Floating paintings, apocalyptic sunsets, and Windows ‘98: It’s not a dream, it’s Susanna Battin’s “Key Observation Point” at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive

Drive west up the 210 freeway—a curvaceous, breathtaking four-or-five lane highway that drifts through a basin of impossibly cinematic-looking hills alternating green and tan scrub. After a rather abrupt and wild interchange that spits you out onto interstate 5, past the Burbank Airport, far beyond the world’s largest IKEA, and even past the Juvenile Hall in Sylmar—at the crest of this hilly interchange, right after two of the now eight lanes curve off into the 14, as you dip back into the Santa Clarita Valley—your windshield will fill with the very real image of endless swathes of dry, lumpy mountains, inert against the ever blue, ever-cloudless (though sometimes smoke-filled) Southern California sky. If you stay your northerly course, you could be at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill in 20 minutes. Have you ever done it? I haven’t, and yet I make most of this drive nearly every day. Let me tell you, the optics of it never get old.

I would be lying if I did not admit that I had a similar, though smaller in scale, experience when I first summited the stairs of the Asian Center and spun to the right—I felt I was gliding, almost propelled forward into the airy, light-filled gallery/archive/non-circulating library, the door wide open, my field of vision confused by what appeared to be paintings that were not fixed, but floating. This description is silly and overwrought, but not inaccurate—and in the space of the gallery, the large geometric windows with their odd but inviting effect, I found the experience of approaching rectilinear shapes hanging on invisible strings to somehow mimic the experience of driving on a Los Angeles freeway and focusing my eyes on something far-away, electric-looking, and unexpected—something that practically materializes out of thin air.

But there is a lot more to “Key Observation Point” than paintings hanging on strings. In fact, what you see when you enter the gallery is, arguably, the backs of paintings, all which bear descriptive texts penciled delicately but visibly onto their raw canvas, while the canvas itself is folded neatly around the frame, held in place by dramatic and abundant blueish-black tacks. The wrapped portion of the frame is also painted in a kind of ombre effect, either red, yellow, or orange, depending on the painting. Before I even realized the paintings had paintings on the reverse side, I saw many other things in the space—a desk-like area under the far rectangular window, complete with a windsor chair, old-looking laptop computer (running Windows ’98, no less!), a big binder filled with papers laid open in a special open-binder holder, and a grey Bisley filing cabinet, on top of which was another laid-open series of papers, this time binder-less, but held together with loose rings. The thing that was nearly invisible to me, and stayed nearly invisible to me, was the nearly full-sized wall drawing of the Landscape Scenic Quality Scale, rendered lightly in pencil— a text which literally describes a rating scale used to rate landscape scenic quality.

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Installation view of Key Observation Point 2, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 16″x20″ (Susanna Battin)

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Key Observation Point 5, acrylic and graphite on canvas. 16″ x 20” (Susanna Battin)

The descriptive texts on the backs of the paintings are key observation points—texts which originate in and were taken verbatim from the Chiquita Canyon Landfill’s 2017 Environmental Impact Report—the massive document displayed in the binder-holder. I learned from the laminated gallery map, which was cleverly overlaid with a topographical master plan of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, that the placement of the paintings in the gallery mimicked the location from which each key observations point was written.  The “fronts” of Key Observation Points 1-7, as stated in Susanna’s introductory text, are paintings made from collages. Susanna selected keywords from each key observation point and used them as internet image-search terms to create a sort of keyword composite collage; one for every painting. That giant wall-drawing I nearly didn’t see (funny how light can make pencil disappear!) defines the scenic quality scale itself—the scale responsible for the strange methodology and turn of phrase (visual unity, visual intactness, visual sensitivity, and so on) used in describing each key observation point. I began to really understand that all the elements of the show are deeply interconnected because Susanna explained it to me—she also explained the function of the office-looking area with the computer—it is a research station, where visitors can access both digital and print copies of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill 2017 Environmental Impact Report. The research station also provides access to the keywords Susanna selected for her image search, as well as the images those keywords generated.

I think there is a funny element of deconstruction here—a funny order of operations. We enter the gallery and see the stylized backs of paintings with paragraphs on them—this renders them “unconventional artworks.” We can then whip around and look at the front of them, and make some sort of connection between the words on the back and the painting on the front. We can then (or before) read the wall-drawing of the Landscape Scenic Quality Scale, and make yet another connection between the scale it describes and the paintings we can now see in-full from the position of reading the wall-drawing text. After all that, or perhaps before, we can research the way the paintings were constructed—the keywords used to generate each painting. I’m trying to describe what it felt like to understand the connections between the pieces—how one was generated from the other, and vice/versa. The approach this show takes to artistic production is quite strange, in the sense that it seems intended to reveal something—as if through understanding the keywords used to generate the image, we could understand something about that image. The interconnectedness of the work felt a lot like pieces to a puzzle, which, once assembled correctly, would be revelatory.

