press release

Contemporary Photographs and Video Exhibition Finds Art in Infrastructure Los Angeles—L.A. River Reborn captures the unexpected beauty of the Los Angeles River and portrays the fragile relationship between society and the environment. Featuring the work of internationally renowned contemporary visual artists Lane Barden, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Anthony Hernandez, John Humble, and filmmakers Dana Plays and Gary Schwartz, the exhibition examines this previously overlooked element of the city’s geography from unique artistic perspectives. L.A. River Reborn will be on view from April 6 through September 3, 2006 at the Skirball Cultural Center, free to the public.

In grand panoramic overviews and close-ups of everyday reality, the exhibition’s photographs and videos suggest the River’s transformation as well as its cultural and environmental significance. A single work from the Harrisons’ now historic collaborative multi-media installation Arroyo Seco Release, 1985, exemplifies their seminal influence as artistic activists who were among the first to direct attention to the ecology of the Los Angeles River watershed. With an explorer’s perspective, Barden pairs aerial views to reveal the River’s vast scope across the natural and urban landscape. Humble’s romantic vision of the industrial sublime bestows grandeur on the River’s modern architectural constructions. Hernandez emphasizes abstract patterns and spatial ambiguity in poetic portrayals of the detritus of civilization. The videos by Plays and Schwartz depict the River in popular culture—from the desolate terrain shown in Hollywood movies to the animated creation of mural art on its surrounding walls—characterizing the site as one of violent death or potential rebirth.

Since 1986, when poet and activist Lewis MacAdams founded the nonprofit organization Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), there has been mounting interest in revitalizing this much-maligned waterway. The Skirball exhibition pays homage to not only the art being made by Los Angeles artists with the L.A. River as their subject, but to the social activism that has ignited an important regional movement.

With its rich natural vegetation and wildlife, the L.A. River once attracted Spanish missionaries to settle here. But as development spread, repeated flooding during severe winter storms made the River a hazard. A federal public works project, begun in 1938, encased most of the River—despite its often meager flow—in a concrete flood-control channel. Extending fifty-one miles from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, this massive conduit now traverses the city’s suburban sprawl, myriad ethnic neighborhoods, and industrial downtown.

Reclaiming the River has become a major priority for both community groups and municipal government. While the outcome is being debated, two riverside State Parks are in the works and the Los Angeles City Council’s River Committee is developing a plan to enhance water resources, promote economic and community development, and foster neighborhood pride.

The Skirball Cultural Center will present numerous public programs in association with L.A. River Reborn, from a panel on environmental justice and social responsibility to a newly commissioned Siteworks dance piece in the Skirball’s own arroyo. Other programs include a daylong bus tour of the Los Angeles River and its many important landmarks, and an evening with artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. The popular Skirball Sunset Concerts series will feature the legendary Little Willie G. on Thursday, August 17 in a musical tribute to Los Angeles. See attached for a complete list of related programs.

“Through photographs and videos by these extraordinary artists, we hope to engage our visitors in the many complexities surrounding the Los Angeles River—its history, its ecology, and its role as subject matter in art and popular culture,” comments Lori Starr, Senior Vice President, Skirball Cultural Center, and Director, Skirball Museum. “The exhibition explores the intersections between art and social action. It manifests the Skirball’s mission to connect Jewish values with American democratic ideals—including education, exploring cultural expression, and caring for the earth and for the health and welfare of all communities.” L.A. River Reborn was made possible by partial support from Washington Mutual, with additional support from Leonard Vernon.

About the artists: Lane Barden has created a hybrid form of landscape and aerial photography to depict the experience of traveling down the Los Angeles River. A series of overlapping images made from a low-flying helicopter track the size and scope of the River’s channel and complex surroundings. He thereby produces a composite serial view of the flow of the River through the landscape, a view impossible to experience at ground level. In an earlier series, Barden recorded the wild, natural landscape that surrounds the River in Elysian Valley. In making art about the River, he hopes to advance the dialogue about its future.

Working collaboratively, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison create ecological art that seeks to restore a balanced relationship between humanity and its surroundings. Growing out of the 1970s earthworks movement, but rooted in eco-feminism and environmentalism, their work springs from their dialogue as husband and wife, male and female. Their project, Arroyo Seco Release/A Serpentine for Pasadena, 1985, was a multi-media installation of collages, maps, photography, and poetic hand written texts. It suggested transforming the area’s concrete flood control channel into an urban preserve, with a park extending from the Los Angeles River to Devil’s Gate Dam. The current display of a selected work from the installation only alludes to the community’s involvement in the public dialogue that was originally facilitated and the solution completed by others fifteen years later.

Anthony Hernandez explores the fragile relationship between society and its public and private spaces. Having grown up two blocks from the Los Angeles River, he was attracted to its spatial ambiguity and constantly changing elements. Often using time-lapse photography, Hernandez created beauty from the disturbing detritus he encountered in the River’s concrete channel and intricate tunnel system. Presented in large-format with distinctive formal clarity, saturated color and intricate detail, his poetic images may be seen as still life compositions, floating in an environmental wasteland. Nazraeli Press published a book of this series entitled Everything in 2005.

John Humble’s photographs of the Los Angeles River, 51 Miles of Concrete, focus on its completely artificial and modern construction. Dramatizing its surreal proportions and formal order, he depicts the River as alternately serene and dynamic, spiritual and ominous. Inspired by an assignment for the Los Angeles Times, Humble’s romantic vision of the industrial sublime evokes modernist aesthetic practices and bestows grandeur on the River’s architectural structures. Extending his photographic study on the ironies of the Los Angeles landscape, he is fascinated by the River’s course through the city’s sociological archaeology.

Experimental filmmaker Dana Plays created River Madness in 2000 for “Re-Envisioning the Los Angeles River,” a year-long series of events produced by Friends of the Los Angeles River and Occidental College. This video is a montage of scenes from more than twenty Hollywood movies shot on location in the L.A. River. Throughout the footage, Plays positions the viewer in the cement encased riverbed, its surrounding bridges and rail yards. Despite the abundance of recognizable films and stars, the River is the central character in this dark drama of urban desolation, violence and death. Gary Schwartz is an animator, director, educator and filmmaker. Rivermation is a digital time-lapse video taken over two days in April 2002. Schwartz captured the return of nature to the River through a 360-degree pan of the landscape in the Frogtown neighborhood, just north of downtown Los Angeles. From dawn to dusk, through movement and light, the power of the rushing water is a potent reminder of the River’s geological origins and its potential. Playfully contrasting the natural flow with a burst of popular creativity, the video ends with the work of East L.A. artist Leo Lim—n, who has been spray painting “River Cats” on the covers of storm drains for the past twenty-five years.

L.A. River Reborn is presented as part of a trio of photography exhibitions on view at the Skirball Cultural Center in the spring and summer of 2006. The other exhibitions include The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography, on view from March 24 through September 3, and Rwanda/Then, Darfur/Now: Photographs by Michal Ronnen Safdie, opening May 24 and on view through October 1.


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mit Lane Barden, Helen Mayer Harrison & Newton Harrison, Anthony Hernandez, John Humble, Dana Plays, Gary Schwartz