Traveling by foot is very popular in Los Angeles at the moment. There are so many efforts to get out of the car and get on the street to experience the city on a basic level, you taking in the city at your own pace and physically engaging with Los Angeles from foot to concrete covered earth. It was only a matter of time before this interaction started to find its way into the practice of local artists, walking as the basis or jumping off point for new practices. Artist John O’Brien has to feel this way in some regard as a new show of his–Meander at PMCA–all started from taking a little walk around the Arroyo Seco Parkway.
Walking for O’Brien is very important. The act (what he refers to as a “meander”) allows him to face the city and its constructions on an equal playing field. Being on foot allows you to see the beauty and idiosyncrasies the city has. There is a relationship to mapping and basic technologies that all point to the current landscape that surrounds us, be it man made or natural. His exhibit is a mixture of chartings and images, maps and sculpture that all were extracted from the experience of strolling around the zooming 110. We had a little chat with O’Brien to hear about how he made his work and what he hopes it brings to Angelenos. He gave some very, very thoughtful answers (and did his research on us too).
Meander is an art piece that copes with everything from walking in Los Angeles to modern day mapmaking. Where did the idea for the piece come from? Was there a specific situation or instance that got the idea for the process going?
In general I’d say that something we share is being military brats, so you probably understand the real and profound motivation is a need to find my way, orient, triangulate and figure the new terrain out as soon as possible. Fear of losing one’s self, one’s way or one’s bearing, maybe? Regarding the specific motivations and ideas that started me off working on the Meander installation, I remember two events that triggered my interest in making it appear.
The first occurred to me traveling along the then rather abandoned 805 to 905 freeway running from San Diego to the Otay Mesa in order to get to Brown Airfield where I was working with Larry Dumlao and John Moros on a long term installation, performance and artist organized exhibition space in the galley. I kept looking at the huge new overpasses I was driving under and wondered if they would someday be the historical counterpoint to the Roman aqueducts and triumphal arches which I lived with during my years in Rome. These massive underbellies seemed so majestic and so un-noticed. So I obtained permission from the Department of Transportation to photograph them. After I was done, I put the negatives in a box and put that away for almost two decades.
The second event that triggered this meander was a walk along the 110 Freeway (parkway really) during a brief closure years ago. I finally saw the site on foot and perceived of it as a place (not just in transit) and realized how beautiful it was. Speeding along the curvy little road day after day, on the way to work or to my son’s school, I never noticed how amazing it was, how marvelously calibrated to the landscape and pictorial it is. That is where I started specifically for Meander.
Outside of your actual meander, what was the process of making the work? There seems to be a combination of geographic study, photography, sculpting, and more: how do you feel these disciplines aid each other?
That is a hard one Kyle, the process of making my art work is often drawn out over a long time with many tangents suddenly becoming central to my attention and focus. I started with the awareness that I wanted to do something about that place, then I took the walks, then the photos, then I obtained the aerial images, then the drawing and the sculpture, then I spent time imagining everything in the project room.
I have always worked in more than one medium. When I lived in Italy I did printmaking with poets while doing political performance, here in the States I have typically employed at least two mediums: performance and drawing or sculpture and drawing or photo and video. I view them as mutually supportive and allow for the ideas driving my work to be manifest in multiple mediums. One thing I would add is that it took me a long time to master my overall palette of techniques, so now I work so that the ideas and emotions at the core of my art can be formed as meaningfully as possible, irrespective of the technical aspects of the art making.
What is your relationship to mapping? This theme in your work appears to be so rich as it ties to the meander to the landscape to our perception of an area versus its reality. It’s a unique point of entry (or too) to art making.
My relationship to map making starts with drawings I did as a kid on military topo maps my dad brought home as scrap paper. But that was just a love of the topo patterns. I was really into cartoons and sci-fi imagery. Then much later when I started doing public art, I realized that maps and mapping could provide me with a wonderful source of abstract imagery that was actually grounded in something real: the land below and around us. So I start using both aerial photography and landsat images. Along with the Adventures on a Raft / Digressions project I did with the poet Molly Bendall, Meander is the first time I brought map making into such a central focus of my studio practice.
What do you hope people take from Meander? How do you feel the piece will resonate with Angelenos? What about non-Angelenos?
