In 1990 artist Victor Hugo Zayas painted “L.A. River, First Street Bridge” and for 25 years he has continued to paint and sketch the river, often at night and with his feet in the river’s water. His solo exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art is on view through February 7, 2016. The exhibit combines Zayas’ sketch studies with large oil paintings depicting a moody and unknowable urban river landscape. “The River Paintings” and “The Grid Series,” which are exhibited together with a selection of Zayas’ early representations of the river, are composed using a subdued palette of greys, blues, and ochres with a thick, expressive impasto.
In the two and one half decades Zayas has been painting the Los Angeles River, little has changed. Ninety percent of the river’s 51 miles have been contained in concrete for over 40 years. In recent years, parks have been constructed near the river, but outside the river channel; none have restored the hydrologic connections necessary for ecosystem restoration. This is primarily because of the sharply drawn jurisdictional lines that delineate ownership and responsibility and that have made connecting the river with its historic wash impossible. (see Landscape Architecture Magazine). Of course the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adoption of the preferred $1.3 billion restoration plan offers hope for significant future efforts to restore hydrologic connections, increase habitat and recreational opportunities.
What has changed dramatically in the past decades is public perception of the river, which began to shift as artists showed alternative ways of perceiving the river. Lewis McAdams – president and co-founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) – is a poet who considers his work with FOLAR as a 40-year artwork to build a river constituency.
The river transect studies of photographer John Humble, who photographed the river from its origin point in the San Fernando Valley down to it’s eventual end at the Pacific Ocean in his 2001 exhibit “The Los Angeles River: 51 Miles of Concrete,” breaks the cliché of an American river in its ideal state as untouched by mankind, and instead defines a new image of a fragmented waterway dislocated from its natural state, stunningly beautiful and dignified in its non-river likeness. The realism of Humble’s images – portraying a degraded, concrete lined flood control channel that is also unequivocally a river – foreshadowed the EPA’s 2010 designation of the river as a navigable waterway.
Zayas’ work, and the work of other artists studying the river do not prescribe a strategy for the hard work, interagency collaboration, and piles of money needed to make the Los Angeles River into something other than what is today. Yet, each provide the romanticism and realism required to motivate and inspire these efforts. Landscape architects, planners, and architects have been working for decades to transform the Los Angeles River and weave this restoration into L.A.’s emerging sense of place. Perhaps what is most significant about Zayas’ work is how it captures raw dynamic energy, suggesting the river is a powerful force for change.