If California is in many ways a state of mind, as well as a state in the western continental U.S., Paradox California exemplifies its mystique. The California dream depicted in this lush and burnished exhibition from photographic artist Osceola Refetoff and mixed-media artist Chelsea Dean is desiccated by desert heat, burnished gold and amber and brown by desert sun, and crested by dry blue skies as vivid as a Mojave wildflower.
Now at Launch LA, the paradox presented here is two-fold. It is the disconnect between the paradise of opportunity California purports to offer, the “California Dreamin’ on such a winter’s day” mythology; and the harsher realities of survival here, whether due to financial struggles or the terrain of the desert where so many dreamers drift. The Golden State still shines, but some of that patina is fool’s gold.
The two artists are well paired: despite their disparate mediums, they both frequently work with images culled from desert horizons and habitats. Whether depicting the ruins of civilizations conjured and spent or the glorious clarity of a desert sky, both artists’ works are filled with an inchoate longing; they are evocative, spare, harsh, and as wonderful as the desert both love.
Refetoff’s thoughtful, lush images convey both man’s intrusion on nature and a richly cinematic beauty that sweeps the viewer into the raw light of the desert. His expansive view of the western landscape includes images of misbegotten dreams and haunting vistas. Some glitter, some soften, but his eye and his photographs are always sharp and prescient.
Dean’s mixed media work often combines drawing, found objects, printmaking, photography, and collage. The layered and dimensional qualities of her work make for a physical embodiment of the images she depicts, and her fascination with the dichotomy between order and stasis. Focusing on abandoned homes in the Wonder Valley area of the Mojave desert, many of her images fit seamlessly, geographically speaking, with Refetoff’s. Often including found elements from abandoned properties, she adds delicate touches of gold, intricate and delicate patterns, and an illuminated and elevated depiction of even the most elemental of architectural sites, adding poetry and grace to even a lost desert cabin. It is often the elements of transition and transformation, of decay and a non-linear form of rebirth, that seems to fascinate Dean.
The two artists’ works compliment each other, and in one case, merge. Their mixed media titular piece, “Paradox California” combines a selected image of Refetoff’s from his Framing the Desert series with a lustrous turquoise background etching of Dean’s and a layered collage of metallic foil on top of the image from Dean as well. The gold appears to be found beneath the peeling wallpaper in the image captured in Refetoff’s photograph.
The piece is a depiction of the wide-open possibilities, dreams, losses, and overwhelming spiritual quality of desert, as well as the magnetic desire of humans to live in this strange, raw land; it depicts the golden light and search for literal and figurative gold that brings so many to California.
According to Refetoff, as fortuitous as the collaboration between these two artists is, it was not something either artist had long planned.
“Launch LA typically exhibits work by two artists in each cycle. Last spring, gallery director James Panozzo discussed doing a show with me on a road trip to Lancaster, California to see my High & Dry: Land Artifacts exhibition at the Museum of Art & History. James said he’d think about what work he wanted to present and look for a good person to pair with me. Some months later, he suggested Chelsea Dean,” Refetoff says.
He was not familiar with her work, but discovering that Dean had work in a Fellows of Contemporary Art show near his Chinatown studio, he went to the closing, and was “immediately drawn” to her work, finding the artist and her material energetic and engaging.
“Both of us explore the same subject – abandoned homesteads in the California desert – but with significantly different approaches. James scheduled separate studio visits to choose artwork for the exhibition. The credit goes to him for envisioning the pairing and for selecting such complimentary work. At some point, I suggested that rather than staging two adjacent exhibits, it would be more engaging to create an integrated installation that juxtaposed our work throughout the gallery. James was enthusiastic about the idea and reached out to Chelsea to see if she was game,” Refetoff explains.
He describes himself as a natural collaborator, having co-directed two 16mm films with Andrew Falcon in college days, and continuing long-term work on KCET’S Artbound project High & Dry with writer Christopher Langley. Sensitive to whether Dean felt the same way about a collaborative process, he says he soft-pitched the idea of a combined effort. Dean was enthusiastic. The finished co-creation embodies the basis of the entire exhibition, its gold-toned glow and the conversational curation that is somewhat of a call and response between the two artists. Refetoff adds “With Paradox California, Chelsea and I are exhibiting distinct and materially different bodies of work. But we had a fantastic time collaborating on naming the show, creating our eponymous colab piece, and generally joining forces on all aspects…”
Refetoff describes his own images here as using his opportunistic, documentary approach. “I generally travel about with two or three cameras, making photographs for several concurrent projects as the subjects present themselves. My intention is always to create cohesive portfolios, but I also look for opportunities to present the images in new and engaging ways.” Pieces from two different portfolios comprise his exhibition images. It’s a Mess Without You, his exploration of desert window vistas, and the black and white, infrared photographs surveying objects left behind in the desert, Ozymandias were the two bodies of work Launch LA’s Panozzo selected from.
