Posts tagged art

All photos: Jenni Zell

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is their effects upon the way I see and experience the world. Last month I viewed the exhibition, “Robert Irwin: Site Determined” at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach. The exhibit focused on the artist’s luminous and arresting drawings and architectural models. In fact, I have never seen drafting as beautiful and precise as Irwin’s. It is not for want of looking. Last weekend I saw Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes and a few of LeWitt’s wall drawings at SFMOMA. The works felt like formal and conceptual warm-up exercises to Irwin’s site determined works. Creating art that exists outside the domain of a frame and the walls of a gallery and instead in the perceptions of a viewer, is the legacy of Irwin’s body of work.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how his art continues to develop along a trajectory he set out for himself early in his career, one grounded in the philosophy of phenomenology. At 89, Irwin continues to create influential new works. His installation at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas was completed in 2015. At my ripening age his example motivates me to push myself – not toward some predetermined outcome or achievement, but to follow my own inquiry.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how it informs and guides my work as a landscape architect. Several years ago I had the good fortune to deep dive into Irwin’s body of work. I read the books, visited all the installations and exhibits, spent a week (wearing white cotton gloves) reading and looking through the Robert Irwin Papers at the Getty Research Institute. I have interviewed Irwin, and listened to and transcribed these conservations. He is a warm, approachable, and generous teacher.

One particular conservation with Irwin I transcribed took place at the University of Alabama on March 29, 2007 and remains particularly memorable and representative of what I like most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin:

“What I am trying to test, or the game I am playing doing a garden and being an architect and all that is … what I try and do in that situation is make what I do respond to all those things which are existing cues and I do not invent or design anything. I pay attention to those existing cues and finally assemble them… the thing I am really involved with is not just changing or making a garden, but changing the whole process of how we make it a garden, conceptually to make things different in the world, and that is where I am going.”

Our back-to-school theme inspired me to revisit my graduate thesis, a document I haven’t looked at in quite awhile, but that I believe still influences my design thinking today. I started by skimming my references and remembering all of the essays that had inspired me while pulling together ideas.

I was taking an art theory class at the time entitled Art and Ecology, and some of the discussions we had really helped me articulate what I thought and felt about being an ecological designer. I remember re-reading one quote in particular, from Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought, which is both simple and overwhelming.

“…ecology isn’t just about global warming, recycling, and solar power and also not just to do with everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans. It has to do with love, loss, despair, and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis. It has to do with capitalism and with what might exist after capitalism. It has to do with amazement, open-mindedness, and wonder. It has to do with doubt, confusion, and skepticism. It has to do with concepts of space and time. It has to do with delight, beauty, ugliness, disgust, irony, and pain. It has to do with consciousness and awareness. It has to do with ideology and critique. It has to do with reading and writing. It has to do with race, class, and gender. It has to do with sexuality. It has to do with ideas of self and the weird paradoxes of subjectivity. It has to do with society. It has to do with coexistence.”

This quote and the discussion that followed inspired me to think more critically about empathy and affect in ecological thinking. It seemed to me that metrics and data often dominate ecological talk; I was curious about how I could begin to think about ecological design in a different way. My thesis title turned out to be Transparent Animism: A Framework for Participating in Ecological Design as Agonism. Animism became a way for me to talk about humans and nonhumans as subjects, and the political theory of agonism – a political theory that emphasizes the possibly positive aspects of certain forms of political conflict.

As I dug around and tried to better understand the political theories of agonism, a quote by Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe entirely changed the way I thought about ecology. Mouffe stated that, “the fetishization of consensus is an act of silencing”. I suddenly understood that a human idea of a harmonious nature was a fantasy. Rather than emphasizing consensus between humans and nonhumans as a goal, what was required was a platform for ecological design that allows for productive disagreement to take place.

I came up with four design criterias that I believed would help me work towards a more empathetic ecological design process, and I attempted to employ those criteria to four speculative projects. I’ll plug a link to my thesis here, because this ontological brainstorm took me close to a year to complete.

One of the projects, the video shown below, is something I recognize as a relational diagram. It was all about the challenge of exchanging perspectives. The construct is made of layered clear acrylic planes with laser cut holes that I then painted pink and blue. When staked the layers of colors create a visual field with a shifting organization of figure-ground. An understanding of existence as relational proposes that humans and nonhumans are in a continuous process of negotiation with one another.

As a landscape designer today I still feel it is necessary to be critical of and empathetic towards representations of nature and the ongoing discussion of what makes ecological design ecological.

““The unfathomable, gloomy elegance of this splashing and rumbling landscape painting — the movement of the waves, the circling of the birds, the lifting of the cloud cover — is followed by an arc shot resembling a brushstroke that tells us about everything we have already forgotten while gazing at the static and precisely framed mountain: the world beyond the image.” – Alejandro Bachmann

Austrian artist Lukas Marxt initially began in search of landscapes untouched by humankind – remote places across the globe unknown or forgotten, existing in what is often referred to in geological durations as “deep time”. Across these increasingly disappearing spaces devoid of human activity, Marxt’s solitary interactions and observations within barren landscapes conjures the temporal nature of humankind’s imprint upon the planet, appearing in an instant, then as quickly fading back into the confluence of time. Over time his work has evolved to fold humankind into the narrative of the greater landscape, superimposing our world back onto a holistic perspective. His works evoke equal moments of wonder and sadness, connection and solitude.

Currently residing in Southern California during a six month residency researching the ecological and socio-political structures surrounding the Salton Sea, seven of Marxt’s videos will be screening next week on Wednesday at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles. Even if you’re unable to attend next, anyone can immerse themselves into the flow of Marxt’s deep time work thanks to Vimeo.

“Aerial photography has existed since we flew balloons. What interests me is that everybody now has access to it. It has sort of become a common object. I would no longer call it a god’s-eye view because it has become so present. What interests me most is that you can steer it yourself and direct it. You can take flight and rescale the landscape in ways in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the macro and the micro.” – Lukas Marxt


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.


VHZ_LARiverPaintings_Molaa_1In 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.

All photos: Evan Mather

All photos by Evan Mather, except where noted.

One of my favorite artists – Alexander Calder – died 39 years ago today. While visiting Chicago this weekend for the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO, I took the opportunity to visit one of my favorite Calder works – Flamingo.

     More details Flamingo as viewed from the Willis Tower skyjack. Creative Commons photo: Jeremy Atherton

Flamingo as viewed from the Willis Tower skyjack. Creative Commons photo: Jeremy Atherton


There are many reasons why I love this piece – not the least how the vermillion (aka Calder Red) stands out within the surrounding monochromatic cityscape. But possibly more so the tactile nature of the piece – being able to walk right up to it and touch it – the surface, the rivets, Calder’s signature.