Right now, I live in the suburbs. I linger in the cookie-cutter landscape of Orange County strip malls and office parks, surrounded by the blocky, sprawling institutional architecture of suburban America. In 2011, the LA Times wrote an article about my city finally approving homes in colors other than beige. As I make my way through the identical edifices of a planned community, I’ve been trying to see in my surroundings the accidental loveliness that photographer Rachelle Mendez captured in her series “Minimal Hardscapes of Southern California.”
There’s a playful, subversive geometry that Mendez uses to frame her photographs, transforming buildings and street corners into Mondrianesque blocks of color. The various grays and beiges of the commuter belt become visually interesting hues in their own right, anonymous rectangles of suburban structures arranged with geometric precision. Her eye turns faded paint and scuffed concrete into something sublime.
In A Newer Topographic #4; Indio California (2017), Mendez matches the pale gray of an easily-overlooked building to the off-white of an overcast sky. She turns a stray tire track into a daub of stark black contrast and the faded line of a sidewalk curb into a desaturated ribbon of red. Looking at it, I’m struck by the same shrubs that can be found in corporate parks all over California. The scant bits of greenery are a mere concession to visual comfort, but Mendez captures the way stray leaves escape their recessed alcoves—a sign that, even in suburban Southern California, nature can never be entirely contained.
My friends like making dark jokes about climate change: “Given that my hometown is currently on fire…” “In fifty years, when we’re all underwater…” “Love that natural sepia filter over the Bay…”
Cynicism about the climate crisis acts as a protective measure. If you assume the worst, you can’t be disappointed. When my mind shies away from anything but the most jaded outlooks, I turn to Dr. Qinqin Liu’s otherworldly paintings of California’s watersheds to remember what we have at stake.
Like me, Dr, Liu is an immigrant from Taiwan. We’ve had to learn to love California instead of naturally inheriting the innate West Coast pride that born-and-raised Californians exude. Unlike me, she’s an environmental scientist with the California Department of Water Resources. While my climate anxiety stays confined to fretting and reading the news, she made it her life’s work. Liu’s paintings reveal an intimate knowledge of California’s precious rivers and coasts, and radiate an intense devotion built on years of study and respect.
In her “Ocean and Watershed” series, Liu’s delicate, layered watercolors make California freshwater glow, and articulates ghost-pale rivers with streaks of pink and purple. There’s a style of traditional Chinese painting called shan shui, or mountain and water, that calls upon the artist to paint not what they’ve seen in nature, but what nature has compelled them to think and feel. The ethereal shine of her rivers, painted with gentle, overlapping strokes contrasts the harsh lines and clashing colors of the landscape around them. Each painting conveys her respect for California’s most valuable resource, as well as her grief for how quickly the natural beauty of our chosen home could disappear.