Published on November 23rd, 2012 | by Alicia Coombes0
Review: Laura Cunningham’s “Before California”
Summary: Though Laura Cunningham clearly knows her stuff when it comes to ancient landscapes and wildlife, the exhibit lacks imagination.
Laura Cunningham’s Before California exhibit at the Hazel Wolf Gallery in Berkeley is small but information-packed. A few walls showcase less than a dozen oil paintings and photographs side-by-side, opening up into a larger room dominated by sketches of native flora and a mural of a grizzly bear, two condors and an elk. Condors, elk and grizzlies make up much of the subject matter of Cunningham’s artwork as well as mammoths, whales and wolves.
Cunningham describes herself as an artist-naturalist and works in the field of wildlife biology. She was trained in paleontology at U.C. Berkeley and in natural science illustration at U.C. Santa Cruz. In addition to producing mural exhibits for institutions such as the Badlands National Park, Cunningham has provided scientific illustrations for the Museum of Paleontology at U.C. Berkeley and for the Smithsonian.
Many of the pieces shown in the exhibit can be found in her 2010 book, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. The paintings, rendered in oil on canvas, depict well-known areas and landscapes in the Bay Area, imagined as they might have looked 200, 500 and even 12,000 years ago. Most of these paintings are juxtaposed against a photograph of the area as it stands today: mudflats are now landfills, taxicabs and skyscrapers dominate what once was a meadow and much of the wildlife is either extinct or endangered. These paintings are coupled with commentary about when people began building and living on the sites and which behaviors have changed the landscape. One haunting quote: “Species such as elk, California condors, and wolves survived the wave of extinctions at the end of the [Pleistocene] period, but will they survive the impacts caused by industrial society?”
Though the concept is provocative, the paintings themselves are, unfortunately, not particularly interesting, resembling textbook illustrations (and, indeed, Cunningham is an illustrator for many museums and conservation projects). The artist’s comparison to the present-day landscape sparks the imagination, and the plaques explaining what you are looking at and what it means are helpful, but I found myself wishing that the imagined renderings of past landscapes weren’t so concrete and literal.
The better parts of the exhibit were Cunningham’s stark sketches of wildlife and plants that were reproduced from her notebook, including scribbled graphs, notes and outlines. Though not as intricate as the oil paintings, the sketches felt more visceral and were much more arresting to look at. The technical skill needed to render Cunningham’s meticulous field research into a realistic painting seemed to take away from some of the more speculative elements.
Aside from art, the exhibit included a light-box filled with the tools of Cunningam’s trade: pencils, notebooks, field guides, maps, etc. Cunningham’s curiosity is contagious; I spent most of my time at the exhibit studying and learning from her artwork. One of the most fascinating pieces was a hand-sketched graph of native flowering plants through the blooming season, arranged as Cunningham had observed them over the years. She also included a sketch of four native and non-native grasses growing in a field, each different heights according to the grazing habits of domesticated animals.
I found myself wishing that Cunningham’s paintings held some of the more intriguing, multi-faceted aspects found in her sketches and field research instead of sticking to a single idea of a historic landscape. Perhaps if her paintings were more layered like her sketches, her work would convey the same narrative in a more visually stimulating way. The seeds of that aesthetic are in some of the less developed parts of the exhibition. If Cunningham’s point is to fire the imagination and fuel interest in conservation, perhaps a little less museum-quality perfection and a little more trust in the audience’s imagination is needed.
Before California is showing at the Hazel Wolf Gallery in the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA through January 30.