Paula Wilson, Salty & Fresh, 2014. Digital video.
Paula Wilson, Salty & Fresh, 2014. Digital video.

Armory Center for the Arts presents Plein Air, July 21–December 10, 2023

Pasadena, CA—Armory Center for the Arts (2023 Organizational Support Grants awardee) is pleased to present Plein Air, a group exhibition that explores shifting ideas of western landscape, painting, and fieldwork. Traditional plein air painting, which typically involves painting outdoors in a single sitting to capture a vista in a certain quality of light, is taken as a point of departure to consider the ways in which humans use, observe, record, and commune with the land. In this exhibition, the practice of plein air painting is considered in the context of land surveying and settling, public and private space, multidisciplinary onsite research, art history, and the embodied experience of being there. Outdoor painting from observation is approached as ground truth—as bearing witness—a way to experience, process, and understand a range of physical landscapes, and our relationship to them.

The exhibition includes work by Susanna Battin, Esteban Cabeza de Baca, iris yirei hu, KB Jones, Hillary Mushkin, Sterling Wells, and Paula Wilson. The exhibition was organized by guest curator Aurora Tang for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson. An expanded version will be on view in the Armory’s Caldwell Gallery from July 21 to December 10, 2023. A public reception takes place Sunday, July 23 from 1-4 pm with a curator walkthrough at 1 PM and a free all-ages art workshop with Armory teaching artist Ed Leonardi at 2 PM. Admission is free and open to the public.

About the Exhibition

Susanna Battin’s Leave No Trace series involves the artist’s ongoing research into the US Bureau of Land Management’s Standard Environmental Color chart, a palette of nine standardized paint colors approved for use on the federal agency’s facilities, along with their guidelines on selecting the appropriate color to paint a structure in order for it to best blend into various landscape settings. Centered around a series of new video works, Battin considers the ways in which paint can be used as a tool for concealing human impact on the physical land, while also posing questions around the effects of the artist’s own presence onsite.

Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s paintings, often started as landscapes painted en plein air, are portals through time and to places linked to the artist’s own lived experience. How Mora, New Mexico Stopped Fracking reflects on the 2015 banning of hydraulic fracturing (an oil and gas drilling technique in which pressurized fluids are used to crack open underground rock formations to extract oil and gas) in Mora, New Mexico, the artist’s paternal homeland. Layers of paint are added and removed, revealing a multidimensional portrait of the place, channeling its deep past and looking towards its future. The viewer is presented with a view from a cave’s red rock wall, peering out onto snow capped mountains, verdant hills, and flowing streams. Mora shows another future is possible.

Using paint, language, fiber, soil, and other organic matter, iris yirei hu creates vibrant assemblages that trace networks within a landscape, including with its inhabitants, ecologies, stories, traditions, and spirit(s). hu approaches her art making as collaboration—between people, plants, histories, practices, and environments—and acknowledges the specificity and context from which the materials, stories, and craft techniques in her work are derived. The act of sourcing, making, and using botanical pigments and dyes, which is often a part of hu’s work, can be viewed in and of itself as a form of outdoor landscape painting, depicting aspects of a place on a micro level.

For KB Jones, plein air sketches are informal works that capture the artist’s subjective experience of observing and being present onsite in a place of personal significance. At times, the sketches are brought back to the studio, where they are further developed or integrated into large-scale paintings. Jones’ plein air watercolor sketches of the oil and gas industry of West Texas, a region where her family has roots, serve as references for her large-scale tapestry Intervention, which layers the artist’s rendering of an illustration from the children’s book Alice in Bibleland (which Jones sourced from a Texas thrift store), stacked between the stratigraphic layers of an oil field. Jones writes, “rather than depicting the horizontality of the landscape, I layered and stacked images, showing a sense of time going down deep like roots.”

