My American Dream: City of Angels
Sunset at Seal Rock, Laguna Beach, CA, 2023 Oil on linen 48 × 64"
Sunset at Seal Rock, Laguna Beach, CA, 2023
Oil on linen 48 × 64"

Sunset at Seal Rock is from my own photo, from when I lived in Laguna Beach for the Fall 2021-Spring 2022 season when my husband and I were between houses and living in an apartment looking over the ocean.  I had gone for Chinese food at my favorite restaurant for takeout on PCH, and while I was waiting for my order, there was this beautiful sunset, so I walked down to the beach and took this photo, from a series of photos and videos at this surprise sublime occasion.

Seal Rock is famous at Laguna Beach for being these rocky outgrowths where seals and sea lions, and all numbers of herring birds and pelicans rest, about 120 offshore Crescent Bay Beach, a large cove about ¼ mile in length, were Cliff Drive intercepts North Coast Highway.  People aren’t allowed on the rocks, which also have dangerous surf conditions that make the tide pools inaccessible, and amidst the otherwise bucolic and serene incredible ocean views, there is something prehistoric and timeless about this landscape, as it’s overwhelmed with these sea creatures, like something out of a Charles Knight dinosaur mural at the New York Natural History Museum.  With the intense sunset and cloud formations, it also seemed to me a bit post-apocalyptic, like an end scene of revelations, after nature and God have swallowed up mankind to give it back to the ocean and animals.

Shot from an iPhone, as part of the HEIC image from a short “live” photo/video, there was also some cool distortion that happened in the image, where pixels/visual noise helped to comprise the image, especially in the water that had so many tiny waves as the tide was rolling in.  I like painting the pixels as if they are “real”, and thinking about the impressionists and Cézanne–if I can render the visual noise as I interpret it in a painterly way, perhaps like them, I can paint not only a scene that from far away looks “real” (like looking at this image on one’s phone!) but also, when looking close up, allowing my unconscious to spill through, like when Cézanne is painting his famous Mont Sainte-Victoire and using the forms and colors he sees as a map for his subconscious to take over, breaking up the forms into abstraction.

While painting this, I found that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had the exact right tenor for the image, and obsessively listened to their oeuvre when I was obsessively painting.  There is such a melancholic beauty to their music (albeit when focusing on the Brian Wilson written music more than later hits like Kokomo!), when they too were focused on Southern California and the sublimity of everyday life, finding like Proust, ways into the reflections of memories and moods within the lyrics with their incredible instrumentation and harmonies.  For me, painting from photo images is like Proust’s famous Madeleines: biting into this French butter cake cookie, sends Proust into a reverie of memories that constitute his amazing huge novel In Search of Lost Time, as for me, using the photographic image becomes a talisman for my own memories and feelings, hoping that in my own way, to bring out the poetry and the painterly between the tooth-and-comb of the formal puzzle pieces of the composition, especially for an image like this, with the cloud undulations, rocks with animals, and sea ebbs and flows.

I also love the anthropomorphic landscapes of the 17th century, from the Netherlands in particular, where they were marking humankind’s place on earth by turning landscapes into faces and figures, and extending into the landscapes of Thomas Cole, who made cliff sides into faces, and love the work of the symbolists and Romantic visionaries (including artists, thinking specifically of for this work, the British Romantic visionary artist Samuel Palmer, influenced by Blake, who would obsessively find figures and forms in his foliage and landscapes), Charles Burchfield, and even Thomas Cole and the American Transcendentalist spirit, that could find other spiritual lives in nature.  Da Vinci said that an artist always paints themselves—I think he might have meant, for portraits, sometimes the painter ends up painting pictures that ultimately might look more like their creator than whom they are portraying—but I also think, in micromanaged moments in the old masters, and especially In Modernist painting, from Van Gogh and further, where it was less important to make things look “real” (photography already did that!), it was how an artist projected themselves (and their subconscious!) onto the subject matter, and interior faces, feelings, synesthetic atmospheres emerge.  If you look at Van Gogh’s Cypress trees, you can see interior realized, iconic forms of his face, same with Cezanne’s “holes” in the middle of his canvases, where almost like mirrors, were in front of his face while he used painting as a meditation—that look like “inner masks” of the man—mustache, beard, eyes, and more.

