Los Angeles’ County’s high desert community of Lancaster is famous for spring wildflowers, riotous, iridescent fields of California poppies punctuated by spikes of purple lupine that carpet the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, just fifteen miles outside of Lancaster, spilling over the desert’s hills and basins. The city too spills over the hills; its population has increased fivefold since its incorporation in 1977. CNN Money Magazine has repeatedly named Lancaster as one of the best places to live in the United States, a sobriquet that will no doubt draw more residents, especially with a 54% job growth rate in the past decade. With its museum-wide exhibition “BLOOM: 2013,” Lancaster’s Museum of Art and History, which opened just a year ago, links the expanding desert community to the environmentally sensitive and economically important land that surrounds it by celebrating Nature’s exuberant growth and underscoring the potential ecological disaster that man-made growth can bring.
While April showers can bring May flowers, this year, so far, April has been the cruelest month. Low rainfall meant very few desert wildflower blooms; the hills along Highway 14 leading to Lancaster are brown and dry. But inside MOAH, a three floor building designed by Mark K. Lahmon at PSL Architects, brightly colored floral artwork explodes off the cool white walls of the main gallery, lit by a combination of natural desert light and electricity, while throughout the museums’ other galleries and hallways, and even on the roof, flowers bloom in various forms and interpretations.
The main exhibition “SuperCallaFragileMysticEcstasyDioecious” highlights four Los Angeles area artists, Penelope Gottlieb, Cole Case, Amir H. Fallah, and Roland Reiss. The title riffs off “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the neologism coined by the Sherman Brothers for the 1964 musical Mary Poppins. The word roughly translates to
educability atoning through delicate beauty,
an apt attribution for all of “BLOOM: 2013,” and a pun with several layers. “Calla” refers to the line from uttered by Katharine Hepburn in the 1937 film, Stage Door:
The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.
“Dioecious” is a botanical term; a dioecious species has male (staminate) flowers on one plant, and female (pistillate) flowers on another. Dioecious plants are not self-pollinating. Nor is art; the creative process takes in from the environment, from culture and society, from history, from words and gestures, light and space, the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Once past the sticky stigma, these pollinating influences combine with the ovules, the unformed potential in the pistil (itself shaped like the cucurbite of the alchemist), and seeds are formed. “SuperCallaFragileMysticEcstasyDioecious” carefully cultivates the disparate styles that depict a heavily fraught and rich subject, flowers.
The central wall vibrates with Penelope Gottlieb‘s botanical prints and a flowing wall sculpture. These not the calm meditative watercolors of centuries past, but rather erupting, blazing florals. Sub rosa, these pieces moan, scream and echo the anguished themes of the Romantic poets and Exene Cevenka’s punk wail:
The world’s a mess; it’s in my kiss
as fierce blossoms, ragged petals, and torn leaves push past sinister pods and tumbling columns, and in Viola cryana, the 7 of spades, a playing card which carries dual meaning in cartomancy: higher awareness, or great loss. The species Viola cryana, a French flower in the violet/pansy family, was declared extinct in 1930 when its limestone habitat was destroyed by over-quarrying (though some plants remained in private cultivation until 1950, when the species completely died out). The point is clear, as clear as Gottlieb’s line work in these and in her three piece Audubon series that hangs outside the main the gallery. In the latter, Gottlieb has over-painted Audubon prints with ink and acrylics, adding lush blossoms, menacingly seductive invasive species, to the master naturalist’s works.
The centerpiece of Cole Case‘s wall is a huge canvas, NFL Flowers. Dutch and Flemish floral still-lifes are redolent with detail and symbolism, rare flowers from around the world, specimens from gardens captured in various stages of bloom, regardless of seasonal and regional constraints. NFL Flowers, over-sized, bold, thick with paint, carries the mind along the stems leaning in the vase to the flowers atop. A yellow gerbera daisy, purple asters tipped with white, a lone pink rose bud–this is a simple bouquet, a bouquet bought to say
I love you
for any and all the reasons carried, perhaps an as apology, perhaps for a celebration, but clearly as a gesture of love.
Working in mixed media, Amir H. Fallah layers drawn and painted flowers into fluid yet dense collages that pulsate with color. These contrast with the seemingly simple acrylic and vinyl works by California master painter Roland Riess: tropicals and “everyday” flowers like carnations dance with geometric forms across swirls of aqua, orange, green, and pink in his “Floradora” series.
Visitors to the museum are greeted by site two specific installations. Astro Flowers by Jennifer Vanderpool and Patrick Melroy, links Lancaster’s role in space technology and aviation to the surrounding desert’s flowers, playing upon the contrasts of flowers to rockets, and raising questions about the culturally subjective ideas of “beautification” inherent in manifest destiny (and development). Community Herb Garden, part of the Green MOAH Initiative installation turns gardening clogs into planters, filling them with earth and sprouts. The result is simple, effective, relatable.