Focusing on the US-Mexico boundary, Hillary Mushkin’s Survey to Surveillance shows a through line between the 19th century scientific land survey the US government used to establish the border, and contemporary database systems used to police it today. Survey to Surveillance includes photographs, texts, research documents, ink drawings, and sketches developed in the studio and onsite along the border, produced in collaboration with artists and scientists as part of Mushkin’s ongoing project Incendiary Traces. Since 2012 Incendiary Traces has organized group plein air drawing surveys at actively policed borders, military training grounds, and surveillance headquarters. Exercising poetic, polyvocal strategies, the aim is to critically reflect upon the totalizing technological and data-based perspectives of territory that underwrite visceral government aggression.

While traditional plein air painting is completed in a single sitting, in order to capture a specific quality of light, Sterling Wells’ observational watercolor paintings involve working at a single location, often a site of environmental, social, and cultural confluence, for an extended period of time, embracing the shifts that can come from day to day. While conventional landscape paintings often look out into the distance, for Wells, “this is the colonizer’s gaze. I want to depict the ground.” In Infructescence, which was painted over several days in March 2020 at the Arroyo Seco watershed in Los Angeles, Wells dug a hole onsite, from which he worked, bringing his eye level closer to the ground. From this perspective, one can “paint the words on the wrapper of a piece of litter in the foreground, as well as massive infrastructure in the distance.”

Paula Wilson’s Salty & Fresh references and challenges art historical tropes, while calling attention to the act of seeing, as well as being seen. The video, shot onsite at Virginia Key Beach, Miami’s historic “colored only beach,” offers a re-staging of a painting’s creation myth. Wilson appears as a towering sea goddess, who, equipped with an oversized artist’s palette and paintbrush, paints faces onto the nude posteriors of living caryatids (sculpted figures used as architectural supports in classical architecture) carrying ornamental vessels. Sunbathing picnickers look on, through the mediated lens of their smartphone cameras, as the painted anthropomorphized vessels gaze back.

Plein Air is organized by guest curator Aurora Tang.

About the Artists

Susanna Battin is an artist geographer who explores the influence of images on human relationships with land. She unpacks how western practices of painting, photography, and cinema can serve to colonize or decolonize spaces. Her practice involves moving-image, cartography, painting, and reading legal documents and nature poems. Battin has exhibited at MOCA Tucson, Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, Gas Gallery, and Human Resources LA. She teaches at Tohono O’odham Community College and co-runs SNAG (School of New Art Geographies) with her partner in Southern Arizona.

Esteban Cabeza de Baca (b.1985, San Ysidro, CA. based in Queens, NY) employs a broad range of painterly techniques, entwining layers of graffiti, landscape, and pre-Columbian pictographs in ways confounding Cartesian single-point perspective. He often begins his works en plein air, recasting the practice of landscape painting, which was once the preferred surveying tool of colonizers. Cabeza de Baca’s hybrid techniques and influences form a complex braid: interrogating the dialectical relationships between colonialism and its critique, between cultural extraction and its inversion. Cabeza de Baca has exhibited at The Drawing Center, New York, NY; Gaa Gallery, Provincetown, MA; Garth Greenan Gallery, New York, NY; Yale University, New Haven, CT; and abroad. His work has been featured in Vogue Magazine, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Frieze Magazine, and The Brooklyn Rail.

iris yirei hu is an artist who paints, weaves, dyes, tells stories, and composts her lived reality into installations, public artworks, and intercultural-generational-and-geographical collaborations. She often works in community with artists, scientists, historians, keepers of traditions, and organizers to make connections between people, places, and practices to explore possibilities of kinship. hu has shown her work at the Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI; Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Feminist Center for Creative Work, Los Angeles, CA; Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles, CA; among others. Public art commissions include California State University, Dominguez Hills; Institute for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Los Angeles Nomadic Division; among others.

KB Jones (b. 1979 Huntsville, Texas; based in New York) was a Chinati Foundation artist in residence in 2020, and has exhibited at venues indoors and out, from the Keap Fourth Community Garden in Brooklyn, to the Peter Strauss Ranch National Park in Los Angeles, to the Lemonade Stand, a mobile gallery and residency in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her solo show upstairs at Rachel Uffner Gallery opens this September.