My husband Andrew and I have been together for over 33 years and had first met when I was in the UC Irvine MFA program in 1992, and I had lived just a few blocks away from this new apartment back then, and it was our “honeymoon” period. Andrew had grown up nearby Laguna, and since that time it was his getaway for he and his friends.  Orange County is notoriously conservative, but since the 60’s, Laguna Beach was both a hippie—and queer haven.  When I was in grad school, Laguna Beach was relatively inexpensive to live, and the Comp Lit students and myself lived in the area—me with my Brown University undergrad friend—we had both been Semiotics majors at Brown (in addition to Studio Art for me).  Derrida and Lyotard were teaching at UCI—one of the reasons I went to UCI was not only Catherine Lord had just come from Cal Arts and was firing the old guard and hiring a new faculty that were very much a part of the famous 1993 “gender and identity politics” Whitney Biennial—and I could also take classes with these great philosophers! My gay friend and I realized that we hadn’t done anything “gay” in Laguna Beach—which at the time was the oasis for gay people in the region and went to the most famous gay bar there—the Boom Boom Room, where I first met Andrew.  Despite the name, this was an old queer bar that was quite demure—older gay men with their Izod collars up, fish nets and fake starfish on the walls, booths with Archie and Reggie cartoon cutouts on the side, and a small dance floor with a Saturday Night Fever disco light floor and mirror ball, with an elderly bearded guy dancing holding tissues in his hands.  Andrew, who is part Indigenousness and Latino, looked just like Keanu Reeves, my star crush, and we instantly hit it off, going to a party afterwards and talking about art, life and culture and falling in love (he later also helped me when I curated the first LGBTQIA+ film and video festival in Orange County at UCI—“Behind the Orange Curtain”!  He basically lived at my house, and we would snorkel in the fabulous coral reefs and have an incredible, young and romantic time in one of the most beautiful beach havens on earth.

Now, Laguna Beach, especially since the notorious same titled reality series in the later 90’s, is completely changed—a haven for Rich White People from all over internationally, with multi-million-dollar homes, expensive restaurants and boutiques, and no gay bars or hippies, but still the ocean is still there and some holdouts of the earlier bohemian era.  Back in the early 1900’s it began as an artist’s retreat, and the California Regionalist painting movement had begun there –in fact, one of the leaders of the what became a movement, art colony and subsequently the “Laguna Beach Art Association” from 1918-1935 was the amazing landscape artist William Wendt—the “Dean of Southern California Landscape Painters”, who by cosmic serendipity, lived in a house directly across from our apartment!  I love these artists, and visiting the Laguna Beach Art Museum, which was begun by the Association when it had grown Laguna Beach to be a major, nationally and internationally known art colony. USC Roski, where I am a full tenured professor, and while living in Laguna until recently, I was the Chair of Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking, is the oldest art school in the country, and it was began by Southern California landscape painters from this very same era, so I feel I’m in direct lineage to all of this group and ideology, who were also inspired by the Impressionists, but much too of Romantic and European art movements.  I hope that it’s possible to create landscape painting in our current day and age that aren’t “cheesy” and in a negative way, like in the current tourist Laguna galleries, by going to the heart of what these wonderful painters were doing in a “pure era” (albeit, we now should always put this into a critical historic and political context, as they were mostly white colonialists, some like Wendt, who was German, from Europe), inspired by the visionary and poetic aspects of what could be brought to this sublime landscape—the ocean, despite gentrification, pollution, and global warming—is still timeless.  In my meditation thinking of all these things while painting Sunset at Seal Rock I hope to have painted something meaningful, not just for myself, but for others that is pertinent to our time, but hopefully timeless.