• Plein Air

Plein Air

May 14, 2022 – March 12, 2023
East Galleries

Plein Air explores shifting ideas of western landscape, painting, and fieldwork. Traditional plein air painting, which typically involves painting outdoors in a single sitting to capture a vista in a certain quality of light, is taken as a point of departure to consider the ways in which humans use, observe, record, and commune with the land. 

This group exhibition expands plein air to include contemporary works of painting, video, mapping, multidisciplinary research, and installation, that involve the act of painting outdoors.

Outdoor painting from observation lays the ground for layered portrayals of complex landscapes of personal significance. Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s paintings, often started as landscapes painted en plein air, are portals through time and to places linked to the artist’s own lived experience. Working in relation to people, plants, histories, practices, and environments, iris yirei hu uses paint, language, fiber, soil, and other organic matter to create vibrant assemblages that trace networks within a landscape. KB Jones plein air watercolor sketches of the oil and gas industry of Oklahoma and West Texas, a region where her family has roots, serve as studies for her large-scale painted tapestries. 

Plein air is considered in the context of land surveying, settling, and use. Hillary Mushkin and her Incendiary Traces collaborators show a through line between 19th century and contemporary methods used to survey the US-Mexico border in Survey to Surveillance. Informed by research into the US Bureau of Land Management’s Standard Environmental Color chart, Susanna Battin’s Leave No Trace series poses questions around the use of paint as a tool for concealing human impact on the land.

While conventional landscape paintings look out into the distance, for Sterling Wells, whose observational watercolor paintings involve working at sites of environmental, social, and cultural confluence over extended periods of time, “this is the colonizer’s gaze. I want to depict the ground.” Paula Wilson also challenges western art historical tropes, offering an update to a painting’s creation myth, while calling attention to the act of seeing, as well as being seen.

Each artist attends to the embodied experience of being there. Outdoor painting from observation is approached as ground truth—as bearing witness—a way to experience, process, and understand a range of physical landscapes, and our relationship to them.

Plein Air is organized by guest curator Aurora Tang.

The exhibition is supported by VIA Art Fund and Wagner Foundation; Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona; and MOCA Tucson’s Board of Trustees, Ambassador Council, and Members.

In-kind support provided by The Downtown Clifton Hotel and Barrio Brewing Company.


About the Artists: 

Susanna Battin (based in Tucson, AZ) mixes research with visual art to turn a playful lens on past, present, and future environmental politics. She is interested in how images shape people’s relationships with land, and the performance of images within the history of colonization of the West. She works between video, cartography, collage, painting, social action, and reading legal documents and nature poems. Battin has exhibited at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, Gas Gallery, Human Resources, CalArts, and abroad.

Esteban Cabeza de Baca (b.1985, San Ysidro, CA; based in Queens, NY) employs a broad range of painterly techniques, entwining layers of graffiti, landscape, and pre-Columbian pictographs in ways confounding Cartesian single-point perspective. He often begins his works en plein air, recasting the practice of landscape painting, which was once the preferred surveying tool of colonizers. Cabeza de Baca’s hybrid techniques and influences form a complex braid: interrogating the dialectical relationships between colonialism and its critique, between cultural extraction and its inversion. Cabeza de Baca has exhibited at The Drawing Center, New York, NY; Gaa Gallery, Provincetown, MA; Garth Greenan Gallery, New York, NY; Yale University, New Haven, CT; and abroad. His work has been featured in Vogue Magazine, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Frieze Magazine, and The Brooklyn Rail.

iris yirei hu is an artist who paints, weaves, dyes, tells stories, and composts her lived reality into installations, public artworks, and intercultural-generational-and-geographical collaborations. She often works in community with artists, scientists, historians, keepers of traditions, and organizers to limn connections between people, places, and practices to explore possibilities of kinship. hu has shown her work at the Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI; Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Feminist Center for Creative Work, Los Angeles, CA; Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles, CA; among others. Public art commissions include California State University, Dominguez Hills; Institute for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Los Angeles Nomadic Division; among others.

KB Jones (b.1979, Huntsville, Texas; based in Manhattan, NY) was a Chinati Foundation artist in residence in 2020, and has exhibited at venues indoors and out, from the Keap Fourth Community Garden in Brooklyn, to the Peter Strauss Ranch National Park in Los Angeles, to the Lemonade Stand, a mobile gallery and residency in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Hillary Mushkin is an artist and a research professor of art and design at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Mushkin’s art and research is focused on the limits and power of human and technological observation. She is founder of Incendiary Traces, an art and research initiative to collaboratively reverse-engineer the politics of landscape visualization. She is also co-founder of Data to Discovery, a data visualization, art and design group based at NASA/JPL, Caltech and ArtCenter College of Design that engages co-design and visual practices to influence the production of scientific knowledge. Her art work has been exhibited at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Freud Museum, London, England, UK; nGbK, Berlin, Germany; and Ex Teresa Arte Actual Museum, Mexico City, Mexico. Incendiary Traces is the subject of the book Hillary Mushkin: Incendiary Traces, published by the Pomona College Museum of Art.

Sterling Wells (b.1984 New York, NY; based in Los Angeles) has given solo and two-person presentations at Night Gallery, Los Angeles; Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA) at Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles; AWHRHWAR, Los Angeles; Vernon Gardens, Vernon, CA; and Metropolitan Structures, Baltimore, MD. He has participated in group exhibitions at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Perth, Western Australia; Harkawick, Los Angeles; EPOCH, Los Angeles; Night Gallery, Los Angeles; and American Medium, Brooklyn, NY.

Paula Wilson (b.1975 Chicago, IL; based in Carrizozo, NM) is a multimedia artist whose densely layered, colorful, and often monumental works utilize a variety of painting, collage, filmic, installation, performance, and print techniques. As a Black woman born in Chicago and living in the American desert, Wilson’s multifaceted work resists a singular viewpoint. Her layering of color, image, pattern, and materials acts as a visual metaphor for the complex stratum of histories and cultures, both real and imagined, that inform her work. Wilson’s artworks are in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, Yale University, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, The Rubell Family Collection, The New York Public Library, and The Albuquerque Museum. Wilson is co-founder of the artist organizations MoMAZoZo and the Carrizozo Artist in Residency.

About the Curator:

Aurora Tang is a curator and researcher based in Los Angeles. Since 2009 she has been a program manager at The Center for Land Use Interpretation. From 2011–15 she was managing director of High Desert Test Sites. Prior, she worked at non-profit art and research organizations including the Getty Research Institute and Getty Conservation Institute. She has taught at schools including Otis College of Art and Design and the University of Southern California. She is the recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Research Fellowship. Selected curatorial projects include exhibitions at MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Todd Madigan Gallery at California State University Bakersfield, City of West Hollywood, Materials & Applications, and the Barrick Museum at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.


Image Credit: Sterling Wells, Infructescence, 2020 (detail). Courtesy the artist.