Just an hour’s drive from downtown Santa Barbara, Los Alamos straddles the Old West and the new one. A stroll down Bell Street takes you past abandoned midcentury gas stations, their pumps peeling paint, past the rustic wooden façade of the Union Hotel, where it’s not hard to picture a gunslinger sidling up to order a whiskey from the bar. Yet half a block away at the Café Quackenbush, you can order nouvelle cuisine prepared by a Swedish chef.
Next door, at the C Gallery, you’ll find an exhibit that embraces just such dualities. Maybe that’s because artist Mackenzie Duncan lives in Los Alamos and grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley before studying theater and fine art at Yale. Her work in this show acknowledges her fascination with the popular image of the American West, but also gives a nod to high art historical traditions.
Duncan’s a big fan of spaghetti Westerns (think Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars) and in “Horizon,” an uninhabited expanse of peach-colored desert is bound at its corners by the familiar curvature of a television screen. It’s a vision of the natural world, but one that’s mediated first by pixels and then by paint. The cowboys have made it into the show, too—though, like the desert, they are not quite themselves. “Blurry Clint” turns a single stencil into a mass of overlapping silhouettes, expanding and distorting the figure as if we’re seeing him through shimmering heat waves.
Then there’s Duncan’s “Birch Forest” series, taking its cue from the work of Austrian Symbolist Gustav Klimt and riding into new territory. In “Birch Forest I,” traditional oils and pastel hues give the scene a dreamlike translucency, while “Birch Forest II” brings everything into sharper focus. The oval shapes that litter the forest floor like fallen leaves are actually points of light, rimmed in vivid primary colors. In her most recent works, the artist uses water-based oils and draws straight from the tube onto the canvas. “Eastern Sierra Landscape” captures sunset in a line of electric orange along a blue mountain ridge, and in “Los Angeles Morning,” the city skyline bears a yellow nimbus—smog lit by sunshine. Visually speaking, these works are a departure from the careful, painterly “Horizon,” but all are concerned with the filters through which we view the landscape.
Also on view are sculptures by Danielle Satinover. In “Miracle,” she welds segments of steel tubing into a giant, open-necked pear, while “Precious” is an industrial seedpod, steel nails and copper wire leading down to a gold-leaf core. Like Duncan’s work, these pieces lie somewhere on the boundary between naturalism and distortion—they are at once the things they reference and something altogether new.