Fourth Element Gallery’s ‘Florabau’ Is an Eerie Rumination on California’s Current Eco-Nightmare

Courtesy of Fourth Element Gallery

It isn’t always clear what Jane Bauman’s intent is in the current exhibition of some of her recent work at Fourth Element Gallery in Santa Ana. The painter has been working her craft for enough years that you can be sure that it’s there, so plan on spending some time with the work to parse what that intent may be. Titled “Florabau”—a play on flora and the first syllable of the artist’s last name (bau is German for a building or construction site)—the constructed, mixed media canvases thankfully don’t fall back on flowers as tired abstractions of vaginas. Instead, there’s a mix of the ecological, the esoteric, and knowing the artist, politics, in her deceptively simple work. Using flowers and rain as symbols of hope renewed, they’re an oblique address of California’s current drought, the ensuing floods that follow the devastation of wildfires, and an examination of water as an “invaluable resource.”

I confess that the only way I know any of this is because curator Laura Black told me. Such big themes aren’t obvious and Black hasn’t included either the titles of the work or any accompanying curatorial process notes. She’s affable, informed, and available during business hours, so first rule of thumb is to hit her up with questions if you get confused. Second, do yourself a favor and pick up the price sheet folder from the counter. The sheet lists each piece’s title, making the work much less confusing, supplying thoughtful clues on what you might be looking at. By leaving out that info, Black creates an initial disconnect for the viewer, and while I saw what she described after she explained the work, initially all I saw was pretty flowers.

Courtesy of Fourth Element Gallery

Those photographic images of daisies—mostly pink, some yellow or white—are made into photographic transfers, and then applied to aluminum on a wood background. The metal—recycled discarded lithography plates—is occasionally added on top of the picture, breaking up or cropping the image: the dull silver bounces available light sources or the colors already in the picture (Sweet Rain, 2018), with delicate rainbows, depending on where you’re standing. All of the images also have painted streaks of sharp, pin-thin sheets of rain stabbing into the florets from above (Heat Wave, 2018), or blue lighting erupting into a series of jagged bolts as they tango from petal to petal (Wet, 2016).

Hope shines in Bauman’s carefully-applied shotgun-blasted blue blanket of perfect circles in two of her canvases. Simultaneously obscuring, corralling and highlighting the images underneath, her more specifically abstracted raindrops offer a Pop representation of nature. Big Daisy Soak, the largest of the pieces, fills your field of vision if you move in close enough to see the familiar daisies beneath, bedazzled with a green luminescence. In Deluge at 29 Palms, you have to do the opposite and take several steps back to see its negative image of a Joshua Tree desert, the area around its palms and shacks as bright as an inferno raging out of control. The circles of image surrounded by blue highlight both the rain and its absence, creating an atmosphere that, quoting from Joanna Roche’s introduction to the show catalog, makes you “[yearn] for that sound that invokes rain.”

Courtesy of Fourth Element Gallery

Bauman’s series of black and white grid images, the canvas vista broken into two and sometimes four sections, feel less hopeful, and more about statements of mourning and loss: A single painted blue flower slips from one blurry frame to another that’s been stripped of color (Fallen Flower, 2016); several blossoms tumble like chips of flaking paint over four shots of Rococo ceiling art in another (Rain of Daisies, 2016). Following the flowers to their logical final resting place off the canvas and onto the ground, these literal down-to-earth existential concerns seem more at the forefront than ecological unease. That soberness is reinforced by the punk Xerox feel of its black-and-white transfers, their photographed images degraded by being copied over and over, distressed until it sometimes becomes just outlines and suggestions of the original picture.

In her final trio, Bauman has inked Rorschach Tests on vellum and placed them over foggy gray photographs of some of the same gardens and art mentioned above. A bat, a face or two, insects, atoms . . . the artist leaves it up to you to decipher what they mean, though she’s peppered the titles of each with more water references (Fog in the Garden, Vapor Queen, and Dawn for the Water Babies).

Courtesy of Fourth Element Gallery

Rain as a symbol for washing away the sins of the world has long been a biblical trope, as well as a visual representation for tears. In a year when 3,981 California fires have burnt up over 629,531 acres so far—as the White House blames water diversion instead of the much more obvious climate change—a ceremonial invocation for something greater than ourselves to intervene can’t hurt.

“Jane Bauman | Florabau” at Fourth Element Gallery, 210 N. Broadway Ave., Santa Ana, (657) 232-0002; Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Aug. 24. Free.

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