In many ways, the LA River changed the lives of gallery owner Sean Meredith and artist Debra Scacco—albeit at different times and under different circumstances.
Meredith, director of the downtown Track 16 gallery, didn’t particularly care about Los Angeles for the entire first decade she lived here, after moving from New Jersey in 1992 — he saw the city as an inaccessible, concrete expanse. Then he moved to Atwater Village in 2002 and began biking and long dog walks along the banks of the LA River, which was surprisingly teeming with wildlife.
“It opened my eyes to a place whose infrastructure can be a turn off aesthetically,” he says, “and I fell in love with LA like a flower growing through a crack in concrete.”
Meanwhile, Scacco — a research mixed media artist who grew up in New York and moved to LA from London in 2012 — felt lost. Literally. For years she has been interested in maps and the influence of cartography and geography on our identity. Upon arriving in LA, she attempted to understand the city’s geography by using the river as a guide, as travelers in new cities often do. She visited a bookstore and asked for a map that clearly showed the LA River and was completely confused by the clerk. Hours of scavenger hunt ensued, resulting in a poorly rendered map.
“I was obsessed with finding the river,” says Scacco, “because in LA we use freeways as signposts — it’s an ‘east or west of the 405’ conversation. How can what gives life to a city be completely ignored?”
Research on the LA River and how it shaped the city has influenced her work ever since.
In late 2021, Meredith paid a visit to Scacco’s Lincoln Heights studio, and of course the conversation ended in water. They chatted for hours over coffee about aqueducts and dams, devastating droughts, and the history of LA water going back to the mid-1800s when a flood realigned the LA River.
The result is Confluence, a group show curated by Scacco on track 16, featuring mixed media works by nine local artists exploring a range of water themes.
“We hope this work will encourage people to get involved in water governance,” says Scacco in this edited interview, “and support local efforts to alleviate the water crisis.”
Water is such a broad and charged subject – how did you set up the exhibition and what parameters did you give the artists, if any?
Sean and I started without any parameters. Just hours of conversation about the Los Angeles River and its importance – for each of us personally, about the structure of the city, about the water crisis, about the future of Los Angeles. We realized that underlying each of these themes is an attempt to dominate nature through channeling. We discussed this focus with each artist and selected works that address at least one aspect of the human attempt to control the Los Angeles River and treat water as a commodity to be owned.
Most Angelenos have a somewhat complicated relationship with water – what specific themes do the works in the exhibition touch on?
Stealing the Los Angeles River’s breath away is an unmistakable act of colonization. The exhibition addresses a range of impacts of this: communities struggling to survive, water scarcity due to infrastructure and climate change, established permanence and what is settling downstream. Each of these issues reside within the channeling feedback loop. We also asked each artist to provide an Advocacy Recommendation, which can be found on the Track 16 website and exhibition poster.
The idea of transience – of objects, of the natural landscape – runs through the exhibition. Can you explain that in more detail?
The importance of impermanence seems increasingly critical as we resist a UN prediction of a climate catastrophe by 2040. Western thinking tends towards the absolute, as if nature is static and infrastructure should remain intact indefinitely. Works in Confluence counteract this by celebrating impermanence as part of the solution.
We see this in Emma Robbins’ LA River Paper, which collects organic material from the concrete canal and lovingly assembles it into living paper. Lauren Bon’s “Evaporation Pond” poetically testifies to what remains after rainwater has evaporated. Lane Barden’s “Linear City” (2004/22), a photo series systematically documenting the 51 miles of the Los Angeles River, traces the enforced permanence of nature itself.
Tell us about your own work in the exhibition, formally and conceptually.
“Siphon: Los Angeles River, Tributaries” addresses the interconnectedness of infrastructure and ecology and the contradictory timescales in which they operate. The paper work begins with the demonstration of the wind-driven separation of oil and water. This process creates a topographical landscape indicative of geologic time. The drawing is then coated with several layers of beeswax: sealing, burying and stopping the natural progression of these topographies. Finally, contemporary water systems are carved into the wax in varying thicknesses. Some are accentuated by thin lines of ink, others only appear as traces. These depictions of scars on the landscape are map extraction, distraction, and the false sense of permanence we must now reckon with.
How does materiality affect the show? Some of the artists incorporate materials found in the LA River into their work, including seaweed, leaves and even water?
An essential common feature of this group of artists is the conceptual relevance and sensitivity of the materials. Bridget DeLee’s “InBetween”, composed of found palm tree crowns and synthetic hair, creates a life form that is both earth and city. Blue McRight’s delicate, balanced sculpture, composed of collected trash and salvaged rope, reminds us that the Pacific lies downstream from urban gullies and sewers. Alicia Piller’s “Extinction” is a biomorphic topography made of synthetic materials that suggests a downstream organism. Each work uses the material slang of the river and its debris to create a third space that is both alien and familiar.
Kori Newkirk’s assemblage piece was actually shaped by forces in the LA River. As?
To create “DTR,” Kori Newkirk collected several gallons of water from the LA River at a location near his downtown studio. Superabsorbent polymers (SAPs) were then soaked in this water for several days and placed on a bed of clear vinyl. If SAPs are not rehydrated, the polymers will shrink in size until there is virtually nothing left. “DTR” reflects the natural process of aquifer replenishment that has been impeded by sewerage and predicts the disappearance of water in the American West.
Where: Lane 16 Gallery, 1206 Maple Ave., Suite 1005, Los Angeles
When: Until September 3rd
The information: www.track16.com