Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 1 of 4

The grave marker of Walter Hopps in the Lone Pine Cemetery. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

The grave marker of Walter Hopps in the Lone Pine Cemetery. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

May 2012

I’ve traveled down the Eastern Sierra from Reno to Lone Pine, a five-hour drive on what I’ve always considered to be the most beautiful road in this part of the country. Lone Pine is in the middle of the Owens Valley, and to the west Mt. Whitney rises 10,000 feet from the valley floor to the highest summit in the Lower 48. Lone Pine, besides being a jumping-off point for Sierra hikers and climbers, is also where Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Bon and her collaborative Metabolic Studio have their satellite headquarters.

I’m here to attend a Metabolic meeting with Lauren, Helen and Newton Harrison, Matt Coolidge from the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and others to consider how art, activism, and environmental sciences can intervene in what for a century has been one of the largest water grabs in the country. In 1913 William Mulholland, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) opened the tap on the aqueduct that drained the Owens Valley of its water in order to build, in part, the suburbs and towns of the Sen Fernando Valley 233 miles to the south. “There it is. Take it,” he proclaimed to the land developers of Los Angeles, the most famous words in the history of the city.

To begin the three-day meeting, two dozen of us gathered at the gravesite of legendary LA art curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005), who decided to be buried here because he “couldn’t think of a better place to spend eternity,” according to his widow. Two dancers slowly approached his marker at sunset, water and flowers in hand, as an offering to the grand old man who inspired so many of us early in our careers. I’d last seen him in 1979 or so at a meeting of art museum people in Santa Fe, and I’ve always considered him a classic curator — brilliant, socially eccentric but aesthetically principled, perpetually late.

We ended our reverie with appetizers made from local greens, rabbit, and freshwater mussels from the Owens “Dry” Lake (famously emptied by the aqueduct), the first meal in what will be a progression meant to evoke the evolution of the local foodshed. This was the Paiute-Shoshone phase, which was followed by a Basque Sheepherder stew for dinner over at the Metabolic Studio headquarters in a rented house a few blocks away. The house has been transformed into a proper planning studio with maps of the watershed and sounding lines of Owens Lake, and a long table around which we will play “Aqua-opoly,” a board game where units of water piped to LA is the currency.

Lauren hopes to frame up a hundred-year strategy for artists and activists to form a water community from Lone Pine to LA. She’s already started by creating a local cooperative garden to raise awareness of the issues, hence our locally-sourced meal plan for the meeting. “Learning from the ground up, “ Matt Coolidge quipped. For me this is yet another chance to witness the early stages of an Art + Environment project that is situated in that fluid and mostly undefined area of contemporary art labelled “social practice,” more about which in the next posts.

Matt Coolidge contemplates a bowl of freshwater mussels from the Owens Dry Lake. Chef Kevin West holds a bucket of locally gathered wild greens. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Matt Coolidge contemplates a bowl of freshwater mussels from the Owens Dry Lake. Chef Kevin West holds a bucket of locally gathered wild greens. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 2 of 4

The entrance to Emerald City, otherwise known as Metabolic Studio’s IOU Garden in downtown Lone Pine. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

The entrance to Emerald City, otherwise known as Metabolic Studio’s IOU Garden in downtown Lone Pine. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Monday evening, and the progressive meals by Kevin West and Tom Hudgens (graduates of the renowned Deep Springs College nearby) have moved through a miner’s lunch (based on home-canned food such as sauerkraut) and into a Mexican dinner. The inspiration for the latter was a description by local author Mary Austin from her essential book, Land of Little Rain, which described an early-20th century Mexican-American settlement at the lower end of the valley.

The morning was spent in a group meeting laying out the parameters of water sources and usage throughout the Owens Valley, which ranged from ranching, the local Paiute Reservation wells, and local food production to the attempt by the bottled water company Crystal Geyser to expand its operations. Water ownership is mostly very simple here: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owns almost all of it. But the exceptions, like the Reservation and the family that owns the wells used by the bottled water company, are potential sources of transition for the towns here — to “get off the water grid,” as Lauren Bon puts it.

A complex part of the local puzzle is the court-ordered effort by LADWP to mitigate blowing dust caused by the anthropic drying out of Owens Lake. The consequent dust storms contain very unhealthy amounts of arsenic and the vastly more poisonous selenium, which cause problems for the towns downwind, such as Keeler.

