The extremes of California often overshadow its more subdued, lived truth. Is this a sun-drenched wonderland as portrayed by Hollywood? Or is it the sanitary suburban wasteland depicted by photographers Beth Yarnelle Edwards and Paul Graham? I imagine it’s somewhere in between, as portrayed by Nancy VanDevender, in The Left Coast, at Poem 88 through December 19. This series of photos, video, and prints shows what The Golden State looks like after your eyes have adjusted — striking yet mellow.
The photographs, presented cleanly as dye sublimation prints on aluminum, are the strongest work in the show because they look like snapshots of familiar life. The dryness of the southern California landscape contrasts with the natural and unnatural oases people flock to. Beaches, pools and plenty of desert dominate her imagery. It Looks Just Like This captures a natural rock formation on a beach as seen from above. This is not some hyper-edited vacation promo photo; the water is an unsaturated cyan, the sand is thick and brown, and the beachgoers are everyday schmoes in shorts and polos. I like how this image is both scenic and unromantic because it seems real.
If you’ve ever driven across California, you’ll relate to the recognizably hypnotizing arid landscape in the video Like a String of Pearls, California Dreaming. The 29-minute piece seems to be an endless loop of hazy cliffs, wind turbines and scrubby bushes.
The artist returns to a previous mode with paneled prints on paper that suggest wallpaper. In Where Do You Think You’re Going, she traces images of palms and desert plants on Mylar and fills them with flat planes of color to create hallucinogenic, alien patterns. The toned-down gray, green and red palette elevates the desert scenery to a kaleidoscopic explosion of plant life.
When you view the image up close, you notice the hand-drawn lines that give the piece a pleasing personal element. The luxurious pattern looks like something straight out of a Palm Springs Architectural Digest feature. I only wish the display of the piece were more precise. There were frayed edges and places where the pattern didn’t line up. The piece deserves showroom-quality display.
VanDevender’s photographs come across as distant memories. The soft lines and washed-out colors blur the distinction between real and imagined, and the dreamlike language of the titles — as well as the omission of the exact locations of the shots — add to that effect. It’s An Illusion is a perfect example. A faint aquamarine tints the entire picture, telling us we must be looking at water. In the bottom left hand of the picture, the last place our eye ventures, is the most striking feature. Here we see a set of pebbly semicircular gray shapes cutting across the image.
It appears we are looking down into the steps of a pool. Overlaying the steps are wavy rectangles of light, with thin stripes cutting down over them. They seem like Venetian blinds reflected in a pool, as strange as that is to imagine. Overall, this piece has strong design qualities that play up different elements of the California dream. The cool blue waters subtly reflect a bit of suburbia, giving us a sense of oasis and home in the parched promise land.
VanDevender focuses on California’s man-made environment as well as its natural beauty. The artist shows how the manmade environment takes cues from the natural environment, and finds the beauty of this relationship.
It’s Not Day or Night (pictured on the homepage) reveals how the natural environment transmogrifies into the manmade: a glowing pool becomes the ocean; the midcentury-modern public building behind it mimics both flat desert and rising mountain; and triangular flags look like sparse flora. VanDevender presents California as a naturally appealing environment inhabited with everyday Americans. The swimming pools, wind turbines and beaches of California are neither magical nor ordinary. They are simply nice places where a few are lucky to live, and many of us have memories of visiting.
All in all, it’s a solid show that portrays its subject in an original way.