.‘The Art of Water’ Examines California’s Precious Resource

Photos, paintings, video, installations tell tale of water in the Golden State

TREADING WATER: Richard Misrach’s ‘Diving Board, Salton Sea,’ is one of many images in a new Cantor Arts Center exhibit, which is meant to remind the viewer that water is finite.

In the July heat, much of the Stanford University campus is bleached beige or brown. On every horizon, parched hillsides present a similar picture, completely devoid of any lingering spring greens. Across the street from the Cantor Arts Center‘s entrance, Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone River snakes its mud-colored spine up from dusty crumbs of earth. Absent human intervention, this is a dry, waterless place.

Inside the Cantor Arts Center, a new exhibit acts as a temporary, air-conditioned corrective. The gallery walls in “California: The Art of Water” borrow a paint scheme from one of David Hockney’s stimulating pool blues. The three open rooms of the show are loosely divided into themes: “Water and the wilderness”; “The role of water in development”; and “What have we wrought?”

The curators have assembled the work of artists who depict water in all its various shapes and forms—lakes, rivers, waterfalls, bays, oceans, aqueducts, irrigation canals and swimming pools. The subject itself may be a shapeshifter, but collectively a single portrait emerges. The population of California, from farm to city, established itself in and around access to water. The paintings, maps and photographs tell the story of our reliance upon it, as well as our positive and negative efforts to tame it for our exclusive use.

Nineteenth-century landscapes dominate the galleries. They ground the exhibit in time, quietly narrating the development of California and providing lush, verdant examples of what drew generations of Americans and immigrants to the West. Gregory Kondos’ Sacramento River, from 1981, hangs to the right of William Keith’s vast 1876 painting, Upper Kern River. Both works are views of a river, but each painter’s emphasis reflects the shift in consciousness that came along with the century separating them. The bright geometries of modernism allow Kondos to exclude scale and shrubbery from his canvas. Keith, conversely, paints like an omniscient narrator, including every leaf of native foliage. The juxtaposition of the two paintings is smart; they complement and illuminate each other.

The photographs on display contend less with beauty and more with the means of consumption. Ansel Adams captures Shasta Dam from high above. Dorothea Lange squelches her muddy feet in alfalfa and barley fields in order to pose a field worker, chest angled, chin raised, like a mythological hero.

This is what an artist does: he bends his sense of reality in order to present it to the viewer. Whether you accept it as true or real is another question. In Clouds Over Mono Lake, Joseph Holmes’ gelatin silver print omits the shoreline covered in swarms of black alkali flies, and the broken cakes of salt, dotting the sand with flecks of white like so much powdered bone. The hot stink of the lake and the buzzing of flies creates a ghostly atmosphere. As seen through the lens of a sanitized dreamscape, his Mono Lake bears no relation to the sensory experience of that particular place. I’d place this in a sub-category: “Water and the mind’s wilderness.”

Richard Misrach, on the other hand, is represented in the “What have we wrought?” section, with Diving Board, Salton Sea. His gorgeous image answers that question with a resolute and devastating response. The image looks out onto the sea and its horizon. In the foreground below, there’s a swimming pool emptied of water, the concrete siding covered with rust and mossy rot. Tilapia Jetty, a video installation by Nicole Antebi, fills in the background. She films Salton City as an empire of decay. It stands as a warning: if we’re careless with our water, we can render any habitat inhospitable for humans—or life of any kind.

But all omens, portents and worries stand aside when you arrive at the center of the back wall to find David Hockney’s Sprungbrett mit Schatten (Paper Pool #14). No other painting here captures the lush sensuality of his swimming pool. Six separate colored panels make up this invitation to pleasure. Take off your clothes, spring from the yellow diving board, join its quivering shadow inside the energizing blue. It’s Misrach’s photograph in reverse, where water is still bountiful and leisure abounds. He intuitively understands that water is the source of rejuvenation and joy. Hockney, as usual, is a revelation.

California: The Art of Water
Thru Nov 28, Various Times, Free
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford

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