On the museum’s rooftop terrace, the Green MOAH Initiative takes on a more ambitious garden in conjunction with the Eastside High School Art Department: The Wasteland Project. Students visited illegal dump sites in the desert and hauled back trash which they used to create found object sculptures, themed around flowers. Over 600 students participated in clean up and sculpture construction and related initiative programs including spoken word, and math and science projects. Student artist Tyler Bennett told me that the student teams had barely made a dent in the illegal trash heaps. The work Bennett helped construct is dark and disturbing: shards of broken glass, faded shoes and empty prescription bottles tell a story of lives gone horribly wrong.
In the first floor vault gallery, Sharon Suhovy--whose work was featured in all three Coagula Curators’ College shows last month in Chinatown–exhibited her fairy tale florals in “Ambrosia.” Sculpted with cake decorating tools, Suhovy’s lushly feminine work is simultaneously ladylike and profoundly erotic. The eroticism continues on the second floor with Elena Manferdini‘s close-up montage of pomegranates and cherry blossoms, while Eros is complimented by Thanatos in California photographer Janice Tieken’s series “Orchid Requiem,” winner of the International Silver Prize for Art and Science of Color. The cycle of life and death, roots, seeds, stems, blooms, and fruit are shaped in glass by Kathleen Elliot, delicate and supra-real, complimenting Susan Sironi‘s botanical dioramas. Sironi carefully cuts away pages of books to create breathtaking, deep and mysterious stories. The leftover cuttings are transformed into wall pieces, overlaid with painted lines, curves, dots–Sironi’s own text, the letters cut away like her book pages into codes for the viewer to parse.
Rebecca Niederlander full room installation We Are Stardust. We Are Golden. And We Have to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden explodes with the brilliant orange of the California poppies, our state flower. Scissors and sheets of paper of allow the viewer to become a participant, to become a child again by creating cut and fold designs like those scattered about the installation. The title of the piece is the chorus in Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock.” Niederlander’s piece reflects back to the themes in Astro Flowers on the first floor, to Lancaster’s place between Nature’s beauty and the aerospace industry, while inviting us to return to an Eden-esque state, both internally through creativity; and externally by rescuing and restoring the Golden State.
MOAH is a new museum, located in the newly renovated downtown area, full of freshness, excited to exist, excited by its place in the community and the opportunities it can provide. Admission is a suggested donation, making access to art affordable to everyone. The museum’s dedication to the community is evident not only in its MOAH Green Initiative, but in the museum’s weekly Artist Critique Night, held on Thursdays, moderated by a professional guest artist/critic from the Los Angeles region. On May 23 MOAH hosts its 28th Annual All-Media Juried Art Exhibition, “New Traditions,” where a panel of judges will review the work of local artists, and selected artists will have the opportunity to display their art in the Museum of Art & History, as well as gain award recognition.
“BLOOM:2013” opened on Mother’s Day, and MOAH hosted a Mother’s Day tea and fashion show, featuring clothes and extravagant hats from local shops on the BLVD, as the neighborhood around MOAH is known, further cementing the museum’s desire to celebrate the City of Lancaster and engage the community. Artists in “BLOOM:2013” attended the tea along with local mothers and daughters and were joined later at the official reception by a group of artists from the greater Los Angeles area including Stevie Love, Emerald , Gary Brewer Julie Scott, Barbara Kerwin, Chase Langford, Coop (Christopher Cooper), Dav Naz, Steve Diet Goedde, Moshe Elimelech, and Ashley Bravin who made easy drive northwards. As photographer/documentary filmmaker Eric Minh Swenson says
Relax, it’s only 80 mins away from LA.
(There’s also Metrolink, which takes a little longer, but has a $10 weekend unlimited pass, which means $5 each way on Saturdays and Sundays; the Metrolink station is three blocks from the museum).
In its first year, under the direction of curator Andi Campognone, MOAH has already featured works by regional, national, and internationally renowned artists. By continuing to curate exhibitions–along with a variety of art and history-based programs–that have resonance both within and beyond the Antelope Valley, MOAH provides and intimate yet expansive environment in which to experience art, and one which can only enhance the entire Southland’s reputation as an arts center.
through June 29, 2013
Lancaster Museum of Art and History (MOAH)
665 West Lancaster BLVD (Corner of Ehrlich Ave. and Lancaster BLVD)
Lancaster CA 93534
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday – Sunday: 11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Thursday: 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Closed Monday and holidays, and July 1-19 and September 27-29
Admission: Free – Suggested Donation Only
Photos 7, 8, 16, 17, 26, 27, 28: Eric Minh Swenson/thuvanarts.com. Used by permission.
Photos 22 and 23: Courtesy of Janice Tieken
All others: Lisa Derrick/CARTWHEELart.com