I hope visitors reflect on the highly unusual way that LA perceives itself as a landscape viewed from above. Except for landing here on a plane, or looking out over the lights from Griffith Park at night after rain or winds, it is hard to imagine LA as a single entity. It always seems like a set of towns or neighborhoods set up along the freeways. I also hope that they all reflect on the beauty of this place we have fashioned and made up as we go; an ad hoc kind of development in both the positive and negative senses.
Non-Angelenos could have the same experiences and maybe take away the awareness that LA is a unique and different type of metropolis than you’d find on the east coast or in Europe or someplace San Francisco.
Meander takes three views of Los Angeles and fuses them into a loosely knit composite visual art work. It is basically a love poem. To compose it, I employed a set of high altitude photos of the 110 from my house up to the base of Pasadena, photographs that I have drawn upon of the underpasses that I came upon during several walks I make up beside the 110 and a sculptural construction that is an amalgamation of linear forms that draw on letterforms ranging from illuminated manuscripts to the curvilinear forms of off ramps viewed from above passing through graffiti and roadway signage. The agglomeration is intent on recreating for a viewer my own awakening to the wonder of this meander, a moment in which things largely un-noticed or ignored suddenly come into view. I freely embellish that awareness with tangents and personal asides as I expect any other viewer would. The intent is not so much to communicate something specific, as it is to create a perceptual opening, posit a refreshed awareness.
How would you describe the Arroyo Seco Parkway? What drew you to this area in particular? Do you find that it represents something about Angelenos?
I use the Arroyo Seco Parkway constantly. My neighborhood is technically Lincoln Heights but both for my work at Art Center, at the Armory Center for the Arts, etc. and for my son’s activities at his middle school and high school, I am up and down the 110 regularly and actual consider the Highland Park and Pasadenas my neighborhood. It was after that walk that I discovered the tangibility of its beauty but I was always drawn to this winding parkway and the way it frames the panorama as it wends its way up the road.
This may sound obvious but what is your relationship to walking? With there being a big movement in LA now to get out of your car and into the city (via Los Angeles Walks, CicLAvia, Metro expansion, etc.), is walking a big part of your practice? Are you an advocate for walking and better public transportation in Los Angeles?
I came back to the States via NY and San Diego from Italy where I lived for almost 20 years between Napoli, Urbino, and Roma, without a car, so yes, my tendency is to want to go on foot when possible anywhere I have to go. I love absorbing my surroundings more slowly than a car allows for and either by bike or on foot are still my preferred modes of locomotion. I have become involved with both Los Angeles Walks and CicLAvia as a participant and am a strong advocate for creating pedestrian and bike pathways through this amazing city. We miss too much as we whiz by in our cars.
What is next for your? Are there any new projects we should be on the lookout for? Do you plan on doing any more walking driven pieces?
I am off to Italy in late June for a month so I will be walking in the Umbrian countryside where I live while there (a little town, Porchiano del Monte, just north of the Lazio border) and I am sure something will come of that. I also am starting on a drawing project with my friend the architect and designer Annaly Bennett that is based on fusing elements of her family’s architecture and my own experience of Pasadena by using layers of semi-transparent dura-lar with ink and pencil drawing. I just exhibited a project in Roma in which I exhibited similarly conceived works: seven works that consisted in two layers of overlaid drawing in which I juxtaposed elements of historical Rome with elements drawn from my personal experience of Rome. Generally the juxtaposition places the city center in relationship to the periphery, with the outskirts being drawn in black and white and the historic center in color. These layered images are each also perforated by a unique steel extrusion keyed to my personal narrative that connects these two versions of Rome set in transparent overlay.
And who knows what other things will come up. I still have images of Downtown LA that I shot in the early nineties sitting in a box somewhere in the studio which could come up for air at some point?
This is one of our favorite interviews that we’ve done with an artist. O’Brien has such a care for his work and for cities and pays a different kind of attention to it that really is born from his meeting with these places on a one-to-one basis. We sure do hope he brings out those old Downtown photos and does something with them. That part of town is constantly in a state of transition! Meander will be on view at PMCA through July 28 and you can get more information on it here. If you want to get more and hear more from the artist, he’ll be giving a talk on June 16 where he will walkthrough his exhibition and will take people on a “meander” through Pasadena. It’s free with admission!
PMCA is located at 490 East Union Street in Pasadena. Get more information on them here.
Photos courtesy of PMCA and by Don Milici ©.