“They’re two very different representational strategies connected by their exploration of abandoned homes and structures,” Refetoff says, describing his work as formal in composition, with one evolution. That evolution is “My gradual embrace – and eventual obsession – with the chaotic quirks and artifacts that are unique to the photographic process. I learned in film school how to avoid lens flare, shielding the front element from direct light to maximize contrast and sharpness. In the last 3-4 years, I’ve come to appreciate the way direct sunlight bounces around in the lens, often to surprising effect. There are three large, new images in the main room that feature these dazzling photographic ‘mistakes’ that I continue to incorporate in my work whenever the opportunity presents.”
For Dean, an evolution in her work came “when considering which of Osceola’s photographs to work with. I found myself not only responding to the imagery, but also to the negative spaces and shapes within the piece. Often, my process begins with me cutting and removing parts of an image to create a new opportunity for additional materials, colors, or ideas to interact. In this case, the photograph that we selected for collaboration had a window featured prominently in the center. Strangely enough, windows and reflections ended up finding their way into several of my pieces in this show, but it was not something that I consciously acknowledged at the time.”
She says one part of the process with this specific collaborative piece that felt new to her was where she incorporated the use of reflective gold material in the work. “I absolutely loved how the patterned wallpaper was peeling off the walls, and I was excited about the idea of creating the illusion that gold was actually hidden behind these spaces,” she attests.
Dean says that overall, the pairing of her work with that of Refetoff was highly fortuitous: a perfect match in many ways. “Aside from the obvious overlap in subject matter, I think both bodies of work celebrate the beauty found in what’s left — the aftermath, the loss, the remnants of past lives and histories,” she relates. “Although we each have our own unique way of documenting and responding to these spaces, both bodies of work are informed by the spirit and possibilities of the past. At a time when people are quick to discard the old for the new in hopes of finding something more shiny and pristine, we encourage others to stop and take a closer look. The spaces we document offer traces of a more hopeful time, and serve as reminders of how quickly what society deems valuable can shift.”
Each work here has its own intrinsic value and worth. There are the gorgeous opaque cracked “skins” of Dean’s desert ground in “Fool’s Gold,” a piece in which shadows portend the future and shape the past; or the tattered remnants of architecture and the ephemeral dreams the decay represents in “Reflected in What’s Left” with its hints of gold and swirls of blue. Refetoff’s “Charred House on Trinity Street” is a window into an almost ethereal world: a burst of golden sun through the window of an abandoned home, golden dust motes dazzling the air and turning into prisms of an almost holy light surrounding it, the structure’s decaying walls patterned like a tattered leaf or piece of bark. His black and white “Pioneer Cemetery” is a vision of from the old west – from the perfectly detailed dark mountains in the background to the carefully fenced grave in the middle of overgrown grasses and desert scrub in the foreground. Neither a person nor his dreams could best the plans and might of nature. “There Goes the Neighborhood” gives us a view of a wrecked mobile home through a broken window, every aspect of the image is one of loss, contrasting with the humorous nature of the title. We cannot take ourselves, our human foibles, too seriously Refetoff appears to say.
Where Dean’s “Within the Present” gives us glimpses of a burnished gold and a limited palette in the face of decay and loss, Refetoff’s “ICE/AMMO Mojave CA” gives us the brightest of colors in a depiction of a cheap human sign. It is an invasion of sorts, dominating a landscape in which mauve mountains await with stately, patient grace. “This too will pass,” the impervious landscape seems to suggest.
But what will remain is the resilience of the human spirit, however misguided, and the great beauty of the land, despite our best and worst attempts to tame or corrupt it. And of course, what also remains are the dazzling and poignant moments captured in Dean and Refetoff’s respective and collaborative work.
Genie Davis is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Davis is a multi-published novelist, journalist, and produced screen and television writer based in Los Angeles. Publisher and writer of www.diversionsLA.com, she also writes for a wide range of magazines and newspapers.