If we are meant to understand that the scale, i.e. the methodology, used to define scenic views is arbitrary and entrenched in a particular kind of thought—then so is using the internet to generate images which will then generate a painting. To me, it is arbitrary on top of arbitrary on top of arbitrary, mixed with the artist’s hand, the subjective decisions for colors, and then, painting…it was hard to wrap my head around. But perhaps that’s the point—perhaps the work proposes that just as the internet can randomly assign an image to a word, so can anyone, for any purpose—that the key observation points rely on imagination, as opposed to documentation. Perhaps the work says the descriptive and evaluative process meant to seem objective is as arbitrary as pulling images out of the giant, technological hat that is the internet. I’m just not sure I agree with that, since the internet is a programmed system, and all programmed systems come pre-programmed with the ideology of the programmers. It’s complicated.

KOP research area web
Research Station. Gateway laptop computer, mouse, printed mouse pad; Final Environmental Impact Report of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill CDR (2017); Final Environmental Impact Report of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill (2017), printed; Key Word Image Archive Book, various dimensions (Susanna Battin)
KOP research area EIR_web
Final Environmental Impact Report of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill (2017), printed, three-ring binder (Susanna Battin)

From another angle, this project reflects Susanna’s investment in words, and how those words shape the things we see; in this case, language’s effect on the scenic value of a landfill, and how that scenic value has the potential to disrupt land value (i.e. development). It seems that for Susanna, the scenic rating system, which uses language to develop arbitrary value systems, is the key to her project. Furthermore, pushing that language as far as possible, squeezing it until it becomes a thing of art, in this case, a painting, is a way of undertaking what the original writers of the scale undertook themselves when they were charged with defining the undefinable—with connecting the topographical to the compositional, and then the compositional to the evaluatable, and then translating that into language in the form of a text, which will result, presumably, in a policy— a weird third thing that has real-world effects but no single real-world representation, unlike like a painting, or a binder. To put it in a simplistic way, Susanna’s project proposes a way of unraveling complicated things—to me it says, if only we had the language to describe things, and could agree on what they mean. It sounds a lot like a proposition for talking about art.

“Key Observation Point” doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it is wrapped up in an ongoing research project that Susanna has been invested in for nearly a decade. I don’t know much about the greater scope of this work, despite having known Susanna for several years. The second time we met at LACA, I told her I knew the research was the most important part of the project to her, but I was probably going to write mostly about painting. I’m the sort of person that writes about what they can see—and what I saw was paintings, pencil drawings, an incredible view of Chinatown through huge windows, a desk set up to explore the content that helped to generate the show—and also a laminated map.

These are the things I want to say about painting: not hanging the paintings on the wall, while a convention in its own way, allowed me to see the paintings as sites of meaning with some potential beyond art, and maybe even as non-art. The gallery walls, as pretty and inviting as they stood, would have compounded Susanna’s complex project into a simplistic art show where an artist uses a complex system to generate what is still a convention—a painting on a wall in a white cube. There is movement in this space, and mystery, and pathways, maybe even analogous to a mountain, or driving up the 5 toward Castaic. Take, for example, the brilliant installation of Key Observation Point 7, where you must duck under the painting itself between the LACA stacks to get a head-on view of it—far from contrived, this locates the work in the space of LACA, reminding us that art is archive, and Susanna’s work another version of such a process. It also reminds us that art is messy, it’s imprecise, it’s also where we store vacuums and recycle bins and monitors, and old tubes we may need, but probably won’t. Furthermore, we never have to look at Susanna’s paintings by themselves; we always get the full view, every angle of the show is a complete picture to some extent, since no painting has a distinct back or front—another gesture towards undermining authoritative ways of seeing. When all is said and done, I wonder if my interpretation of the artwork was skewed by one small but profoundly political and influential thing which was omitted from the show: garbage.

install shot KOP2 and KOP4
Installation view of Key Observation Point 2 and Key Observation Point 4 with Landscape Scenic Quality Scale, acrylic and graphite on canvas, graphite wall text. Various dimensions (Susanna Battin)
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Key Observation Point 7, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 1″6 x 20” (Susanna Battin)

I am not saying a show about a landfill ought to have some garbage in it but…ought it to? Garbage is not antithetical to art, but it is often antithetical to art-spaces. And while I don’t miss “garbage” here, I felt an antiseptic quality to the show that perhaps Susanna forgot was a possible interpretation—for those of us who have never been to a landfill (it may be few or many, I have no idea), nothing in the show conjured up those particular images, and I found myself disconnected from the show’s content and its relationship to garbage, that thing without which there would be no Chiquita Canyon Landfill, and therefore no environmental impact study, and therefore no scales with odd phrasing meant to poeticize or even reinvent our language around landscape. Without being situated somehow in the space of what my imagination conjured at the word “landfill,” I engaged the work in the show in opposition to the very present, visually dominating landscape just through LACA’s windows—Chinatown. Let me explain.

