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Michael Davis, Richard Turner, and Paul Harris
Angels Gate Cultural Center Gallery, San Pedro, California
Review by Liz Goldner

Paul Harris, “Stones on Stools”


Continuing through March 25, 2023


In early 2020, three artists began planning an exhibition that would address the shifting geology of the Palos Verdes Peninsula in southwest Los Angeles. Within months, the pandemic and lockdown had put off the show for the foreseeable future. Yet, Richard Turner, Michael Davis, and Paul Harris — each with a lifelong interest in natural elements, especially rocks and stones — continued developing their exhibition-in-progress while deepening their understanding of the Peninsula’s geohistory.


“Uplifting Tales and Eroded Histories” finally opened this past January. Serendipitously, a front-page Los Angeles Times article soon after reported on the devastating problems occurring on the Peninsula. The article, “A chunk of Rancho Palos Verdes is sliding into the sea,” describes homes in the Portuguese Bend area with cracked walls and foundations, jammed windows and doors, busted pipes, crooked windows and door frames, all due primarily to a road crew that dug up thousands of tons of dirt in the area in 1956, resulting in a major landslide at the time and which continues to affect the site today.


That landslide and the ensuing geologic problems on the Peninsula are among the issues addressed in this timely exhibition. The display employs photos, a dramatic video, installations, and rocks presented as art pieces, all enhancing our understanding of the area’s problems. “Uplifting Tales” also imparts the message that our planet is profoundly connected to each of us. 


The show’s first gallery is deliberately skewed with randomly hung shelves, several displaying models of decrepit buildings, others presenting photos of various rocks, destabilized land and the effects of this unstable geology on residents. The disorienting gallery approximates a room hit by an earthquake or impacted by a landslide.


Dominating the gallery, and complementing the twisted perspectives of the nearby installations, is the angled and vertiginous video, “Sunken City,” which was shot from a drone. The actual Sunken City is the site of a natural landslide that occurred at the Peninsula in 1929, causing several beachside homes to slide into the ocean. The video, evoking the area’s volatile geology today, includes visceral swoops, dives, and plunges. A poem by Harris, written on an adjacent wall, reads in part, “Oh crumbling coastal cliff / thou slump of exposed faces / your concrete poetry / coated in many colors / on terra infirma foundation / this bentonite fabrication / a feat of clay / a fatal flaw.” Sunken City has attracted so many curious tourists that the site continues to devolve from excessive human presence.


In Turner’s nearby “Time Shores” installation, a row of collapsing models of homes and apartments, assembled from found detritus and scrap materials, evokes the perilous geology of the Peninsula land and the destabilized buildings there. Homes like these are familiar to those of us who follow news reports about pernicious natural and human-made disasters.


Above Turner’s installation are emblazoned the words “The writing is on the wall.” As the catalog states, “The dawning awareness [is] that the extinction of humanity is just a matter of deep time … the only question is what traces of us will remain in the rock record.”


Davis’ “ReCollections,” a display of photos also on angled shelves, addresses the Peninsula’s geological and human history. These include an image of a protest by residents of Portuguese Bend, demanding action from the city to shore up the area’s landslide. (The L.A. Times article explains that the Portuguese Bend land hadn’t moved in the 4,800 years before the human-caused landslide of 1956.) Also exhibited is the paired image, “Japanese Spa/Then and Now,” a photo of a Japanese Spa on the Peninsula’s scenic White Point and a picture of the empty spot where it stood. The spa was demolished by federal agents in 1942 when its clientele were relocated to internment camps.


Less relevant to the Peninsula are Davis’ various photos of particular rocks, which he says have made an impact on our consciousness. These include the “Rock of Gibraltar” alongside a photo of movie star Rock Hudson, “The Rosetta Stone,” and the “Giant Rock” in the Mojave Desert that served as the site of a UFO Convention in 1950.


Relating to the deleterious activities on the Peninsula, the term "Anthropocene" appears several times in the catalog. It is described as, “the period that has seen Sapiens ascend to geologic stature. We have become agents of planetary change, transforming the Earth at unprecedented rates … the rapacious exploitation of resources exhausts environments and puts us in a position of ecological precarity.” 


The rear gallery provides a calm counterpoint to the front, with the space inviting viewers to sit with various stones and to contemplate them, seeking to discern what stones can tell us about our roles on our planet. The predominant installation here is Harris’ “Stones on Stools.” For this display, he mined his memories of growing up in Vermont with his antique dealer mother. He has brought together those memories and the corresponding antique stools that he inherited from her with his collections of rocks and stones in order to fathom our personal and geological histories more fully.


Carefully arranging his mother's footstools and then matching them with his rocks gathered from around the world, Harris has created an ersatz classroom. Individual rocks sit on their own stools and display their own personalities, from the contemplative to the playful to the audacious. Several of the rocks seem to stare back at us. There is even a misbehaving rock, sitting like an outcast in the corner of the room.


As stand-ins for people, these rocks express the geological passage of time, along with our role in preserving our planet. As the catalog explains, “Rocks are the bones of the earth and the roots of the clouds. Their energy as it is released becomes soil, moisture, and vapor. Rock and clouds, above and below, the ancient and the ephemeral.”


There are other intriguing, if peripheral, elements, including “Rolling Stone [ink] Drawings” that visitors can make to create abstract expressionist-style paintings; Chinese inspired drawings of “The Four Seasons;” and “Rocks on Books.” Ultimately, this exhibition highlights our bond to the Earth, as all phenomena here are linked in a complex web of mutually interacting elements.

Angels Gate Cultural Center

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