Metabolic Studio’s effort is bimodal: it’s to change how the Owens Valley water is sourced, and also how LA uses water. Part of the briefing by Andy Lipkis, founder of the nonprofit Tree People, and artists Helen and Newton Harrison revolved around how to use wastewater in LA — ”mining the sewers” — in order to reduce the city’s water consumption, thus freeing up water to flow through the Owens Valley into the lake.

This evening’s meal is a potluck at Metabolic’s community garden in Lone Pine named Emerald City. It features dishes made from locally grown food, which is itself a trope for the rich web of public metaphors that Lauren Bon and her colleagues have deployed on behalf of social change here. The silver used in the early days of Hollywood was mined out of the mountains east of Owens Lake. “Emerald City” is both an allusion to the hidden powers controlling an urban myth in The Wizard of Oz, but also evokes the patchwork links of greenery that existed here when the river flowed. Metabolic Studio’s ongoing support of Master Gardener classes in the local foodshed are a patient social strategy where the art is deliberately kept almost invisible, but the potential for change is huge. Emerald City is also known as the IOU Garden; on one side stands an old red water truck used to bring rainwater collected at the Studio’s Los Angeles facility and brought to the Owens Valley, a symbolic repatriation of resources.

The artistic practice of Lauren Bon is to generate poetic and visual metaphors as inspiration for re-greening the valley and re-connecting Los Angelenos with the source of their water. The Studio then manifests those metaphors in actions, such as community gardens — hence “social practice” as an art form.

Potluck dinner at Emerald City, the IOU truck in the background. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Potluck dinner at Emerald City, the IOU truck in the background. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Linda Fleming’s Drawing Retrospective in Fallon

Installation View Left to Right, Template, 2003; Stone Stairs, 2006; White Cave, 2006; Puddle, 2012 on floor
Installation View Left to Right, Template, 2003; Stone Stairs, 2006; White Cave, 2006; Puddle, 2012 on floor

The Oats Park School in Fallon, Nevada was designed in 1914, retired and eventually placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1990, and then in 1995 repurposed as the Churchill Arts Council’s multi-discipline cultural center. The adaptive reuse design includes three handsome gallery spaces that since 2003 have hosted a series of excellent exhibitions by regional artists. The latest, running through 9th, is a 45-year retrospective of drawings by Bay Area artist Linda Fleming. Known primarily as a creator of massive yet elegant metal sculptures, Fleming’s three-dimensional pieces actually arise from rigorous two-dimensional drawings.

Fleming trained early as an artist, but by the early 1970s was so technically proficient that she came to mistrust the discipline and spent most of the decade focusing on sculpture. As her exhibition demonstrates, when she returned to the flatland of drawing at the end of that decade, she hadn’t lost her touch, but instead had added an intellectual vocabulary capable of sustaining a robust body of work for the rest of her career, which continues to see her push our notion of how a drawing can perform.

Fleming’s art, no matter how many dimensions are involved, parses the universe according to a mathematical practice that is both rigorous and intuitive. The largest piece in the show, Template, could as well stand for the artist’s state of mind as well as the design for cut steel deployed in a sculpture. Its radial symmetry is worked out in a way that makes immediate and visceral sense to the viewer, even as you realize that its method is far from simple. A bit like the universe itself, in fact. White Cave from three years later features a biomorphic tracery with some structural kinship to Template, but it’s layered over an entirely realistic depiction of a rock formation housing a central void. The figure hovers in stillness before the cave even as it appears it is about to explode into motion.

The most recent work, Puddlei, which was cut out of thick felt earlier this year, is a lovely nod to the relationships between the two- and three-dimensional works. Its geometry is related to both of the previous drawings, yet like a thick drawing it has sculptural qualities signified by the rumpling of the material on the floor. As Fleming admits in her artist’s statement, materials can never fully express thought. While her work evokes universal rules underlying the cosmos, the use of a mundane fabric such as felt (even with the inescapable allusion to work by Robert Morris) anchors the idea in everyday life, a tension made manifest by the ambiguity of the felt’s dimensional presence.

Linda Fleming’s show, even though the works are for sale (a valid strategy for a community arts center), has the kind of curatorial integrity we expect of a retrospective. It’s a worthy journey just over an hour’s drive through the desert east of Reno to see exhibitions at the Oats Park School, and Fleming work is the most recent addition to a very long string of excellent events in both the visual and performing arts presented there.

Linda Fleming, "White Cave" 2006, graphite on rag paper, 57"h x 67"w. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Linda Fleming, “White Cave” 2006, graphite on rag paper, 57″h x 67″w. Photograph courtesy of the artist.