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Making a Splash: 11 Artists Who Have Used Water as a Medium

Atascadero Lake Bed. | Photo: Brittany App.
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Chris Onesto, "California Drought Billboard," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Chris Onesto, "California Drought," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The relationship Californians have with water has never been as fraught as it is today. As we enter the fifth year of a drought, headlines announce some improvement in conditions but caution that the state-wide environmental issue is far from resolved. This summer, Los Angeles’ first public art biennial, Current:LA, takes on the theme of water, engaging residents to rethink the way they live with the liquid substance. But this isn’t the first drought in the Golden State, nor is it the first time artists have worked with water as a subject or a medium. Artbound looks to the past to consider the work of 11 artists, who have created with this vital resource.

1. Fritz Haeg

Haeg, who has recently moved from his geodesic dome in Glassell Park to a former hippie colony in Mendocino County, made his "Wildflowering L.A." project in 2013, teaming up with the Theodore Payne Foundation, a non-profit that specializes in California native plants. For the project, Haeg encouraged residents to plant drought-tolerant wildflowers on plots of land across the city.

Fritz Haeg, "Wildflowering L.A.," 2013.
Fritz Haeg, "Wildflowering L.A.," 2013. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

2. Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio

Bon and her cohorts at the Metabolic Studio have investigated water conservation and usage through art and research since 2005. In 2008, the Metabolic Studio set up a research facility on Owens Lake -- the very lake that dried up when L.A. diverted water from the Owens River into the city -- for a project called “AgH20,” which aimed to connect the 240 miles between Owens Valley and the residents of L.A. And in 2013, she organized a cross-state ride of “100 Mules” to commemorate the centennial of the L.A. Aqueduct’s completion.

100 mules in the Alabama Hills | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.
One hundred mules in the Alabama Hills. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

3. Sant Khalsa

Khalsa is a Joshua Tree-based eco-artist who has considered conservation and water usage for more than 30 years. Her photographic series include “A Separate Real(i)ty,” images of lakes in the desert near Joshua Tree; “Western Waters,” pictures of stores that commoditize drinking water; and “Paving Paradise,” shots of the Santa Ana River taken over three decades.

Sant Khalsa, "A Separate Real(i)ty."
Sant Khalsa, "A Separate Real(i)ty." | Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

4. Scoli Acosta 

Earlier this year, Acosta teamed up with the “Save the Drop” campaign -- an initiative by the City of Los Angeles and Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles -- to create an installation at Union Station. Given four rain barrels and a large cistern to work with, Acosta created a resourceful and innovatively-designed system of rainwater capturing.

Scoli Acosta, "Save the Drop," 2016.
Scoli Acosta, "Save the Drop: Union Station Sky Distillation Unit (demo)," 2016. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Save The Drop L.A.

5. Rob Reynolds

Reynolds’ exhibition "Just Add Water" (on view from November 2013 through January 2015) at the Natural History Museum -- which opened the day after the 100th anniversary of the completion of the L.A. Aqueduct -- paid tribute to the effects the aqueduct has had on Southern California. His 10 large-scale watercolor paintings depicted crucial locations and historic events in the aqueduct’s history. He also made banners with the names of everyone who worked on the aqueduct, from the principal players William Mulholland and Frederick Eaton to the teamsters, ditch diggers, and dynamite specialists that built the infrastructure.

Rob Reynolds, "Photograph of the St. Francis Dam at Capacity,"(left) " and "Water and Power Building, 111 N. Hope St., L.A., CA 90012," (right) 2013.
Rob Reynolds, "Photograph of the St. Francis Dam at Capacity," (left) and "Water and Power Building, 111 N. Hope St., L.A., CA 90012," (right) 2013. | Photos: Robert Wedemeyer, © Rob Reynolds.

6. Chris Onesto

In 2015, Onesto established the mock “California Water Company,” a bottled water business that sells the final drops of California water -- the bottles are only about one-tenth full. He created billboards and print ads as well as a website dedicated to the project. The action may seem absurd, but Nestle, Pepsi (Aquafina), Coca-Cola (Dasani), and Crystal Geyser all operate bottled water manufacturing plants in California. 

Chris Onesto, "California Water Company," 2015.
Chris Onesto, "California Drought," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

7. Ana María Alvarez

In January, Alvarez’s Contra-Tiempo dance company debuted “Agua Furiosa” at CAP UCLA. The evening-length performance based on Oyá ("the Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms") and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” incorporated modern ideas of how water -- access to clean drinking water in particular -- and racism intertwine.

8. Brittany App

App, who lives in San Luis Obispo, has been photographing the effects the drought has had on the California landscape since 2013. Her series “Where There Once Was Water” is a sobering look at dry riverbeds and lakes, reservoirs that look half empty, and cracked earth. She is currently working on completing a documentary about the future of the California water supply, and how we can make it sustainable.

This aerial photograph highlights the effects of the drought on the Laguna Lake area of San Luis Obispo, Calif. | Photo: Brittany App.
This aerial photograph highlights the effects of the drought on the Laguna Lake area of San Luis Obispo. | Photo: Brittany App.

9. David Hockney

The legendary L.A. and London-based artist has painted scenes of poolside frivolity since the 1960s. He also painted the iconic curved-line mural on the bottom of the iconic Tropicana Pool at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, now one of L.A.’s most important water-based landmarks.

David Hockney, "A Bigger Splash," acrylic paint on canvas, 1967. | Photo: © David Hockney/Tate Britian
David Hockney, "A Bigger Splash," 1967. Acrylic paint on canvas. | Photo: © David Hockney/Tate Britian.

10. Michael Asher

A noted conceptual artist with a prankster's spirit, the late Asher’s water fountain at UC San Diego is storied, and one of the few things he left behind. It really is a seemingly banal, commercial-style water fountain, but it "also calls to mind Southern California's need to manage and preserve its natural resources," states the UCSD Stuart Collection site. The art piece has become something of a symbol on campus since it was installed in 1991 -- students even drink out of it for good luck. It was destroyed last year by a masked man with a sledgehammer who was never caught, but has apparently been fixed.

Michael Asher, "Untitled," 1993.
Michael Asher, "Untitled," 1993. | Photos: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, courtesy of the Stuart Collection, UC San Diego.

11. Cristopher Cichocki

Cichocki, who is based in the Coachella Valley, seems to incorporate Californians’ relationship to water in much of his work. In one example, “Salton Tide” (2006-2014), Cichocki painted dead fish from the Salton in Dayglo enamel and then lit them through ultraviolet light at night, creating striking patterned installations in various outdoor locations throughout Southern California. Many of his other installations include fishbowls and irrigation systems, often painted on or flowing with neon colors.

 Top image:  Atascadero lake bed. | Photo: Brittany App.

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