The 'Good Life'

UA grad Aili Schmeltz spotlights the 'embedded catastrophe' that is L.A. in her installation at MOCA

Los Angeles, says artist Aili Schmeltz, is an "embedded catastrophe."

Sure, it's glamorous and glorious, a creative capital set in a flower-strewn garden between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains. The mythic city embodies America's dreams, and its barrios and skyscrapers teem with the energy of newcomers, migrants and moviemakers alike.

Yet Los Angeles lies in a desert, and the water that keeps its millions alive is hauled in—make that stolen—from impossibly long distances. Its architecture teeters on an earthquake fault line. Wildfires rage down its canyons, and in the rainy season, those same canyons dissolve into mud. Drivers marooned on the highways that strangle the megalopolis pump ever more poison into the smoggy skies.

Tomorrowland, Schmeltz's lively solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, takes its name from Disneyland's futuristic fun place. Back in the 1960s, Disney envisioned a bright future for the city and America, one endowed with plenty of concrete and construction.

Fifty years in, Schmeltz's giant sculptures look back at that bright optimism—and lament its failure. With splintery building-like shapes tumbling downward to destruction, her six pieces capture the precariousness of the City of Angels.

The big floor works are constructed of wood and foam and mirrors—that is, building materials and the stuff of dreams. Some of the materials are from real-life buildings; "Cross Cut," 2011, has fragments of old hardwood floors carefully arranged into patterns. Elsewhere, nostalgic materials like linoleum recall the optimism of the 1950s, when millions headed west to the city sprawling in the orange groves. But painted foam blocks signal how fragile the whole enterprise is.

"Mt. Lee for Leena," 2010, is the most literal piece. A heap of charred building materials—blackened by a Southern California grassfire, perhaps—lies beneath a modernist house, all wood and Plexiglas and mirrors. This single-family dream home, a sleek conglomeration of rectangular volumes and patios and decks, is not long for this world. Built on a vulnerable hillside never meant for human habitation, the place is slipping downward to destruction, unmoored by a mudslide, perhaps, or unhinged by an earthquake.

Viewers don't escape responsibility; the house is gilded with mirrors. If you take a look at this ecological disaster, you'll find that you are right there in it.

In Tomorrowland, public buildings fare no better than private palaces of conspicuous consumption. "Spire," 2011, huge at about 10 feet long and 6 feet high, is a collection of doomed skyscrapers. Made of flimsy Styrofoam and wood, this downtown is literally on its last legs, its buildings tumbling over diagonally. Its pointy towers haven't quite hit the streets. They've landed on an angle, propped up on blocks of foam, and they still aim—futilely—for the skies.

Schmeltz is not an L.A.-hater, at least not entirely. In an eloquent artist's statement, she admits to a love-hate relationship with her adopted hometown, a city she calls an "apocalyptic theme park" with a "sordid environmental history." And L.A. is not the only ecologically precarious place she's investigated in her art.

A recent MFA grad of the UA School of Art, Schmeltz grew up in the suburban Midwest, where postwar cities sprawled out into the countryside, gobbling up green space and demanding more fuel, more houses, more everything.

"The middle-class idea of the 'good life' fueled a massive overhaul of the American landscape that would drastically alter how we live for generations to come," Schmeltz writes.

It didn't happen only in the Midwest, of course, or only in Los Angeles. The whole United States flung freeways out into cornfields and houses into flood plains. It's just that L.A. takes the new American ideal of the city to its logical—and extreme—conclusion. No distance is too far to drive; no eco-zone is too fragile to build in. No matter how many wildfires there are, or earthquakes or mud slides or traffic jams, the city keeps on keeping on.

Schmeltz calls her large, carefully crafted sculptures "fallen monuments" to that doomed "utopic philosophy."

"This California Dream," from 2011, is an ironic work memorializing the ways in which California dreamin' turned into a nightmare. At the top are shiny 4-by-4 beams painted gold, but only their ends still gleam. These beams have been tarnished and blackened, and then tossed into a pile like so many pick-up sticks. Below is a tidy white city, its vertical surfaces adorned with classical columns in gray. Even though the burned construction beams are just overhead, the city is unaware, oblivious of its fate.

Given Schmeltz's critical stance in the sculptures—and their very contemporary, non-art materials—it's a surprise to find drawings on the gallery walls that are rather sweet and even old-fashioned. All five are done in charcoal and "flashe paint"—a kind of paint pen—on paper.

Schmeltz has a fine nervous line in these recent black-and-white works. She appears never to lift her paint pen from the paper: It's as though the pictures are made in a single, long, meandering stroke.

At first, the drawings seem to be abstractions; the lines are so dense that from a distance, they appear nearly all black, with the white of the paper flickering only here and there. A closer inspection reveals the outlines of figures and objects, some of them inspired by Schmeltz's new hometown.

"Hollywood Set" is a fluid rendering of a quintessential L.A. subject. Moviemakers are sitting and standing, evidently watching the action on the set. Quick sketches trace out the film equipment, with lines indicating a ladder, some cables, a light.

"Wishing Well" sketchily pictures a pagoda-topped well and its little bridge, along with people, more dimly glimpsed, coming and going to get their wishes. "Motorboats and Monorail" capture the city's location, with a landmass along the sea, and boats skipping along the water.

"Let's Float From Future to Future" is bigger and more serious than these sweet small pieces. About 7 feet long by 5 feet high, "Let's Float" has the feel of a long Asian scroll unfurled. Like the other drawings, it at first looks to be just an engaging scribble, with uninterrupted squiggles impressively covering the paper's 35 square feet.

A keener inspection yields a landscape, barely visible, classically divided into sea, mountains and sky. There are hints of houses and figures in the distant darkness. In the foreground are boatloads of people, dressed like Wise Men in gowns and turbans. Gliding through the waters, they float from future to future, searching, perhaps, for a better Tomorrowland.

In the museum's back galleries, Jocko Weyland's amusing installation The Slanted Broom chronicles the building's transition from residential firehouse to contemporary art museum. A fake bed with a girly magazine lying open on the bedspread is set up in one room, with a desk and an organ in another. Color photographs of the warren of corridors and officers are hung in a long hallway.

The most fun is a video of Weyland roller-skating through the museum's Great Hall, a monumental room that once housed the fire trucks. He taped it during MOCA Tucson's opening exhibition—in one frame, he glides by an earlier Aili Schmeltz sculpture—and hijacked the show's title for the video. The exhibition celebrated the museum's hometown, which cannot boast of escaping all of L.A.'s ecological problems, and showcased its cutting-edge artists.

But the movie is lighthearted. Weyland calls it Skating in Tucson/Made in Tucson/Born in Tucson/Live in Tucson.

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