Transcription, Articulation, and Respiration in Rotem Reshef: Vista, a new article by Tony Huffman, was published at Whitehot Magazin for Contemporary Art
In Book XI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, before the archangel Michael and a coterie of cherubim escort Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he takes Adam up on a summit to show him visions of his progeny and the Earth. Adam bears witness to the sequence of events he has ignominiously put in motion—violence, war, and disease—up until the great deluge. These visions alternate between moments of grief and sorrow for humankind’s failings as well as instances of joy and redemption, which gives Adam some hope for humanity. In the solo exhibition, Rotem Reshef: Vista, taking its name from the nearby Panorama Vista Preserve in Bakersfield, the artist has staged an analogous ecological encounter, allowing visitors to confront the past, present, and future of Kern County’s bountiful, paradisical surrounds. This confrontation is an abstraction, as Peter Frank puts it in his essay for the catalog, of the painter’s own experience of Bakersfield’s history of industrialization (1). In striking tones of amber, ultramarine, algae green, and tan, her vision cascades across 12 works that shroud the intimate exhibition space.
Throughout the exhibition, curated by Rachel McCullah Wainwright, large canvases with diluted acrylic and organic material are affixed to the walls, hung from the ceiling, and arranged in S-shaped armatures in the middle of the room—creating capes, grottoes, and alcoves. Standing in the center of the gallery, spectators assume an omniscient vantage point, with the ability to survey different vistas: forest, desert, river, beach. Since 2014, the artist has been making a series of imprinted works, first starting with plastics then moving on to vegetation. To create these richly textured and strongly indexical scrolls, Reshef spent the summer of 2022 in Bakersfield collecting indigenous (Sycamore, Arroyo Willow, Elderberry, and others) and non-native (Tree of Heaven, Mustard, Mistletoe, and Arundo Donax) plant slips or trimmings from the nature preserve and the Kern River. The undulating, prophetic scrolls—evocative of different biomes—register the imprints of local flora. As well, scrolls speak to portability and peripatetic modes of living. In fact, the uneven nature of the canvases recall the bulging, irregular forms of caves, the temporary domiciles of past societies. The impressions are visual articulations or transcriptions recording a history of devastation and reclamation, “paradoxes within a landscape" (2). Panoramic Vista overlooks not only natural features of the surrounding area but also oil derricks, which had a large impact on how the artist conceived this site-specific suite of paintings.
The buildup of vegetation varies, but in nearly every painterly expanse the vein systems of leaves remain visible. This detail brings to mind notions of vascularity, respiration, circulation, and cyclicality, which is reinforced by the exhibition’s layout. The oval-shaped configuration of the works within the space allows visitor to ambulate endlessly around the various microclimates. There is also a strong sense of movement in these works, imparted both by the arrangement of swirled debris on the dried surfaces and the curvature of walls and scaffolding.
While deciphering the variegated surfaces of these engulfing works, long strands of grass along with the outlines of stems, twigs, and leaves morph into flocks of birds and other creatures. These evolutionary slips or Rorschachian-Darwinian lapses become lyrical silhouettes that remind us of life cycles between oceanic life, plants, animals, and humans’ historic extraction of fossil fuels. One feels submerged in deep time, which is perhaps why it’s difficult to get a sense of each work’s perspective. It’s hard to discern whether we’re viewing a landscape from above, from below, or witnessing the gradual sedimentation of time from the side. In works like Grayish-Green III (2022), visitors seem to be lurking below or floating above a sun-dappled, primordial sea teeming with inchoate life. In others, like Stone (2022), we seem to have washed ashore—vulnerable and exposed.
In the back corner, making use of a square column and hanging scroll, Reshef’s work erupts from its otherwise oblique, poetic approach to chronicling the environmental history of the region. In Carbon Black (2022) and Yellow-Gray Trail (2022) (Fig. 7), oil is simulated in the forms of gushing liquid, billowing smoke, and compressed, fossilized layers stacked along the vertical shaft. The unfurled scroll rests at the feet of museum-goers, implicating us in this accounting of events. Viewers can easily make out recognizable, industrially produced geometric forms within the layers of paint and debris, which contrasts sharply with the other scrolls that contain organic shapes in the form of chips, shards, and flakes of leaves.
In what might be seen as a modified scene from Milton’s epic poem, the installation artist assumes the role of an Old Testament sibyl or prophetess, transporting us to a promontory to glimpse a fraught geological vision. In her catalog essay, Wainwright invokes the Hebrew word tikkun, meaning “to amend or fix” to describe Reshef’s practice. In that sense, the artist is attempting to carry out a palliative function for the region. Yet, it remains to be seen if those in California’s Central Valley are willing to attend to the gentle, polychromatic polyphony arranged by Reshef, or, if this botanical chorus will be drowned out by the creaking crescendos of heavy machinery that dot the storied terrain. WM
So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign;
Under her own weight groaning; till the day
Appear of respiration to the just… (3)
1. Peter Frank, “Rotem Reshef: Vista Recognita,“ Rotem Reshef: Vista (Bakersfield, CA: Bakersfield Museum of Art, 2022), 20.
2. Wall label, Rotem Reshef: Vista, January 26 – September 9, 2023, Bakersfield Museum of Art, Bakersfield, CA. Seen on July 1, 2023.
3. John Milton, Book XII, Paradise Lost (London: Penguin, 2003), lines 537-540.
Tony Huffman | September 2023