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Images of Poetic Putah
Richard Lowenberg: "Cache-Putah Bioregion: Visual Poems"


By By Paul Dorn
Enterprise art critic

Art review:
Richard Lowenberg
Where: Davis City Hall
23 Russell Boulevard, Davis; 757-2292
When: through April 30
Hours: Monday through Friday, 8 am - 5:30 pm

Just as blood vessels nourish the human body, a watershed system nourishes the land and all its life systems. We owe a lot to our watersheds, and we ought to get to know them. -Robert Thayer and David Robertson, Putah-Cache Bioregion Project.

One of my great discoveries upon relocating to Davis has been the Putah Creek watershed. In particular, my wife and I have enjoyed biking on the levee roads along the Yolo Bypass, cycling through the orchards near Winters on Putah Creek Road, walking our dog at the North Covell drainage ditch, watching the geese at Northstar Pond, and strolling through the Arboretum near the campus of UC Davis. I'm fascinated by the way the leisurely Putah Creek, seemingly such a modest little rivulet, has so defined the history of my new community.

For the past three years, the Putah-Cache Bioregion Project at UC Davis has selected artists and writers for year-long residencies. These cultural "researchers" complement the Bioregion Project's scientific efforts, as they look at the ways the Putah and Cache Creeks contribute to a sense of place and community, creating a collective "cognitive map" of what people consider their home region. These artists develop works responding to the geography, biology and culture of the combined watersheds of the creeks, from the Yolo Bypass to the Coastal Mountains.

One of last year's artists in residence was Richard Lowenberg, a Davis resident and electronic media artist who also heads the Davis Community Network. During his year-long residency, Lowenberg used a 35mm camera to extensively photograph every aspect and detail of the bioregion: landscapes, plants, clouds, water, people, livestock, signs, fields, gravestones, the moon, trees, fire, cracked mud, vehicles, fences, birds, buildings, trains, insects, garbage and archeological relics. We do mean extensively.

Inspired by the haiku poetry produced by some of his Bioregion Project colleagues, Lowenberg eventually decided to assemble his photographic images into a series of 24 visual poems. Lowenberg arranged, cut and pasted selected images, adding other materials and hand coloring, to create vertical 'variations on a theme' collages. Lowenberg, who studied environmental design and film at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, presents an intriguing and challenging vision of our region in his "Cache-Putah Bioregion: Visual Poems" exhibit, which continues at Davis City Hall through April.

Some of Lowenberg's individual images would work well as documentation of the region, reminiscent somewhat of, say, the photographs of the soon-to-be flooded town of Monticello by Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones published in "Berryessa Valley: The Last Year." However, Lowenberg's decision to arrange his images into thematic collages elevates them into a commentary on human modifications of our terrain. And it's apparent that Lowenberg isn't necessarily pleased with these adaptations.

Perhaps Lowenberg's strongest commentary is his visual poem "Sky's The Limit." The background texture of the collage is a series of five images of the sky, white clouds floating peacefully. Intruding into this heavenly space are several strands of rusty barbed wire, the nefarious industrial age "innovation" that helped conquer the American west. To this Lowenberg adds a sign "Now Leasing!...Phase II" typical of commercial development sprawl degrading our environment. Nearby he adds a cropped image of a circular sewer cover with "Water" imprinted upon it.

Lowenberg's "Sky's The Limit" is subtle, simple and powerful. He doesn't beat us over the head with explicit images of ugly generic strip-malls and their unattractive surrounding asphalt. Nor does he reprise the history of how common property has been fenced off for private gain with governmental collusion. Yet all of this is implied in Lowenberg's hints of a landscape considerably modified by greed, facilitated by public works projects like sewers and water systems. "Free enterprise" capitalism, of course, has never been adverse to healthy doses of public spending.

A similar theme is examined in Lowenberg's "Dam Leaves," where he combines several images of the Monticello Dam, a major public works project financed out of taxpayer pockets for the benefit of regional agri-business. Lowenberg superimposes images of leaves and tree-lined riverbanks, suggesting that while forests might be viewed as scenic by some, others might consider this vegetation a hindrance to the efficient storage and movement of water.

Nature is not the only victim of greed's rapaciousness. In Lowenberg's "Harvest Moon Walk" we see a solitary figure walking along a hot country road next to a tall cornfield, a shovel carried over his shoulder, his face darkened by the brim of his hat. His anonymous posture suggests the heavy burden of exploitation amidst the splendor of blue sky and fall foliage.

Beyond "message" works, Lowenberg can also offer wry humor, as with his "Bio-Regional Semiotics," a collage of signs that provide visual definition to our cultural landscape: "Oasis Bar & Grill...North Fork Cache Creek Bridge 14-12...Mining In Progress No Trespassing Violators Will Be Prosecuted." Lowenberg's use of tombstones to create a light mood, as in "Family Trees" where memorials float amidst the branches of trees beneath blue skies, is poignantly effective at reminding us of our mortality. His "Ground Truths" shows a single image of the engraved stone monument of "Lettitia Beadle Died Aug. 25 1891 Aged 102 Years 7 Mos 25 Days" amidst several images of neatly plowed rows of dirt. Our inevitable destiny: food for worms. His grin-provoking "Foul Territory" features geese and ducks frolicking in the water left over after development needs have been met.

"Bioregionalism has been a part of my thought and practice for a long time," says Lowenberg. "This project provoked me to drive, bicycle and walk around this 'place.' From Clear Lake to the Sacramento River, from the Capay Valley to Lake Berryessa, from Boggs Mountain to the Putah Sink, and in my own back yard. I hope that the intended simple beauty of these pieces inspires viewers to more deeply explore their own creative 'sense of place'."

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Last modified March 22, 2001

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