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Urbanature – Merion Estes, Roland Reiss and Elizabeth Bryant

New Representations of the Natural
A six part serial essay and online exhibition focused on the contemporary depiction of landscape in the painting, photographic and sculptural arts.

Introduction and Additional Exhibition Artists:
Urbanature, An Introduction, Don Suggs and Karen CarsonLinda Stark and Nancy Evans, Ross Rudel and Pierre PicotColeen Sterritt and Constance Mallinson –


Merion Estes paintings of the last decade have explored the intersection of nature and culture through multi-layered collages of vibrant printed fabrics, found photographs, and expressive painting techniques in a “maximal visual overload.” Overlaying machine replicated natural images cut from fabrics and cheap art obtained from trips to Los Angeles’ schmatta district or Chinatown, computer downloads, and old magazines, with a vast painting repertoire of drips, brushstrokes, and vibrant swathes of color as well as her own lexicon of nature derived images, Estes creates a fast paced dialogue between the personal and authentic, the mass produced and artificial, the cultural and the organic. Passages in her work appear to mimic the energy and discursive processes of nature itself, suggesting a primal, organic basis to human activity. Her work sets into high tension traditional and exotic notions of beauty deemed pleasurable, desirable, playful, and erotic, against opposing forces embodied by violent paint strokes and storms of drips evoking fires, oil and toxic chemical spills, cataclysmic upheavals. Through her multiple references to natural life from the sea to the air, Estes evokes a sublime sense of endangered and fragile beauty that extends globally. Although beauty has been perceived as problematically entwined with objectification, possession, or fears of corrupting seduction, all strenuously to be avoided in postmodern art, Estes’ positioning of natural beauty as vulnerable to power, artificiality, degradation and darkness tells us that the problem lies not in finding beauty in nature but suggesting that all is well with it. Beauty becomes for Estes what Ella Shohat describes as “a new kind of popular, convulsive, rebellious beauty: one that dares to reveal the grotesquery of the powerful and the latent beauty of the vulgar.” Its liberation from standard expectations for the beautiful demands that we take notice to consider uncomfortable or unsettling issues. Her paintings are cautionary tales in an increasingly dystopian world, complex meditations on preservation and loss in our era of environmental instability.

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Although not necessarily central to his studio practice, environmental issues have always been of concern for Roland Reiss who has had an extremely long and varied career as a sculptor and painter. Perhaps best known for his plexi-encased miniature tableaus from the 60’s and 70’s referred to as “Philosophical Homilies” “Dancing Lessons” and “Morality Plays” and his later abstract paintings incorporating hi-tech materials, Reiss has now turned to crisply rendered representational painting.  From his downtown Los Angeles loft one can take in near 360 degree panoramic views of the I-5, a huge truck depot, and the expansive Los Angeles skyline, a sprawling, seemingly endless landscape, but a view Reiss approaches not as a literal spectacle, but with an eye to the polycentricity of the experience. All the compositions are centrally and iconically located in fields of raw, soft brown linen which imparts a ground of “naturalness” to the paintings in contra-distinction to and in tension with, the unnatural appearance of much of the imagery. The effect is an oversized bouquet of architectonic forms, 16th century Dutch still life, and stylized Modernist inspired geometric and organic shapes. Tiny skyscrapers, airplanes, the starry cosmos, floating grids, map-like patches, brightly chromed butterflies, are intricately intertwined with larger florals and foliage that seem to derive their brilliant hues from plastic and photographic models. Like a number of the artists presented in Urbanature, Reiss refers to a number of the defining narratives of Western culture, ranging from a colonialism that introduced exotic species to Europe, a utopian Modernist formalism that aspired to a universal language of form, to a postmodernism that encourages endless hybridization and cross pollination. In skillfully interweaving description with abstraction, the natural with the artificial, and historical pictorial modes with a more contemporary “post-natural” aesthetic, Reiss suggests that contemporary existence is a dense and layered mixture of influences and sensations. Whether his foregrounding of Birds of Paradise, Himalayan blue poppies and Asiatic lilies is symbolic of the vibrant imported cultural mix comprising vast urban areas. An assertion that authentic experiences of nature are difficult to achieve in an increasingly modified environment, or  a meditation on concrete versus natural beauty,  Reiss attests to the many facets surrounding  debates on how we currently define “natural”.

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While contemporary photographers like Edward Byrtynsky and Robert Adams have infused a journalistic approach to documenting land development and commercial exploitation with the aesthetic concerns of art photography, Elizabeth Bryant uses the conventions found in traditional still life painting and a range of landscape motifs to explore what she describes as “strong correspondence between nature, representations of nature, and imagination.” Her past work  involved photographs of complex tableaus incorporating discarded student ceramics containing elaborate plant arrangements viewed variously in front of or through cut outs in scenic posters all set within actual sites. The playful trompe l’oeil spatial collaging with its conflicting integration of straightforward photography of places, camouflaged found photographs , natural and constructed artifacts, challenged assumptions about the ability of photography to faithfully and believably capture reality, exposing the fictions and manipulations at play in determining our views of nature. Growing out of the unique Los Angeles mix of nature and culture where one can cultivate food, hike in the mountains, and partake of cultural offerings, the recent photographs reflect on the complex global food chain through their references to endangered species, farming, hunting, fishing, cooking and eating. Monteverde Toad with Coal Lumps depicts a bright yellow banana cluster shaped vessel surrounded with lovely summer plums, an antique fruit knife, and a few charred lumps atop a decaying log, most likely in Bryant’s verdant backyard. Towering over this arrangement is an oversized poster of the noted fluorescent orange Central American toad. Like its luxuriant historical antecedents, this still life celebrates “nature’s bounty” but by its multiple signifiers of wealth, global resource consumption, cultural habits, bloom and decay, becomes an allegory for the present. For the world at this moment is precariously poised between providing food, space, energy, and quality of life for its billions of inhabitants. Will it be on the back of a tiny toad?

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Upcoming in Urbanature, works by Don Suggs and Karen Carson


  1. Very nice collections and good work

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