the viewer, carrying a red cooler under a tie-dye sky, as though they were stuck circling the sawdust incinerator in their small town for eternity. These paintings display the depression, helplessness, and total disconnect from the land that happens in small towns (note the “Tropics” motel, which is anywhere but), even though these places are often more remote and therefore enveloped in the landscape.
The links between the pieces in Landscape City are tonal more than anything else. The feelings evoked by Aaron Olson’s score for EAGER are echoed again and again in the pieces throughout the show—a calm navigation of our place in the vastness of our physical world.
Landscape City is on view at Eagle Rock Center for the Arts through December 11, 2014.