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by Suvan Geer

(El Camino College, Torrance) Water. Just a few years ago we got our drinking water out of the kitchen tap, and didn’t need a reverse osmosis filter. Tell me, is there anything that better represents the popular acceptance of the decline of the environment, even its marketing as fashion, than water sold out of vending machines? Water. A sign of the times. Even at the end of the 20th century it still represents purity, soothes our frayed nerves and revives our souls. Yet as the exhibition of six artists’ works in Cross Currents makes clear the symbol, like the source, has been compromised.

Connie Jenkin’s lilting oil on canvas close-ups of glassy water passages continues her treatment of moving water as an icon of ever-changing inspiration and personal reflection. Bordering on abstraction with their patterns of light and dark, these paintings capture much of humanity’s historic romance with the meditative qualities of clear water. Jenkins gives us water, landscape really, as we are accustomed to regarding it, as something onto which we can project our visions, our questions and ourselves. Only gradually do we realize from the show’s other works that things have shifted around that ancient source of inspiration.

Richard Lopez’ acrylic and pastel images of water sites in Yosemite National Park recall the muscular beauty of early nineteenth century American landscape painters that sought the “sublime” in the boundless, energetic force of the New World’s awesome vistas. Lopez’ painterly sights are thrilling, and it is only gradually we realize that the wildness they present as a metaphor for the authoritative, unlimited potential of our nation is now ironically “preserved” and artificial, a specimen of nature maintained for human entertainment.

That realization colors our response to the amazing aerial photographs of environmental advocate Robert Glenn Ketchum. He shows us images of the frozen, remote Arctic where water is both solid and liquid ground. Here are images of a still existing wilderness, overwhelming in scale, with an alien but compelling beauty. In this context we are forced to ask if this wilderness too will become a commemoration: a national park?

Connie Jenkins, "September: Look-
ing Through the Sky", o/c, 24 x 24".

Richard Lopez, "Bridal
Veil II," a/c, 72 x 52", 1998.

Pat Warner, "Forest Retreat," wood
and water, 9' h x 19' dia, 1998
lation at Barnsdall Art Park, Los Angeles).


Sant Khalsa, "Study for the
Sacred Spring," gelatin
silver print, 24 x 28", 1995.

Victor Raphael, "Getty
Water #9," gold metal
leaf on canvas, 36 x 42".
Pat Warner’s becalmed wooden gazebo nestled amidst a circular installation of smooth carved trees here looks like a model for a certain kind of preservation. Her “retreat” is constructed of raw wood, tightly sheltered by a forest of barren trees. This is landscape recreated for a world of buildings, a memorial indoor forest stripped bare and weeping recycled water.

Photographer Sant Khalsa’s image of hands cradling a bubbling overflow of water speaks to the ancient symbolism of water as life. The image makes nature the sacred, hidden source captured again in other mysterious black and white images. All this spirituality gets a rough consumerist twist with her inclusion of a series of plastic water bottles labeled with words like “creativity”, “harmony” and “passion”. Suddenly water, divorced from the sacred natural world, is marketed like snake oil leaving us silly symbolic projections turned into superstition and hucksterism.

Victor Raphael has a clever neo-alchemical way of making landscape or water valuable in this culture. His Polaroid images, taken at the Getty Museum’s peristyle pool, present water dappled with real gold highlights. Natural light and photographic illusion mix metaphors of meaning to suggest that economics has replaced nature as the source for contemporary inspiration. Granted, it’s a cynical vision but by now nature and landscape have become so contaminated symbolically and in truth that such messages are clearly seen written on the waters.