Were Drowning in Our Own Stucco
Photo by Laurie BrownGod, it feels so good to hate Orange County. And it's so easy, too. It's ugly. It's boring. It's top-heavy with fat, spoiled jerks and their fatter SUVs. And it's getting worse—it's suburbia on steroids, and it's muscling its way into hitherto unmolested territory. We're drowning in our own stucco, and Laurie Brown is taking pictures. And as she sees it, it's beautiful.
Her collection "Recent Terrains" at the Laguna Art Museum is pitched as the topography of transition, as snapshots of an emerging form of beauty born of the tension between nature and artifice. For a decade now, longtime OC resident Brown has been shooting panoramas of under-construction developments around Aliso Viejo and Newport Beach with the same hauntingly severe gelatin-silver-print technique that frontier photographers like Ansel Adams used to freeze-frame the last days of the virgin West. But forget where the buffalo roam: Brown's is the new frontier, and in such terrains as the puddled tread marks of earthmovers and the denuded terraced hills of subdivisions yet to explode, she teases out a new kind of natural—or unnatural—beauty.
Indeed, "Terrains" is in some ways an examination of the nature of beauty itself, detached from ham-handed Romantic notions of hippie-style post-card splendor and expanded, Brown hopes, to include the Escher-like geometry of a horizon full of tract homes or the sinuous patterns of backhoe tracks through the mud. And supposedly, it's apolitical, or perhaps ambiguously political ("Brown refuses to create a hierarchy in which she places nature above civilization," explain the exhibition notes), but the sheer apocalyptic starkness of her landscapes absolutely demands some kind of reaction: this isn't transition as much as total transformation. The future looms large in these photographs, as it did in frontier photography a century and a half ago, but the possibilities implicit in Brown's landscapes are marbled with something vaguely sinister. You can sense it in the valleys full of metastasizing, cheek-to-jowl tract homes: these are the ruins of tomorrow, today.
Of course, I grew up in a part of Arizona so rural we didn't even have traffic lights (much less, you know, paved roads or subdivisions or anything). And I currently live on a friend's loveseat in the tiniest apartment in North County and take my calls at the pay phone two blocks away, so I'm predisposed as fuck to rankle at anything suburban or home-like. But I think I can beat my boho contempt for stucco-limned bourgeois piggery into submission just long enough to say that Brown's photographs aren't just immaculately composed riffs on Still Life With Backhoe. Instead, her "Recent Terrains" exhibit—both aesthetically and in its insistence on transcending or sidestepping political interpretations—is an unflinchingly raw glimpse of the heartless heart and soulless soul of modern developer-friendly Orange County. It's a primer in a new vocabulary of beauty—based on artifice, alienation and a total obliteration of history—that leaves no room at all for the old.
"'Terrains,'" we're told, "invites the viewer to scan the landscape in the same way a land developer surveys 'undeveloped' land." But this predatory the-world-is-my-canvas viewpoint is humming with political import, echoing the smash-and-grab days of imperialist Manifest Destiny, and you could argue that the subdivisions smeared across South County are much blanker and more vacant than the breezy desert valleys of 150 years ago. You might sound like a hippie, but you could still argue it. And it's this idea that nature exists only as inert raw material, as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, that is so potently illustrated in Brown's photographs. This isn't construction but terraforming, like we'll one day do to other planets, with civilizations rammed nose-first into the dirt with no regard for what came before. Aesthetically (and environmentally), it's an alien invasion, and that's the real tension that powers so many of Brown's photographs—not so much between artifice and nature as it is between the old frontier and the new, that same old story of we-came-we-saw-we-conquered inflicted on the land itself rather than its inhabitants.
In "Recent Terrains," any slim shreds of as-yet-undisturbed wilderness cling to the barest edges of the frame, as hills shadowed in background or spindly wisps of foliage up front. It's a landscape so fundamentally altered—and backward—that when a few untamed shrubs do sprout up (as in Recent Terrains 21, in which a gaggle of prickly native bushes marches toward the camera), they look more out of place than the flood channels or decapitated hilltops or incomplete tract-home skeletons that now define the environment. And they belong there—or used to. But now it's a landscape based on disconnect: the developments Brown photographs don't fit with the land so much as disregard it (witness the wagon-train circle of homes haloed by streetlights somewhere on the Newport Coast in Periphery 40 for one of many illustrations), and maybe that's why we're living today in a place without a real sense of place: you see one mini-mall, you've seen 'em all. It's brutally interchangeable, artificial and alienating, an aesthetic totally detached from the organic—self-replicating and devastating, like a computer virus.
So is this the new beauty? Self-contained, sealed-off, rigid, icily calculated, a sterilized and sanitized facsimile of the wasteland that was here before? Even without an explicit political thesis—like, say, that suburbs suck—it's still unsettling. Under Brown's lens, the new frontier is an unabashedly artificial place in which the wide-open spaces have been walled in—a place from which there's no alternative, no escape, and no going back to the way things were. Maybe I've been living on that loveseat too long, but it seems to me that Laurie Brown has Orange County exactly figured out.
"Laurie Brown: Recent Terrains" at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Open Thurs.-Tues., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Oct. 7. $4-$5; members/children under 12, free; free on Tuesdays.
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