Armory Center for the Arts is pleased to present Plein Air, a group exhibition that explores shifting ideas of western landscape, painting, and fieldwork. Traditional plein air painting, which typically involves painting outdoors in a single sitting to capture a vista in a certain quality of light, is taken as a point of departure to consider the ways in which humans use, observe, record, and commune with the land. In this exhibition, the practice of plein air painting is considered in the context of land surveying and settling, public and private space, multidisciplinary onsite research, art history, and the embodied experience of being there. Outdoor painting from observation is approached as ground truth—as bearing witness—a way to experience, process, and understand a range of physical landscapes, and our relationship to them.
The exhibition includes work by Susanna Battin, Esteban Cabeza de Baca, iris yirei hu, KB Jones, Hillary Mushkin, Sterling Wells, and Paula Wilson. The exhibition was organized by guest curator Aurora Tang for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson. An expanded version will be on view in the Armory’s Caldwell Gallery from July 21 to December 10, 2023. A public reception takes place Sunday, July 23 from 1-4 pm with a curator walkthrough at 1 PM and a free all-ages art workshop with Armory teaching artist Ed Leonardi at 2 PM. Admission is free and open to the public.
About the Exhibition
Susanna Battin’s Leave No Trace series involves the artist’s ongoing research into the US Bureau of Land Management’s Standard Environmental Color chart, a palette of nine standardized paint colors approved for use on the federal agency’s facilities, along with their guidelines on selecting the appropriate color to paint a structure in order for it to best blend into various landscape settings. Centered around a series of new video works, Battin considers the ways in which paint can be used as a tool for concealing human impact on the physical land, while also posing questions around the effects of the artist’s own presence onsite.
Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s paintings, often started as landscapes painted en plein air, are portals through time and to places linked to the artist’s own lived experience. How Mora, New Mexico Stopped Fracking reflects on the 2015 banning of hydraulic fracturing (an oil and gas drilling technique in which pressurized fluids are used to crack open underground rock formations to extract oil and gas) in Mora, New Mexico, the artist’s paternal homeland. Layers of paint are added and removed, revealing a multidimensional portrait of the place, channeling its deep past and looking towards its future. The viewer is presented with a view from a cave’s red rock wall, peering out onto snow capped mountains, verdant hills, and flowing streams. Mora shows another future is possible.
Using paint, language, fiber, soil, and other organic matter, iris yirei hu creates vibrant assemblages that trace networks within a landscape, including with its inhabitants, ecologies, stories, traditions, and spirit(s). hu approaches her art making as collaboration—between people, plants, histories, practices, and environments—and acknowledges the specificity and context from which the materials, stories, and craft techniques in her work are derived. The act of sourcing, making, and using botanical pigments and dyes, which is often a part of hu’s work, can be viewed in and of itself as a form of outdoor landscape painting, depicting aspects of a place on a micro level.
For KB Jones, plein air sketches are informal works that capture the artist’s subjective experience of observing and being present onsite in a place of personal significance. At times, the sketches are brought back to the studio, where they are further developed or integrated into large-scale paintings. Jones’ plein air watercolor sketches of the oil and gas industry of West Texas, a region where her family has roots, serve as references for her large-scale tapestry Intervention, which layers the artist’s rendering of an illustration from the children’s book Alice in Bibleland (which Jones sourced from a Texas thrift store), stacked between the stratigraphic layers of an oil field. Jones writes, “rather than depicting the horizontality of the landscape, I layered and stacked images, showing a sense of time going down deep like roots.”
Focusing on the US-Mexico boundary, Hillary Mushkin’s Survey to Surveillance shows a through line between the 19th century scientific land survey the US government used to establish the border, and contemporary database systems used to police it today. Survey to Surveillance includes photographs, texts, research documents, ink drawings, and sketches developed in the studio and onsite along the border, produced in collaboration with artists and scientists as part of Mushkin’s ongoing project Incendiary Traces. Since 2012 Incendiary Traces has organized group plein air drawing surveys at actively policed borders, military training grounds, and surveillance headquarters. Exercising poetic, polyvocal strategies, the aim is to critically reflect upon the totalizing technological and data-based perspectives of territory that underwrite visceral government aggression.
While traditional plein air painting is completed in a single sitting, in order to capture a specific quality of light, Sterling Wells’ observational watercolor paintings involve working at a single location, often a site of environmental, social, and cultural confluence, for an extended period of time, embracing the shifts that can come from day to day. While conventional landscape paintings often look out into the distance, for Wells, “this is the colonizer’s gaze. I want to depict the ground.” In Infructescence, which was painted over several days in March 2020 at the Arroyo Seco watershed in Los Angeles, Wells dug a hole onsite, from which he worked, bringing his eye level closer to the ground. From this perspective, one can “paint the words on the wrapper of a piece of litter in the foreground, as well as massive infrastructure in the distance.”
Paula Wilson’s Salty & Fresh references and challenges art historical tropes, while calling attention to the act of seeing, as well as being seen. The video, shot onsite at Virginia Key Beach, Miami’s historic “colored only beach,” offers a re-staging of a painting’s creation myth. Wilson appears as a towering sea goddess, who, equipped with an oversized artist’s palette and paintbrush, paints faces onto the nude posteriors of living caryatids (sculpted figures used as architectural supports in classical architecture) carrying ornamental vessels. Sunbathing picnickers look on, through the mediated lens of their smartphone cameras, as the painted anthropomorphized vessels gaze back.
Plein Air is organized by guest curator Aurora Tang.
About the Curator
Aurora Tang is a curator and researcher based in Los Angeles. She has worked with The Center for Land Use Interpretation since 2009, and currently serves as its program director. As an independent curator Tang has organized recent exhibitions at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, MOCA Tucson, and the City of West Hollywood. She has also worked at non-profit art and research organizations including the Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute, and High Desert Test Sites, where she was managing director from 2011–15. Tang has taught at schools including Otis College of Art and Design and the University of Southern California. She is the recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Research Fellowship.