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Matt Siegle: Mining the San Gabriel Mountains' Golden Past

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"19th-century study/Eddie," 2014, acrylic on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches (27.9 x 21.6 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.

Artist Matt Siegle wanted to understand the drifters, 19th century historical enthusiasts, and homeless individuals who inhabit the San Gabriel Mountains today, where gold mining was once a thriving industry. What he found didn't so much complete a narrative as inspire further research into this area just north of Los Angeles that was very much a part of the 19th century gold rush and American expansion westward into California. There was a fantasy wealth narrative that prevailed, becoming reality if one discovered gold. In Siegle's solo show "Eddie's Gulch" at Park View Gallery, May 24-June 28, 2015, the artist creates fragmented narratives that popped up when he started exploring the culture of disparate wanderers and golden fantasies.

"About two years ago, I started to get interested in tracing countercultural groups, and started doing some research on the American Transcendentalists, and East Coast countercultural living experiments like the Brook Farm," says Siegle. "As I was thinking about that, I traced and mapped that mentality onto Manifest Expansion, which was happening at that same time, and realized that a lot of these groups -- like miners and loggers and even cowboys -- were countercultural groups in and amongst themselves, and that they were also male-only."

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"Ya see 'em? Moving placer gravel up and out. Rasping and digging in the pits, beneath the ground floor of the gulch, a U-LINE hand truck. Each load of dirt wears the surface more tender. The salt from their palms oxidizes the handle bar in an accelerated rate. The palm plunges shovel through the grit, again. And again. Then the salt of the palm digs the hole in the bucket. The salt of the palm chucks the crate in the back of the rusty RV. The palm hangs the bucket to dry, wipes hair across brow, closes the door on the camper shell; feels the downy hair of the thigh. The salt of Eddie says go to sleep. You are better when face down. No, face up: let me slide two fingers up your abdomen and across your chest, tracing your sternum slowly with a chunk of corroded steel.," 2015, acrylic and gesso on plasticized recycled bags, 34 x 22 inches (86.4 x 55.9 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.

Tracing counterculture groups from their early roots to their present day realities is a focus for Siegle, who received his MFA from CalArts, and is originally from New York state. Siegle is drawn to depictions of the 19th century romanticized Western or outdoor leisure landscape, another influence in his body of work. More broadly, Siegle's practice uses art as a way to examine the human body, exploring its relationship to the earth and technology. Much of Siegle's work, as in his durational performance "The Human Potential Movement" (2014), in which he continuously lights and puts out matches then lights candles while people come and go freely through the space, makes a move toward both engaging with and critiquing methods of self-actualization and enlightenment through repetitious movements and coded behaviors. His work has also dealt with queer counterculture groups, and the intersection of mediated identities with self-actualizing rather than narcissistic considerations of the contemporary "self."

For "Eddie's Gulch," however, Siegle found himself wandering in a space that was very much physical, removed from the pull of digital devices. The series of sculptures and paintings -- the first paintings he has done in about 10 years -- are influenced by 19th century Romantic landscape paintings, but they are not representational. Rather, they are refracted and reconsidered, a queer(ed) lens onto a culture of drifters who inhabit the San Gabriel Mountains, waiting for gold in the river.

"Arroyo Seco Bedding Spoon," 2015, altered found material, dimensions variable. | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.
"Arroyo Seco Bedding Spoon," 2015, altered found material, dimensions variable. | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.

The hands-on exploratory aspect of actually going to the San Gabriel Mountains, and spending time camping and interacting with some of the men who lived there, came about after a studio visit with a friend. She told him about these individuals, and so he decided to investigate for himself, first-hand. But unlike an anthropologist or a sociologist going to study a group or community, Siegle in some ways became a temporary drifter himself.

"The work is really more about a fantasized gaze in the same way that a lot of 19th century painting had that sort of romantic gaze," says Siegle.

The San Gabriel Mountains were part of the gold rush in Southern California over a century ago. This mountain range was home to the Spanish in the 18th century, who used it as a source for timber. Gold struck in the late 1830s, followed by more at Sutter's Mill near present-day Newhall in 1842. From there, the gold rush was on, attracting miners into the San Gabriel Mountains. In 1847, Americans conquered this area. Soon more gold was discovered in Big Santa Anita Canyon, followed by the arrival of individual miners and mining companies.

