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  • Jennifer Gunlock, Curator

Artists Reflecting on the Landscape

As caretaker of the Club's art collections for the last twelve years, I have developed a deep admiration for the skill and emotive genius of our early California painters. I myself am an artist who works in a starkly unconventional manner, but at heart I find kinship with my plein air painter "ancestors" who celebrated the wild beauty that is our collective home. How effectively they captured the light, color, textures, the very essence of Southern California in its raw beatific state is breathtaking and movingly reverential.

Oil on canvas, JAF collection, purchased with major funding from the Jane Lauman Trust and Richard Reitzell
Jean Mannheim (1863-1945), "Arch Beach, Laguna"

These artists were very aware of how rapidly the landscape was shifting before them. From 1890 to 1910 LA's population swelled from 50,000 to 200,000. In the 1920's the city was one of the world's major centers of oil extraction, and entire forests of oil wells could be spotted around the city. In 1938 two devastating floods resulted in the Army Corps of Engineers converting the Los Angeles River into a concrete channel. You can see in the intimacy of many of the paintings' settings how our painters sought to visually preserve the places they so cherished before that land was irrevocably altered.

My own work echoes that same concern about human manipulation on the landscape, but in a more abstract and visceral way. Rather than applying paint to capture a scene before me, I collect fragments of photographs I take on my travels and piece them together to create a fictional place set in either in the deep past or deep future. My imagined landscapes evoke issues that are very prevalent today, such as wildfire superstorms, and accelerating extinction rates of species due to climate change and habitat loss in the name of industry or real estate.

In 2019 I spent two weeks as an artist in residence on the remote southwest coast of Ireland. My fellow artists and I explored Neolithic and early Christian sites and listened to local people share folk tales and the myths that pervade their region. I saw in Ireland an uneasy relationship between the old ways and contemporary attitudes, between their ancestral connection to the landscape and modern industry. In 2020 and the year

Mixed media collage and drawing on shaped panel, 48 x 40 inches (c) 2021 Jennifer Gunlock
Jennifer Gunlock, "Backcountry IV (Hawthorn)" 2021

following I utilized that quiet period of covid isolation to internalize the photographs I took on that trip, let their meanings ferment in my mind, and incorporate them into my work. From this investigation came the Backcountry series.

The tree seen here in Backcountry IV (Hawthorn) is actually a Frankensteinian collage of photographs I’ve taken of many trees from different continents, but for me it represents the Irish hawthorn which is believed to be a portal to the faerie Otherworld. It is understood among the locals that if you cut down a lone hawthorn tree or let your cattle graze in its vicinity, great harm with come to you. This belief and its resulting taboo establish a respect for nature that I find lacking in our modern world.

Next time you are entering the freshly renovated Town Club lobby or walking along the second or third floors, I invite you to pause before the painting that most grabs your attention. Imagine placing yourself in its landscape, feel the warmth of its sun on your face or foggy morning chill, smell the dusty sage or salty ocean air, and contemplate how similar or different that same location might be today.


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