Artists Encounter the Los Angeles River, Part 1 – Art and Cake

Michelle Robinson 2023 What Was 4th Street Acylic paint on print 40×60 in

By Lawrence Gipe
In the mid-1980’s, I lived on Santa Fe Avenue and 7th Street, and the idea of Los Angeles having a “river” was a bit of a joke. The brutal concrete slabs of urban engineering in my backyard – the one with a fetid trickle of water slithering down its central trench – seemed an unnatural place, suitable more as a setting for car commercials than reflective bird-watching.

Researching the history of the Paayme Paxaayt (West River), as it was first named by the indigenous Tongva, I was surprised to learn how wild this run-off from the Simi Hills was. You wouldn’t want to go back in time and remind L.A. Mayor Frank Shaw about the river’s furious capriciousness: he was recalled from office by enraged L.A. citizens in 1938 after floodwaters tore through Tujunga and the Arroyo Seco, washing away 115 people and 6000 houses in one L.A.’s worst inundations. It’s not unexpected, given human nature and LA’s inexorable path towards “progress” in the mid-20th Century, that the Corps of Engineers would set about taming this savage torrent for good. And so they did after WW2, leaving a few portions of the river that are not completely paved like the flood-control basin behind the Sepulveda Dam near Van Nuys, and an 11-mile stretch east of Griffith Park called Glendale Narrows. Today, Glendale Narrows has benefitted from off-and-on rehabilitation, and the resurgence of Frogtown has followed as a result. Interest in the river as more than a movie backdrop (the trench has starred in over 40 Hollywood movies) has developed over time, and the LA City council just green-lit a 60-million dollar, 13-mile extension of the bike path between Reseda and Griffith Park.

Artists in Los Angeles have found in it an inspiring and poignant clashing of nature and man-made motifs. In August of 2022, Track 16 gallery hosted “Confluence”, a group show of artists using the river as a source for their practices. Sean Meredith, Track 16 Gallery’s director, became enamored with the river and its shaded bike trails after he moved to Atwater Village in 2002: “It opened my eyes to a place whose infrastructure can be aesthetically a turnoff,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and I fell in love with L.A. the way you would a flower growing through a crack in the concrete.” Indeed, the metaphor describes the river itself perfectly, with its rich mixture of vegetation and wildlife thriving in a hostile and antithetical environment. Truth be told, it doesn’t bear close examination. While lush and verdant from a distance, the floor of the river is mainly a matted carpet of algae-covered toxic run-off and half-buried garbage. After the record-breaking rains of early-2023, it still has a vigorous flow through the channel at this writing; this creates an ingratiating ambiance, despite the shopping carts and wads of clothing that clog the waterway.

Jamie Adams, “Willow, L.A. River, June 2022 and August 2022”, oil on panel, each 24” x 18”

Artist Jamie Adams, who began a daily drawing and painting practice by the river just before the pandemic, captures these dichotomies in his beautiful landscape work. Referring to the Greenway area, he concentrates “on those few miles that the river bottom couldn’t be contained due to a high water table, where the Los Angeles River runs as an approximation of its natural appearance. It exists as itself and a simulation of itself.” He continues: “I found myself drawn to the Willow trees that cling to the riverbed in this small section. Shaped by the circumstance of their survival, bent from winter storm waters, pruned, and cut down by work crews, their forms telling the stories of their lives…” Seen singularly, each of Adams’ drawings has the character of a quirky and poignant kind of portrait, as he attempts to capture the essence of each tree – some of whom he returns to many times. Considered as a large group, the project accrues a Diderot-like sense of accumulated knowledge, a rigorous 18th Century -style visual encyclopedia of an esoteric species.

Recently, I joined Adams on one of his early-afternoon excursions. It was a gorgeous early-summer day with lovely contrasting shadows in the willow “grove” we chose. Armed with my vine charcoal, moleskin, erasers and 6B pencils, we worked in a shaded area east of Spoke, a café and bike rental business just off the Greenway trail (which we accessed at the Great Heron Gates entrance on Fletcher by Rattlesnake Park). Adams set up to make an 8×8 inch ink drawing (in larger works he mixes in river silt with the ink), and I started scratching with vine on a motif that included a fallen tree, and some of the smooth river rocks that dot the basin.. After 3 hours or so, Jamie called it, and we packed up for the day with our two works.

Jamie Adams “Willow, 6.29,2023”, ink on paper, 8×8 inches

Lawrence Gipe, “L.A. River/ Fallen Tree”, pencil and charcoal on paper, 5×8 inches

Last May, artist Luciana Abait and I co-curated a survey show at the Huntington Beach Art Center of artists working with environmental issues called “By Degrees”. In addition to Adams, we chose the photographs of Lane Barden, who has a history of working with the L.A. River as a subject. His grid photos of the river’s entire length, “answered”, as he put it, “a need to see and understand the river in the context of the surrounding landscape, because it is basically invisible from almost everywhere in the city.” The grid works were “planned and designed to give the entire river a sequential flow, a visual order. The L.A. River is a touchstone for anyone who wants to have an authentic relationship with Los Angeles because to understand and appreciate it well, you have to know the history, the geology, the issues, and the lay of the land. Then, your identity as an artist here can have local depth and content, away from Hollywood, away from the beach, away from Beverly Hills…” Although of the same motif, Barden’s work couldn’t be more different than Adams. His distant, aerial point-of-view reveals the river’s massiveness as a public work; his systemic approach accentuates its relentless length and intrusiveness on the landscape.

Lane Barden, “LAR Grid”, 2022, photographs (Shown at Track 16’s “Confluence” exhibition).

The LA art scene’s interest in the river continues apace with a far-reaching group exhibition at Shatto Gallery up until September 16th ( ) called “OUR RIVER: city floodplain”. Chosen for their “shared dream of witnessing the positive impacts followed by rewilding the LA River”, a highlight is the work of Michelle Robinson. Her ominous images de-nude landscapes of their organic elements, leaving white voids that portend of things to come. She remarks: “The current state of the Los Angeles River is a bittersweet compromise that does not fully serve people, wildlife, or the environment. As a result of the flood control measures taken in the 1930s, the riparian habitat has largely disappeared, and many species of animals have been extirpated from the river. In my work, I want to make such losses visible.” Her work, “What Was (4th Street)”, is the image at the top of this article. Other notable works include Sue Park’s formally rigorous photographs and David Eddington’s richly-layered acrylic paintings.

Sue Park, 2023, “Rainy River”, digital photography, 43.5 x 71 in.

David Eddington, 2023, “In Spate Rive”, Acrylic on canvas, 74 x 96in.

On view through September 16th

Panel Discussion with 4 artists – Moderated by Shana Nys Dambrot
September 2, 2023, 3-4PM

Relevant Links:
Michelle Robinson:
Jamie Adams:
Lawrence Gipe:
Shatto Gallery: