September 9, 2014

Interpreting the California Desert Landscape With Patricia Chidlaw

Owens Lake 2012 by Patricia Chidlaw
High & Dry

Unbeknownst to each other, L.A. art photographer Osceola Refetoff and Santa Barbara realist painter Patricia Chidlaw were interpreting the same altered landscapes at nearly the same time over the last five years. As Refetoff wrote on the High & Dry website, "Santa Barbara-based painter Patricia Chidlaw recently grabbed our attention with her vivid depictions of California landscapes. Her work includes evocative images of downtown bridge and rail yards along the Los Angeles River and desertscapes of the Mojave and Owens Lake -- all areas of great interest to High & Dry."

If this wasn't remarkable enough, upon closer inspection Refetoff made an "uncanny discovery." "In 2010-2011, Ms. Chidlaw and I were capturing the same scenes -- perhaps within days or hours -- from virtually the same angles. And while her realist paintings were a striking resemblance to photographs, my pinhole exposures might easily be mistaken for watercolors."

After initial email contacts Refetoff and she wanted to explore this synchronistic correspondence in more detail. The first meeting of Refetoff and Chidlaw took place in Los Angeles New Chinatown where he has his studio and home. The second meeting in Santa Barbara was expected to last a few hours, and include a lunch. Nuanced discussion ate up most of the day. In fact, Refetoff and I didn't start south until after the sun had set.

This three person collaboration had begun when I visited the Nevada Art Museum in Reno to see William Fox's Center for Art and Environment. I walked into the second floor galleries and saw an array of paintings that glowed with brilliant, carefully rendered southern California desert light. I knew this person understood our high desert light and also had the skill and craft to capture it. At first I thought these canvases were brilliant photographs.

When I approached the exhibit, I immediately noticed a painting of the Owens Dry Lakebed. In Lone Pine, we call them the 'bathtub rings'. They are high water marks left behind as the lake's water evaporated or was extracted by Los Angeles through the aqueduct. Wonderful, I thought. There is someone who thinks this landmark is worth capturing. When I started to view the other paintings, I discovered an eerie familiarity with some of the urban landscapes, in particular some of the famous bridges that span the L.A. River. Refetoff had taken me to several of these spans. In fact, we had hiked the river for two days as Refetoff photographed identical subjects that Chidlaw had captured in her paintings.

I had always thought of the Owens River- Los Angeles Aqueduct - L.A. River made a new kind of rural/urban riparian highway, connecting these two desert areas, that are historically linked by water. In fact, about 30 percent of the water that flows down the L.A. River to the sea originates in the Owens Valley.

I shared the exhibition catalog with Refetoff. The photographer discovered more shared subjects with Chidlaw. Refetoff states, "For a more nuanced conversation about our approaches to landscape interpretation, we've decided to collaborate and discuss similarities / differences between rendering a scene on canvas vs. film. We also intend to explore the reasons we are drawn to similar subjects and compositions."

The two artists were starting to influence each other in subtle ways. When Refetoff saw a painting Chidlaw had done of a building with large show windows with the Mojave Rail Road tracks behind, he realized he had shot the same locations. Chidlaw had made certain compositional decisions to change elements. Refetoff had rejected his images because they didn't meet his personal standards. Now he had to revisit the photographs because of the painter.

Refetoff wrote to the painter, "Meanwhile. Yet another off-the-beaten location where our paths have crossed. My photo would never have seen the light of day if I hadn't come across your painting on facebook today. Just a quick shot I knocked off as a reminder to return someday 'in better light.' I remember being drawn to this particular intersection because of the streamlined building, the rounded awning and favorable view of the tracks. I also find its signs interesting in sparse desert settings."

Refetoff continued, "What fascinates me here is the difference in the reflections in the window. You have chosen to treat the glass as a perfect plane, the train continuing in a near-straight line, the sharply-rendered Silver Queen mine in the distance. Without a photo to compare, I doubt anyone but a painter would consider how unlikely it is for a bank of windows to reflect without distortion.... By comparison, the 'real' reflection looks like a virtual funhouse mirror."