Though “Key Observation Point” is filled with text, I was drawn back toward the floating paintings. The fronts of them follow the basic conventions of painting—in this case they were all in yellows and reds, all reminiscent of a sunset combined with an apocalypse combined with a construction sight combined with a landscape (LACA’s windows at dusk prominently capture similar images). My first reaction to seeing the paintings, which caused me to hop back and forth across the gallery based on their installation, was not that they were meant to be considered as paintings “in their own right,” in the way that “painters” mean “painting”; to me, they were oddly flat, almost like a wannabe Ed Ruscha, their style a familiar contemporary-looking combination of minimal geometry filled in with what wanted to be, but wasn’t really, a richness of color—that I immediately assumed the paintings were made in dialogue with the view right outside the second-floor windows of LACA—a view which from various angles contained neon signs, three-story buildings, cars, trees, two layers of distant mountains (one close enough to be green, the next its own purply-grey)—and an American flag. I thought that the paintings were purposely artificial-looking in contrast with the descriptive texts written directly on their backs—which although vague, are still attempts to describe a scene from nature; on top of that, I thought these descriptions of nature were being contrasted with the very urban scene just outside LACA’s windows. Take, for example, the text from Key Observation Point 5:

KOP 5: Eastbound State Route 126

Figure 15-6a depicts a representative existing view looking toward CCL from eastbound SR-126 at a point west of the landfill entrance. The landfill site is located beyond the hillsides visible along the highway in this view, but the existing landfill is not visible from this location. The natural-appearing hillsides and SR-126 are both dominant elements in this view.

The hillsides are visually pleasing, but are not highly distinctive. Thus the level of vividness of this view is average or moderate. The visual unity and intactness of this view are reduced by the visual dominance of the roadway and the presence of a skylined transmission tower. Overall, this view has a moderate level of visual quality. SR-126 is a First Priority scenic route that carries high volumes of traffic; however, because travelers along this segment of the highway are moving at high speeds, this view is visible for only brief periods of time. The overall visual sensitivity of this view is moderate.

I thought—in fact I was certain—before I had read the big wall drawing or before I had read the opening text, that the paintings were a kind of weird, art-centric mediation between the idea of an idealized landscape versus an actual one; for me, it was all about the tension between inside and outside. After all, there was no view of any painting which was not mediated by, interrupted by, something else in the visual field. Reading the text on the “back” of the painting meant facing the streetscape, which created a relationship between what was read and what was seen through the window. Conversely, looking at the “front” of the paintings meant looking inward at the gallery—literally turning one’s back to the present landscape, the authentic landscape, so to speak—but also having the paintings interrupted by clumsy, practical things, like tables and chairs, stacks of books and ephemera, a sink. I felt totally engaged with this idea, totally in love with it—and while I don’t know if it was the central interpretation I was meant to walk away with, honestly, it was profound—and I believe that because of Susanna’s investment in the visualization of and relationship to the landscape in the context of art, she achieved something exceptional without even knowing it. It is to her credit.

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Key Observation Point 6, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 16″ x 20” (Susanna Battin)

What else? Susanna asked me what I thought of all the text in the show, seeing as I’m a writer. I told her I thought it was pretty good—I was surprised that as a government document, it wasn’t riddled with errors. I thought “someone who knows how to write wrote this.” Or maybe they even had a real editor. Who knows. It may be disappointing that I was not somehow more invested in the language of the show, considering I am a language-investor—I don’t know, to me all the texts Susanna points to do read as silly, but I get why they’re written that way, based on their genre and the purpose they’re meant to serve. I agree, the highly-subjective made-up way the scale and the key observation points are described is its own kind of scary—but it leaves me feeling like the fallacy is the belief that any writing could reflect something objective. Honey, it can’t.

The minute I walked into the show I liked it instantly. Last week at an impromptu dinner at my house, my friends and I were discussing a recent video screening we’d all attended, and my friend said something like “I was entertained by it, but I didn’t like it.” I said, “I think for me, they are the same thing.” I am trying to say that I really was thrilled and enthralled by Susanna’s show, despite that, in a way, I grossly misunderstood it—and in that sense perhaps I should be entertained by it, but not like it—alas, I like it anyways. Not that any of that matters. Let me put it this way—at its worst, “Key Observation Point” could be seen as a didactic, research driven project manifested as paintings for the sake of tangibility—but it’s not this, because Susanna isn’t confused about what is and is not art—and I’m never able to put the clues together into a thought cohesive enough to achieve didacticism. I think she slips a little in getting me to grasp the significance of the research, which I swear I am capable of—but I have a feeling this understanding lies within the scope of Susanna’s work, and I feel I cannot make a fair value judgement on that, since we are all limited and not in control of how, where, and how much art we can show. But more importantly, at its best, the show takes complex, disparate ideas of a place which around here only exists in most people’s imaginations (the landfill) and brings it into dialogue with the landscape we take for granted every day—it offers a vestige into a peripheral yet significant world—the world of the way things look, and how we describe those things, and the consequences or possibilities of all those things combined—it’s a language which determines where to build a new strip mall, or expand a garbage dump, or even, dare I say, how to make a painting. I’ll take it at its best.

“Key Observation Point” is on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive from August 31-September 29, 2018. For more information on Susanna Battin, please visit http://susbatt.com.

The featured image at the top of this post is Gallery Map, Key Observation Point, laminated ink jet print, 8.5″ x 11″ (Susanna Battin)

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net