“Dangerous Beauties” at Sturt Haaga Gallery, Descanso Gardens

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Michael Light
“Experimental Breeder Reactor – I; World’s First Nuclear Electrical Generation Plant Operated 1951-1964; Idaho National Laboratory and Unknown Formation, Possibly Seismic Measurement Apparatus For Underground Nuclear Detonation; Near Advanced Test Reactor Complex and Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, Idaho National Laboratory,” 2009 Michael Light Archival pigment print 30″ x 24″ each. Photo: Courtesy of the artist, Craig Krull Gallery and the Sturt Haaga Gallery

The group show “Dangerous Beauties” begins with a simple enough premise; in the words of curator John O’Brien, the exhibition addresses “the dangers of confusing ‘beauty’ with ‘goodness.’ “Yet therein lies a challenge, for these ideas are not so straightforward, and divergent notions of each are apparent here. In Daniel Beltra’s Oil Spill series, orange-red flames cut through the electric blue ocean water, with both beauty and danger readily apparent in the toxic seascapes. Contrasting Beltra’s sensuous works, Michael Light’s photographs focus on nuclear waste sites in rural Idaho, pairing images of no-man’s-land with government facilities. The disfigured landscapes read like an ancient text, with incised imagery ranging from crosses to mysterious zigzagging symbols, which serve to heighten our apprehension of the hidden threat of radioactive interventions into the earth’s crust. Juxtaposed with them, and in between, Eve Luckring’s slightly voyeuristic works explore an equally uneasy relationship between man and the environment.

As notions of nature’s beauty often reckon with the magnificence of the sublime, paintings by Samantha Fields strike a somber chord as sprawling vistas are consumed by flames under billowing clouds of dark smoke; a site all too familiar for residents across the Southwest. Yet Fields’ landscapes seem to verge on portraiture, as each tragedy is rendered with a distinct persona, or rather, appetite. Moving into the final exhibition space, works by Fatemeh Burnes, Merion Estes and Constance Mallinson each address independent concerns, but are united by the use of pattern. Burnes’ mixed-media paintings conjure both beauty and the abject, where the ornate twisted branches echo human arteries, and roughly carved wood panels suggest the frailty of the human psyche. Densely layered collage works by Estes overlay representation imagery with lyric patterns found in the natural world to reference the shortcomings of the past and a possible apocalyptic future. Mallinson, like Beltra and Light, addresses pollution through an aerial perspective. In her mural-size paintings, the viewer looks upon an expanse of fallen foliage, where the intense OCD-patterning of brown leaves is fragmented by discarded debris.

The Sturt Haaga Gallery resides within Descanso Gardens, and intermingled with the artworks were poisonous, carnivorous and thorny plants, which embody O’Brien’s theme as means for their own survival. Marc Licari embraced this duality for his mural on the gallery’s exterior-facing wall, depicting various cacti wrapping around small succulents mounted on the wall in hand-blown glass terrariums, which, in earthquake-prone Southern California, may prove to be the most beautiful danger of all.