Return to Articles

Sea Changes

February 23 - March 29, 2008 at Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica

by Jeanne Willette

“Sea Changes” is an exhibition in three acts, mythic, romantic, and scientific, with John Valadez as the teller of tall tales, Connie Jenkins as the archetypal romantic, and Camille Solyagua as the detached observer.  Humans are deeply connected to the sea: life crawled out of its depths and evolved into land creatures that are still mostly made up of water. John Valadez, best known for politically loaded depictions of Chicano life in the City of Angels, here 0shifts his ground to the irony of Sandow Birk. His series of pastels, “Tales of Oceana,” imagine encounters between popular culture and myth.  In “Bait,” he steals from the film “Jaws,” as maidens dive away from a whale straight out of Moby Dick. . .or a Universal Studios theme park ride.  No mermaids, these; the imperiled ladies wear red bikinis (Annette Funicello?  Sandra Dee?). “Queen Harvest” throws together Captain Cook, a Hawaiian queen holding a large jellyfish, a maddened whale, and a floundering sailing ship. Captain Cook sought the legendary “Great Southern Continent” or, as it was more familiarly known, “The Great Southland.”  Perhaps Valadez has given the unfortunate Cook a better fate: he finds Southern California and meets the girls of “Beach Blanket Bingo.” But sadly, the theme of doom hovers: Captain Ahab was towed away by the White Whale, and the unfortunately named Captain Cook was eaten by  South Sea cannibals.

Connie Jenkins, "Purple
Star," 2007, 24x24".

Connie Jenkins, "Pink
Algae," 2006, 8x8".

Connie Jenkins, "Sea
Flowers," 2006, 22x36".

John Valadez, "Bait," 2007,
pastel on paper, 27 x 36".

Camille Solyagua, "Jellyfish #9," 2006,
gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 6 7/16".

Survival is the theme of Connie Jenkins’ paintings.  In these she carefully renders the recovery of the fragile ecosystems of the Channel Islands. For twenty-five years, these islands, once part of the Santa Monica Mountains, have been a protected sanctuary for species native to the island.  Many animals had been hunted to extinction, and the native islanders were shipped off to reservations for “missionization.”  The islands were allowed to make a comeback, and now Jenkins has produced a series of paintings that show thriving sea flowers, starfish and seaweed, probably from Frenchy Cove. Jenkins, a longtime photorealist, has always watched the sea, rendering its small worlds of transparent tidal pools and shorelines marked by smoothly tumbled stones. She bows to the camera and blows up her representations like enlargements. The result is a romantic evocation of the magic of close observation and the enchantment of envisioning the scenery of the sea as a microclimate of the “American Galapagos.”

While Valadez’s whales strive to defy extinction, Camille Solyagua’s jellyfish are thriving, thanks to overfishing and agricultural runoff into oceans. Jellyfish “bloom” or cluster in huge floating islands of toxic tentacles where they breed in a frenzy due to ecological conditions created by humans. Solyagua’s transparent bells were photographed in captivity, like sculptures at Madame Tussaud’s. Rendered harmless in their tanks, the “sea jellies” are called “Medusas” in their mature stage. Glowing in the dark, some drift, like dangerous bells, in the seas for only a few months, while other types are effectively immortal, poisonous forever. Reminiscent of Sugimoto, Solyagua turns nature into culture, working at one remove from the real. Hers is a nature under glass, fixed in a camera lens, dis-enchanted into black and white. While her jellyfish thrive, her “Red-Crowned Crane” hovers on the brink of doom. This Japanese crane is the second most endangered species in the world. Its red top inspired the name of the fruit that made Thanksgiving famous: the cranberry. The cranes lay two eggs a year, but only one lives, prompting an international egg preservation program. Said to live a thousand years, thus symbolizing fidelity, luck, and immortality, cranes are on the Japanese 1000-yen note. Solyagua is a postmodern Audubon, for she photographs only protected or captured species that become nostalgic representations of a once balanced nature, unharmed by humans. Carefully framed in cells without natural context, Solyagua’s records of nature feel like historical artifacts, preserved as if for scientific study but re-placed into the realm of art. In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” the sea changes the characters’ fate; but we are the ones who now change the changeless, the sea. The artist is left to tell the tales.