The photographer added, "I find these odd convergences rich with questions and possibilities."

Refetoff would soon return to Mojave to re-photograph this building in preparation to deepen their discussion. "One thing is certain, painting has inspired me to re-visit the intersection the next time I'm out there. I just love that town."

Refetoff and I arrived at Patricia Chidlaw's 1912 Craftsman house on a Sunday morning. It quickly seemed to the us that we had known each other more than just a few minutes. At first there was small talk, an introduction to her Scottie Dougal, and a tour of the house. After Refetoff helped the artist with some computer/ internet issues, the two began to share his photographs and her paintings in her studio in the back of the house.

The morning gloom started to burn off. The sun poured down from a skylight in the room. Patricia said she felt it was small, but in fact it was full of art in various stages of preparation for an upcoming exhibit. Eventually the three of us looked at many of Refetoff's images on his Mac. Finally Chidlaw remarked, "You must have a million images." In return she has four by five transparencies of most of her sold work. The photographer systematically looked at each image, commenting on some. He culled some for future reference knowing he had shot photographs of the exact spots portrayed in the paintings.

Refetoff made the point that there are so few buildings in the desert that it is probable that every subject you choose has already been worked and reworked by various people before. Then he pulled up the Catholic Church in Randsburg, California, an old mining camp. "Here is an image by a photographer named Ed Freeman, who lives down the street from me. He took the church and replaced the hills and sky among other things, using Photoshop, a computer photography application that Freeman is very adept at employing. The mountains in fact are from Chris' home location, the Owens Valley." Refetoff made the point several times that he didn't have a problem with Ed manipulating his image with Photoshop but that he himself wouldn't do that.

Chidlaw remarked that by using the approach Freeman had turned the church into a cute "little toy." She pointed out that artists for hundreds of years have been dealing with human subject matter that other artists had already done. "In fact one time I was painting a scene in my plein air days in San Jose. A man came up and said he had painted that first." Chidlaw continued, "Like it was his. That he owned it."

Refetoff asked, "What did you say." "Well, the guy was a jerk so I didn't continue with the conversation." After a year, Chidlaw gave up painting on location for various reasons: the inconvenience, the challenges of changing light, carefully managing composition.

We all then looked at a series of paintings Chidlaw had done in the Salton Sea area. As with many visual artists, they both had responded to the landscape of ruin there. Refetoff reiterated it was an area frequently photographed or painted by others. Refetoff had, in fact, just returned from exploring the area. He mentioned his assignment was to find a Salton Sea that "wasn't depressing." "I don't find the Salton Sea depressing but fascinating instead," he explained. (The results of his and my Salton Sea encounter will be featured in the October Issue of Palm Springs Life.)

Chidlaw agreed immediately about that area not being depressing. Again, both of them had worked there in parallel, attracted to similar landscapes including Bombay Beach.

Refetoff and Chidlaw are interested in going out to locations together and developing protocols on how to collaborate in the work. Chidlaw had made it clear she photographs specific areas and then returns to her studio to sketch a composition in red lines and then paint. They will share photographs, accept challenges from each other, or in other ways stimulate their creativity through a unique collaboration.

The interface of painting and photography has been energizing, with controversial encounters since the discovery of photography. Its pros and cons are still debated by artists and critics from each of the disciplines. Research is revealing that many great painters were "closet" photographers and used the medium in their work in many ways. The Impressionists on the Normandy Coast, Corot, Thomas Eakins, Degas and modern masters like Hockney, Picasso, Andy Warhol and Ian Wallace have all talked and written about painting and photography in their practice now.

My job is to capture the process, explorations and collaborations between Refetoff, Chidlaw and desert landscapes as well as L.A. riverscapes. I will be an active participant, not a detached reporter. While others have traveled these creative paths to some extent before, much of this collaborative landscape remains still to be discovered.

As the photographer, writer and the painter continued to talk into the fading light, more and more questions arose, frequently punctuated with new insights about their shared collaboration. New and deeper answers undoubtedly lay ahead.

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.