Staying Close to the Land With Plein Air Painting

PASADENA, Calif. — For many of us who grew up studying studio art, plein air painting or drawing was a rite of passage. The general practice is simple: Go to an outside venue with a great view and try to capture its light, its colors, and its depth of perspective with your tools at hand. It can often be a moving experience to join other artists enjoying the same view and to see how everyone has slightly different experiences and interpretations.

Plein Air, on view at the Armory Center for the Arts, takes this idea as a point of departure, “to consider the ways in which humans use, observe, record, and commune with the land.” And in so doing, it offers a compelling take on our relationship with land and what it means to spend time trying to understand the outdoors.

In Susanna Battin’s “Color Field Paintings,” we see nine large painted panels that resemble rectangular palettes for plein air painting or color swatches. Each panel is a color approved by the US Bureau of Land Management’s Standard Environmental Colors. Battin includes records from the research process, such as a card from the bureau that spells out treatment options for each color. “Pick a darker shade of the prevailing color in the surrounding landscape,” the card advises, to help human structures and facilities blend in more readily. Videos accompanying these works show the artist painting objects to blend in with the natural environment.

Hillary Mushkin’s Survey to Surveillance series combines photographic prints of the United States-Mexico border following the International Boundary Commission’s July 29, 1882, convention. The survey map is combined with an accordion book of sketches from the artist’s practice of organizing plein-air drawing sessions in locales like borders, military training sites, and surveillance headquarters.

Susanna Battin, “Color Field Paintings” from the Nine Colors of the West series (2020–23), US Burea of Land Management (BLM) painted panels in Standard Environmental Colors, produced by the BLM National Sign Center, Rawlins Field Office, Wyoming, and purchased by the artist (2023 installation photo at Armory Center for the Arts by Jackie Castillo, courtesy Armory Center for the Arts)

If some works address the abstraction of land, others, like Sterling Wells’s “Infructescence,” deal with the land itself. The watercolor is mounted on a board plus a range of objects collected from a painting site in the Arroyo Seco watershed in Los Angeles. As the exhibition text notes, Wells, working in March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, dug a hole and painted the earth from close to its surface. For the artist, a landscape vista “is the colonizer’s gaze. I want to depict the ground.”

And then there are works that open the mind to the magic of the land. “An Intoxication of You, My Third Eye Seeps” is an advance view of iris yirei hu’s painting for the upcoming UCLA/Westwood Metro station. The artist began the work by tracing plant shadows and then painted on additional elements. What emerges is a mystical portrait of the land, the third eye reaching into what looks like a bear skeleton while a rabbit burrows nearby, along with other animals, like a coyote, hawk, and hummingbird.

Paula Wilson’s video work “Salty and Fresh” likewise depicts a mystical creation scene as human figures with faces painted on their buttocks emerge from the water, while picnickers take photos with their phones, clinking their glasses. The video was shot at Virginia Key Beach in Florida, a historic “colored only beach,” and Wilson towers as a sea goddess who paints onto the figures, holding an oversized palette.

“Each artist attends to the embodied experience of being there,” notes curator Aurora Tang’s exhibition text. And in so doing, these works collectively show that being there can mean many things — surveying the land, feeling its magic, or simply jumping into a hole to look closer at the ground.

plein air 14 Mushkin
Hillary Mushkin, Incendiary Traces: Survey to Surveillance series (2020–22) (2023 installation photo at Armory Center for the Arts by Jackie Castillo, courtesy Armory Center for the Arts)
plein air 08 esteban cabeza de baca
Esteban Cabeza de Baca, “How Mora, New Mexico Stopped Fracking” (2022), acrylic on canvas (courtesy the artist and Garth Green Gallery)
plein air 12 iris yirei hu
iris yirei hu, “An Intoxication of You, My Third Eye Seeps,” detail (2023), indigo, acrylic, hand processed watercolor, and muslin on canvas
106.5 x 32.5 inches, Metro Art commission for the future Westwood/UCLA Metro Station (courtesy Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority)
plein air 13 kb jones
KB Jones, “Intervention” (2020), latex and ink on canvas , 106 x 59 inches (courtesy the artist)
plein air 03 paula wilson
Paula Wilson, “Salty & Fresh” (2014), digital video (courtesy Paula Wilson/Denny Gallery)
plein air 04 paula wilson
Paula Wilson, “Salty & Fresh” (2014), digital video (courtesy Paula Wilson/Denny Gallery)

Plein Air continues at the Armory Center for the Arts (145 North Raymond Ave, Pasadena, California) through December 10. The exhibition was curated by Aurora Tang. 

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