CON/SAFOS: ART IN THE L.A. RIVER
A short walk south of the Fletcher Bridge, where Glassell Park slopes off into the concrete banks of the L.A. River, is an area known as the Bowtie. Named for its geographic shape, the Bowtie is a crossing-place of sorts: situated across L.A.’s arterial waterway from palm-lined Elysian Park, at the edge of the San Gabriel Valley, and just north of a major X-shaped freeway junction. It’s also an urban wilderness, only partially paved, overgrown with weeds, wild grasses, and stubby palms. I visited the area with artist Rafa Esparza, who brought me to Con/Safos, his ongoing, collaborative mural installation on the river’s edge.
Down a trail of cracked and dusty asphalt, past a riverside bench built by Woodbury University architecture students, Esparza and I arrived at the project: a tall, V-shaped adobe wall, sloping down towards each open end, facing the river like the prow of a ship. Each of its two front sides were adorned with colorful murals: the north face by Iris Yirei Hu, the south by Sarah Dougherty, or Sarita. Esparza built the adobe bricks using a traditional technique he learned from his family in Durango, Mexico, using manure from a relative’s farm and dirt from the river’s banks. They formed a stage for his performance Building: a simulacrum of power (2014) at the “obelisk,” a disused concrete industrial platform not far off in the Bowtie. Esparza repurposed the bricks and has invited ten artists to decorate the walls of Con/Safos over the next year.
As the first muralists, Hu and Doughtery could not have been a more perfect choice. Hu’s vibrant, large-scale paintings on paper and fabric are deeply invested with personal, familial, and cultural memory. Colorful cityscapes, domestic spaces, and lush gardens are peopled with ancestral spirits. In her mural for Con/Safos, Hu painted three figures–Ezpara’s, Doughtery’s, and her own maternal grandmothers–rising from a bed of cacti with cut and pasted photographs for needles. Luminous blue fish swim near the bottom of the wall, and at its corner, a small red cinderblock shrine houses a few candles and an orange. The paper trunk of a palm tree, with real pasted fronds, separates Hu’s mural from Sarita’s. The mural’s center is marked by an appropriation of the California State Parks seal, with the word “Caliyagna” instead of California–a mashup of the state’s name and “Yagna”, the indigenous Tongva word for Los Angeles, meaning “gathering place.” Next to the seal, covered with daubs of paste and paint, is a map of the redevelopment plans for the L.A. State Historic Park, site of the original Los Angeles pueblo’s Zanja Madre irrigation ditch not far south from the Bowtie.
The Bowtie is an unusual and almost desolate space, but on that sunny afternoon it was exceptionally beautiful. Small birds darted through purple and golden grasses and the river flowed with enough water that the sounds of its passing could almost be heard over nearby freight trains. Con/Safos is part of the Bowtie Project, a collaboration between arts organization Clockshop and the California State Parks to activate the semi-industrial lot. Closed for over a decade, the space has already hosted Michael Parker’s The Unfinished (2013) and Olga Koumoundourous’s Roundhouse Shines (2014) (Esparza and I toured the site of the latter, an enormous graffiti-covered concrete basin with a lone palm tree at its center, that Koumoundourous covered with pigment the color of a California sunset. Purple, pink, and orange hues remain.)
“Con/Safos” is the Chicano street term for “with safety,” and the wall provides a shelter of sorts, casting shade in the open, scrubby landscape. Surrounded by train tracks and the concrete slabs of a former Metro railyard, the wall’s traditional adobe impresses, each brick formed with a labor of love. It reclaims the space of the L.A. River, once a sacred channel for the basin’s indigenous people and forcibly industrialized by the municipal government, making it once again a wellspring of life.
Con/Safos with Sarah Dougherty and Iris Yirei Hu
February 28th – March 31st 2015
The Bowtie Project approx. 2800 Casitas Ave, LA 90039