Virginia Wilcox, Arboreal

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Deadbeat Club Press (here). Hardcover, 8 x 10 inches, 80 pages, with 43 black and white duotone plates. Designed by Clint Woodside. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Nobody walks in Los Angeles. That’s the myth anyway. While it may hold true for the city’s lowlands which are partitioned off by auto-friendly byways (Mark Ruwedel’s recent wanderings notwithstanding), its parks are quite walkable. They provide a refuge from cars which, if not exactly verdant, is at least pedestrian paced. Many are clustered in the northwest hills. Nestled here along the ridge which divides LA from the San Fernando Valley to the north, they form a scattered chain of natural areas winding from downtown to the Pacific. Along here you’ll find the Getty, Mulholland Drive, Griffith Park, the Hollywood sign, and other famous green spaces. 

At the ridge’s eastern edge, perched on the edge of Dodger Stadium, Echo Park, and downtown, is Elysian Park. Its 600 acres were the main tromping grounds for Virginia Wilcox as she took her 4 x 5 view camera in search of Los Angeles’ woodland underbelly. She began in 2016 and continued through early 2020, the project’s end roughly coinciding with the pandemic’s onset (after which LA’s park population boomed). An early book prototype served as the thesis for her 2017 Hartford MFA, and now a few years later comes the finished product, Arboreal from Deadbeat Club Press.

Judging by this monograph, Wilcox found the city’s underbelly in Elysian, and much more. The title Arboreal is a direct nod to trees, of which there are plenty in these pictures. But it’s the non-tree stuff which is perhaps more noteworthy. Wilcox’s photos tend to treat branches as rough visual scaffolding, a framework through which to peer. Beyond them, she finds a variety of flotsam washed up in the understory: a leather purse abandoned in some weeds, scraps of clothing, a full length mirror improbably propped against a tree trunk, scattered camp remnants, and paths leading into thickets. In Wilcox’s words they coalesce into “a mangled urban landscape that looks something like wilderness.” Indeed such mangling might be found in just about any urban park in America, especially post-pandemic. But the contents here have a particular LA cast. Bits of chaparral, palms, dry grass, and a distinctively crystalline light—there is not a cloud marring any scene in the book— point only to California. 

If the photographs were restricted to the proximate they might be one thing, a West Coast version of John Gossage’s The Pond perhaps, or something similar. But Wilcox just as often extends her camera’s gaze in the other direction. Many of her photos stretch past parkland to the city skyline, “suggesting that there is no end to this built environment.” Since much of Elysian Park is elevated, the effect is a sort of God’s eye perspective, surveying the dominion below. One photograph oversees a small clutch of housing in a wooded vale, looking as tranquil and domestic as any midwest suburb. Another photograph, more typical, captures a wide sweep of semi-industrial land in the distance. There are pictures of LA’s notorious freeways, of course, and warehouse lots and office parks. Is the artist looking down her nose at the vernacular, or is the incline a mere function of camera angle? Hard to say. The plain’s faint contours defy easy decoding. They form an indeterminate space, the sort of no-man’s land of plazas, fencing, and asphalt which typify much of the metro area. Shown in photo after photo, the city’s relentless sprawl becomes a background presence throughout the book, against which the parks establish themselves as a refuge. 

Making several cameo appearances, in a star turn that threatens to steal the show, is the dense downtown core. In most cities the skyline might be a synecdoche for the place. But LA is so vast and decentralized that downtown’s importance is rather diminished. Nevertheless, its skyscrapers call like a beacon to Wilcox. Wherever she might be in the parks, she keeps one eye alert for tall buildings on the horizon. They appear in the photographic preface before the title page, a faint hazy glimmer of blocks. Several pages later they crop up again, closer this time, forming the backdrop of a long exposure smearing figures into the pavement. There they are again in a spread a few pages later, and then repeated soon after as a long panoramic swath. Their symbolic weight seems to gather in the book’s latter half. Perhaps as a sophisticated salve to balance all that time in the woods? Or perhaps Wilcox seeks a more formal contrast. In parklands pocked by scrappy vegetation, where the trees can’t quite muster the energy to form a forest, a dense cluster of high-rises provides some inspiration. Of note too: downtown is one of few LA locales where walkers outnumber cars.

All these tall shiny structures reaffirm an Arboreal motif: it’s the human element which galvanizes Wilcox. Even surrounded by plants, she seeks culture. Her photographs might be arboreal in a broad sense, but only a handful limit themselves solely to vegetation. The vast majority contain human artifacts of one form or another. Sometimes it’s just a patch of road, sometimes a trail in the distance, or an old post, or occasionally a more impactful manifestation: chainlink fencing or a large lot. A photograph of a freeway juxtaposed with a dirt path above declares that no territory is beyond the grasp of domestication. Perhaps tellingly, a few pets appear in the book—a blurred image of a dog approaching the viewer is one of several highlights—but no wildlife. 

It’s not just artifacts. Actual humans appear too. They are generally shown alone or in small gatherings, reduced to minor background elements. The key exceptions are two probing portraits which appear midway through the book. One is Jesse Jesus shot in Sycamore Park, the other “Roger”, shot in Elysian. In terms of rough project parameters, this pair fits within the scope of Arboreal. But the approach is so different that it feels like a distinct spinoff. Jesse Jesus —bearing an uncanny similarity to the glass-eyed man in Gregory Halpern’s Zzyzx— is a shot as a standard vertical portrait, shown 3/4 upper body in a narrow band of focus. Roger appears several pages later, resting near a grassy path. Unlike the others, these two images seem to seek direct human connection, a glimpse into the inner lives of others. Tucked in a book of exterior shots they almost feel like the stirrings of a future project. But for the time being they remain in the current one.

Wilcox cites the New Topographics as key influences, in particular Robert Adams and Joe Deal. One can sense some of their skeptical outlook in these works. Wilcox’s LA is no eden. Its winter limbs are spare, and the LA of bougainvillea,  jacaranda, and sprinklered lawns won’t be found here. I suppose there is hope inherent in any plant form. But Arboreal casts it through the tarnished lens of human impact. Similar subjects were at hand in her native Seattle, but they were more easily subsumed by the great boreal rain forest. “When I first moved to LA, I was constantly searching for shade,” she told the Humble Arts Foundation, “and felt unaccustomed to living in a place without evergreen trees punctuating the landscape.” Under LA’s thin canopy, the material was laid bare, photo morsels ripe to be plucked. Looking at her photos, the realization that none of the New Topographics shooters were based in the Northwest comes into sharper focus.

Of course a lot has happened since New Topographics. Suburban tracts and industrial development have burgeoned since, and one could argue we are more alienated from nature than ever. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, parks have come under increasing stress from all angles: residents seeking space, plants in drought, and the houseless. Arboreal might be viewed in this context as an updated warning shot, carrying the same dystopian message of Wilcox’s earlier project shot around the Salton Sea. 

But alas, it’s hard for images as gorgeous as these to generate much indignation. Deadbeat’s duotones are impeccable. In the end they do not feel very political at all, slotting less into diatribe than meditation. Like Robert Adams’ Los Angeles Spring, these photos describe the simple pleasure of walking and observation in a complex environment, “inviting the viewer,” as Wilcox’s site describes Arboreal, “to look further while questioning what is beautiful in the contemporary landscape.” Lest the reader fall too deeply into reverie, the last picture reminds them that the real world awaits. It’s a picture looking over a bustling freeway, ten lanes thick with cars. A reminder that nobody walks in LA.

Collector’s POV: Virginia Wilcox does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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