Climbing aboard the free Laguna Beach trolley in Dana Point the Saturday before Election Day, I was excited to see Phillip K. Smith III's big installation on Laguna's Main Beach and to participate in an interactive sound piece inside Laguna Art Museum that promised to evoke a storm at sea coming ashore. What I didn't expect was to be enthralled by the 100-year-old paintings of a Laguna Beach plein-air artist named Anna Althea Hills. The fourth annual Art & Nature festival intrigues from multiple vantage points: the long view, wide angles, fractured reflections, and glimpses out of the corner of the eye. Now, the day after Election Day, I see no need to rewrite the headline for this story: Hold on to nature, keep making art.
From a distance, Smith's installation doesn't look like much, but getting close and moving through the slalom of 300 vertical beams that emerge directly from the sand provided for endless hall-of-mirror possibilities, filling photographs with plenty of surprises upon close inspection outside of the glaring sun. Ten-foot posts mirrored on all four sides stood about 5 feet apart and extended for a quarter mile, just as the title of Smith's installation promised. His arc follows the shoreline's bend and sits at the high tide line, rather than reaching up overhead as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis does. Though there was a high surf advisory from LA to San Diego in effect, Main Beach resembled a typical summer day: hot, small surf rated “green flag” by the lifeguards, blinding brightness. And beach-dwellers had long gotten used to the art wall, though they made sure to camp on the water side of its arc.
After walking the length of the arc, I climbed the hill to the museum. A well-attended lecture was in progress so I had the “Miss Hills of Laguna Beach: Anna Althea Hills” exhibit to myself while I waited for the interactive sound piece by Xiu Xiu founder Jamie Stewart and David Horvath to begin. HIlls' paintings are astonishing. They seemed to form a slideshow of my trolley up PCH, only without a trace of human interference. Each painting seemed to correspond to one of the “Beach Access” signs put up along Coast Hwy., where views have long been obscured. We see what she saw 100 years ago: vistas anywhere from Corona del Mar to Dana Point, out near Hemet and in Palm Springs, and even a commission to paint Montezuma's Head, which required her to travel by mule train to the Estrella Mountains where Cortez was rumored to have stashed gold. Her sense of irony shone in The Desert Waste, with its desert detail in a sunset palette; 1928's The Blue Pacific reveals a move toward abstraction not long before her death in 1930, when she and her sister lived in a house where the newly reopened Royal Hawaiian restaurant now sits. Hills' exquisite oeuvre is a treasure no longer buried, yet it's a painful reminder of nature erased.
After my immersion with Hills, the sound installation had a lot to live up to. I found it in the gallery where Smith's Bent Parallel stands, its two panels open at 120 degrees. The shifting, intense glow it emanates enlivened the space; without it, the atmosphere for “I,” lighthouse waiting storms would have been deadly dull. Or Bent Parallel played the role of lighthouse? A layered soundtrack of abstracted wind and water gushed into the room. Hanging directly across from Bent Parallel was a straight line of black tubes, ranging in length from 3 to 6 feet that seemed to beg Bent Parallel to straighten out, and reminded me of the precisely spaced posts of Smith's 1/4 Mile Arc. As I entered the room, I noticed in a dark corner a small pile of sticks, some from trees, others seemed to have been scavenged from a hardware store dumpster.
Against the far wall on the floor sat an electronic device, a fat cord that ran through a pile of coconuts to plug into a PA speaker, and the carton the coconuts came in. Next to the coconuts was a burning votive candle that seemed to say, “Here are coconuts.” I whacked two of them together but heard nothing. Just then a clang rang out. Someone had discovered that hitting a tube with a stick made it reverberate and swing as if being tossed at sea. That livened things up, as each tube had a unique tone based on its length. Hitting them with a coconut made an even more robust sound. But that was about it.
There were no ice cream bells or glass bottles as the museum's literature promised, no interesting instructions for participants to follow as in previous sound collaborations Stewart and Horvath have devised. The paltry sticks broke. Less than twenty minutes and my interest waned; it only lasted that long because I was there when people discovered the tubes could be hit. If the creators made an appearance or the soundtrack evolved, I wasn't about to stick around for another hour and forty minutes to find out. It felt like the El Nino that never arrived last winter, bringing very little rain but causing unprecedented erosion along the shore.
With Smith's installation, he seems to offer viewers myriad ways to see all that's crammed in and around them in ways not possible without his sculpture: 1960s stacked apartment buildings, boardwalk, meandering tourists, playground, cliff, trees, striped umbrellas, spiked volley balls, but also the vastness of sea, clouds and sky. Are the reflections shattery glimpses of the coastline a hundred years from now? Hills' paintings from a century ago show us the natural beauty of untouched nature. Perhaps portrayed at idealized times of day or in bloom after rain, but a terrain approaching what Hills saw on a daily basis in the early 20th century that took hours and hours to capture precisely on canvas. 1/4 Mile Arc took three days to put up, stood for three days, and came down in one. Both seem crucial: Times change, keep making art, hold on to nature. Not a bad takeaway, despite all that happened last Tuesday.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly and writes about the arts and South County beaches. Her OC roots go back to the Cuckoo’s Nest but she left to create original theater on four continents, then returned to bodysurf small waves.