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"I wear denim and soiled ripstop. In the canyon I sport white athletic socks, hiking boots bought used from REI parking lot sale -- no, cheapo Reeboks actually. My t-shirt shaded gray and with lightly brassy pit stains. The sweat collects at my hairline at the top of my head. Drips the SPF 30 off the tip of my nose. Chem-UVA-UVB droplets collecting on my chest hair, slithering down my core and abdomen and each notch of my spine. With every passing sun-minute my cotton shirt clings to my torso, closely now. The shirt darkening with perspiration, through the weave of the belt and soaking the 501s, dampens my athletic compression shorts, quads, junk, grime.," 2015, acrylic and gesso on plasticized recycled bags on acrylic on linen, 43 x 43 inches (109.2 x 109.2 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.

Boomtowns popped up. Eldoradoville was founded by a group of prospectors who struck gold in the East Fork, and decided to stay. As the mining here continued and profits grew, the settlement soon became known as Prospect Bar, complete with a "boarding house, two or three stores, a blacksmith shop, butcher shop, etc." according to the Los Angeles Star.
When a flood wiped out the entire settlement, however, settlers decided to completely rebuild the place within four months, and revive it as the Eldorado Mining District. Their hopes were dashed for good when a deadly flood wiped out everything.

Flash floods such as these prevented the San Gabriels from ever really becoming a permanent mining town. But neither that nor the 1928 Mining Act that states it is illegal to remove minerals from the San Gabriel River prevents contemporary gold enthusiasts from searching.

"19th-century study/Eddie," 2014, acrylic on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches (27.9 x 21.6 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.
"19th-century study/Eddie," 2014, acrylic on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches (27.9 x 21.6 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.

By the 1880s, the San Gabriel Mountains transformed into a popular hiking, recreation and leisure destination, ushering in the leisure class. The Mount Lowe Railway was also built, bringing yet another scenic opportunity for tourists and recreationists, and hotels to stay in at the end of the line.

Siegle is interested in this vast cultural history of the San Gabriels, all of which finds its way into his sculptures and paintings at Parkview Gallery. There's a subtle historical narrative that Siegle brings forth through the work. In the bathroom "19th century study/Eddie" (2014), an acrylic on paper work, shows a portrait of a bearded explorer man, presumably arrived in the San Gabriels looking for gold. Outside the bathroom in a closet space, viewers see "Sluice Box" (2014), a milk crate loaded with found sex tissues. The milk crate alludes to the crates that Siegle saw people using as sluices to hunt for gold; the tissues were actual "sex tissues" that he found, picked up with gloves, and kept for the exhibition.

Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.
Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.

In the middle room, we see the imaginings and remains, and the grit of actually wandering the San Gabriels, talking to the men there, and setting up temporary camps himself. These pieces all have very long titles, and are made of acrylic and gesso on plasticized recycled bags on acrylic and linen, describing fragments of narrative that slip between memory and visceral experiences of the earth, one's own body and the journey into this rich landscape. In another floor of the gallery, a pile of found material, entitled "Arroyo Seco Bedding Spoon" (2015), occupies the floor. Inside the final room of this immersive installation, viewers encounter "New Model Heaton Flats Domicile" (2015). A set of golden poles criss-crosses, creating a dome-like space that is not covered; instead, only a gentle branch hangs from the middle like a giant chunk of sage, clearing the space for sleep, where one can drift off, away from the fantasy of striking it rich, and into dreams of something else.

Not that Siegle's practice is all about fantasizing about the past, or idealizing bodies that could be. In examining the history of American countercultural movements, Siegle asks bigger questions about what the notion of "self-realization" could mean today, in a time of high contradictory behaviors and rampant philosophical dogmatism, when quitting Facebook is somehow aligned with "going off the grid," and temporary enlightenment is "achieved" through a 10-day silent meditation. Perhaps the truth occurs in taking a few friends up to the San Gabriel Mountains to be together, not just to "connect."

"New Model Heaton Flats Domicile," 2015; DAC press-fit poles, Nylon PU 3000 mm with webbing and grommets; Handcuff, Overhand, Boa knots; mixed media; 89.5 x 64 x 48 inches (227.3 x 162.6 x 121.9 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.
"New Model Heaton Flats Domicile," 2015; DAC press-fit poles, Nylon PU 3000 mm with webbing and grommets; Handcuff, Overhand, Boa knots; mixed media; 89.5 x 64 x 48 inches (227.3 x 162.6 x 121.9 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.
"New Model Heaton Flats Domicile," 2015; DAC press-fit poles, Nylon PU 3000 mm with webbing and grommets; Handcuff, Overhand, Boa knots; mixed media; 89.5 x 64 x 48 inches (227.3 x 162.6 x 121.9 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.
"New Model Heaton Flats Domicile," 2015; DAC press-fit poles, Nylon PU 3000 mm with webbing and grommets; Handcuff, Overhand, Boa knots; mixed media; 89.5 x 64 x 48 inches (227.3 x 162.6 x 121.9 cm). | Photo: Courtesy Park View Gallery.

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