Hillary Mushkin is an artist and a research professor of art and design at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Mushkin’s art and research is focused on the limits and power of human and technological observation. She is founder of Incendiary Traces, an art and research initiative to collaboratively reverse-engineer the politics of landscape visualization. She is also co-founder of Data to Discovery, a data visualization, art and design group based at NASA/JPL, Caltech and ArtCenter College of Design that engages co-design and visual practices to influence the production of scientific knowledge. Her art work has been exhibited at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Freud Museum, London, England, UK; nGbK, Berlin, Germany; and Ex Teresa Arte Actual Museum, Mexico City, Mexico. Incendiary Traces is the subject of the book Hillary Mushkin: Incendiary Traces, published by the Pomona College Museum of Art.

Sterling Wells (b.1984 New York, NY; based in Los Angeles) has given solo and two-person presentations at Night Gallery, Los Angeles; Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA) at Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles; AWHRHWAR, Los Angeles; Vernon Gardens, Vernon, CA; and Metropolitan Structures, Baltimore, MD. He has participated in group exhibitions at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Perth, Western Australia; Harkawick, Los Angeles; EPOCH, Los Angeles; Night Gallery, Los Angeles; and American Medium, Brooklyn, NY.

Paula Wilson (b.1975 Chicago, IL; based in Carrizozo, NM) is a multimedia artist whose densely layered, colorful, and often monumental works utilize a variety of painting, collage, filmic, installation, performance, and print techniques. As a Black woman born in Chicago and living in the American desert, Wilson’s multifaceted work resists a singular viewpoint. Her layering of color, image, pattern, and materials acts as a visual metaphor for the complex stratum of histories and cultures, both real and imagined, that inform her work. Wilson’s artworks are in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, Yale University, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, The New York Public Library, and The Albuquerque Museum to name a few. Wilson is co-founder of the artist organizations MoMAZoZo and the Carrizozo Artists-in-Residency.

About the Curator

Aurora Tang is a curator and researcher based in Los Angeles. She has worked with The Center for Land Use Interpretation since 2009, and currently serves as its program director. As an independent curator Tang has organized recent exhibitions at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, MOCA Tucson, and the City of West Hollywood. She has also worked at non-profit art and research organizations including the Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute, and High Desert Test Sites, where she was managing director from 2011–15. Tang has taught at schools including Otis College of Art and Design and the University of Southern California. She is the recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Research Fellowship.

Education and Public Programs

Walkthrough of the exhibition with curator Aurora Tang Sunday, July 23, 2023, 1 PM

Free all-ages art workshop with Armory teaching artist Ed Leonardi Sunday, July 23, 2023, 2 PM

For three decades, the Armory has offered innovative approaches to presenting, creating, and teaching the visual arts. In addition to providing a showcase for contemporary art exhibitions and events, the Armory offers studio art classes and educational outreach programs to schools and the community that explore themes presented in the exhibitions. Plein Air will continue the Armory’s commitment to imaginative exhibitions and innovative outreach efforts by presenting materials in ways that enhance understanding and foster new visual and community connections. In addition to the diverse selection of artwork the exhibition will also include a series of public programs, school field trips, and activations.

Project Support

Plein Air at MOCA Tucson was supported by VIA Art Fund and Wagner Foundation; Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona; and MOCA Tucson’s Board of Trustees, Ambassador Council, and Members. Lead support for all Armory programs comes from the Los Angeles Arts Recovery Fund and the Perenchio Foundation. Generous support for Armory programs is provided by the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Armory Center for the Arts is a member of and supported by the Los Angeles Visual Arts (LAVA) Coalition.

About the Armory

Armory Center for the Arts, in Pasadena, California, is one of the Los Angeles region’s leading independent institutions for contemporary art and community arts education. The Armory believes that an understanding and appreciation of the arts is essential for a well-rounded human experience and a healthy civic community. The organization’s board and staff are committed to holding deep conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion; and acknowledge that these efforts are ongoing, a process of growth, and require intense self-reflection and collective consideration. For more information on the Armory Center for the Arts, visit