One of the most important focuses of the recent LA Art Show was a dialogue about the Los Angeles River and its relationship to art, moderated by Marisa Calchiolo, with guest speakers Edward Hughes, curator of exhibitions at the Museum of Latin American Art, Mexican-born painter Victor Hugo Zayas, and author, landscape designer, and professor at Pepperdine University, Wade Graham. The timing seemed appropriate, given that Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded a grant to the City of Los Angeles and three other cities to develop innovative art projects that engage and attract visitors, as a way to transform urban spaces. The Los Angeles project – LA Water Call to Action on Water Conservation Through Art – will commission up to fiften multidisciplinary artworks that will address water conservation and promote revival in once-decayed areas, as well as bring awareness to the city’s inaugural Art Biennial. Moreover, with the announcement of Frank Ghery’s comprehensive plan, although cloaked in secrecy, to collaborate with the River Revitalization Corporation on a social design that will focus on hydrology and urban renewal, the Los Angeles River has been receiving loads of attention. Kayaking through the river, the great annual clean-up, riverfront real estate, mixed-used properties, and Silicone River around the Arts District are just some of the other ideas circulating these days.
That is the Los Angeles River of 2016, however, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was a place to be ignored due to its stigma of being a conduit for urban waste, a dumping ground, and crime-infested cesspool. Some low-income families even did laundry in the river bed, while in the mid-80’s a serial rapist was dubbed “The Los Angeles River Rapist” by the Los Angeles Police Department. Blake Gumprecht, author of The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth, acknowledged that one of the first persons to see this arterial octopus as a potential life bearer, that stretches out in every direction of the metropolis was Lewis MacAdams, professor at Otis College and social activist who founded Friends of the Los Angeles River.
The Roman poet Horace once mentioned that great municipal projects, married to art programs, should be in service to the city-state to communicate empire-building, which is how the river became concreted to begin with in the WPA’s heyday of the 1930’s and 40’s. The post-depression era created thousands of rare opportunities that provided a synthesis for civil works projects and the arts, which caused a renaissance-like environment, and in the post-recession era of today, we are experiencing a similar zeitgeist. I’ve heard people mention that Los Angeles is going through a transformation process and being compared to the 60’s and 70’s, however, based on the built environment, infrastructure, and history as a whole, it is more representative of the New Deal era. Wade Graham maintained that the City of Los Angeles must change its cultural perspective in regards to the Los Angeles River and how we coexist with it, which is the same phenomenon for rivers around the world, and its possible future design was first articulated by an artist/writer. Writers, artists, intellectuals, and other cultural visionaries have often provided society’s blueprint for revolutionary change, while the engineers and urban planners have simply carried out those plans.
One such visionary and artist who has been painting the Los Angeles River for about 30 years is Victor Hugo Zayas. He never intentionally set out to do that, it was more accidental since he had an art studio adjacent to the river and would walk to the river to absorb its emptiness and listen to its constant flow. Originally it was more as a form of escapism, to be distracted by the flora and fauna and such, but over time he surveyed its constant changes and decided to document it as a form of cathartic release. Many of his paintings were done around the 92 Los Angeles Riots, when palm trees, buildings, and other landmarks were set on fire and commingled with smog. According to Zayas, the color scheme of the landscape changed during this period, which is reflective in his paintings to convey bleak colors, i.e. grays and blacks, rather than the golds, greens and blues often associated with the region. The foliage and chaparral within the paintings resemble a drab olive tone, and are more in line with the artist’s historical perspective of remembrance, although he sounds a lot more optimistic about the river’s future.
Recently on view at the Museum of Latin American Art were the grid series and the L.A. River landscapes of Victor Hugo Zayas. The grid series paintings were inspired by a view from the LAX airport onto the cityscape below and how people functioned as industrious ants in an advanced capitalist state. The grid series looks almost post-apocalyptic because of its depth and somewhat coldness, yet it also looks futuristic, functional, and progressive. That phenomenon follows the Dark Progressivist line – to debunk the glamorous and booster-type myths of the region, to also include the shadowy ecology of the environment. Also on view were the river paintings, and I was fortunate enough to see the exhibition before it closed and do a walk-through with the artist and hear a first-hand experience of how Zayas has run into all types of situations while painting in the river, from gang threats to attempted robbery. However, it never deterred him from his work and he continues to paint the river and its fluctuating trajectory. Quite modestly, Victor Hugo Zayas maintains that although he’s been painting the river for almost 30 years, he feels that only now is it revealing itself. Zayas’ work cannot be compared to any other artist, he stands uniquely positioned with extreme discipline to paint it from a place of complexity as observed in its grid-iron like patterns. The LA Art Show had it right to include and recognize one of the most important artists of today in urban landscapes. He has shown in important galleries and museums throughout the United States and Mexico, and has important collectors as far as Australia and China. Keep an eye on this highly talented and well-educated artist.
Photo’s courtesy of Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA)
Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre is the author of Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs, The NAFTA Blueprint, and A Grave Situation. Last year he co-curated the LA Art Show special exhibition, Dark Progressivism: Metropolis Rising. He is the writer/director of the upcoming feature documentary film, Dark Progressivism, an urban studies film that follows the trajectory of Los Angeles gang graffiti, murals, and tattoo art, and their impact on contemporary art. He writes extensively about art and culture in Los Angeles, with articles published in the Huffington Post, Cartwheel Art Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he is currently a graduate student in the creative writing department at Mount Saint Mary’s University.