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Escape – Route at the Laguna Art Museum: Luciana Abait’s exhibition offers a hopeful and nostalgic journey through the American West

By MARRIE STONE

As the curtain closes on 2023, it might finally be safe to say some silver linings emerged from the pandemic. Interesting art, for one. Historians, of course, can contextualize what happened to us. Scientists are certainly still studying it. But artists – maybe better than anyone – continue to interpret the impact of that event from every psychological angle. Those surreal days defied description. They’re better left to visual representation, symbolism and the subconscious mind.

Another often overlooked advantage was the hyper-local focus the pandemic forced upon us all. “There’s beauty in your own backyard,” as the saying goes. Those days imposed that realization. We discovered wonder in the details, instead of the world at large. Others of us took to the open road. For some, road trips were the nostalgic 20th century adventures we left behind in childhood. But the pandemic put us back in touch with our own domestic landscapes.

Argentinean artist Luciana Abait’s exhibition Escape – Route is very much pandemic-born. In late 2020, during the second lock-down, the Los Angeles-based artist took her camera and her family and set out to explore the Southwest. “I knew I would see beautiful landscapes,” she said. “But I was totally overwhelmed.”

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Photo by Josefina Capdepont

“Escape – Route,” by Luciana Abait, is on display at the Laguna Art Museum through March 8

Abait took thousands of images – enough for at least three solo shows. The first of those installations happened at the Helms Bakery District in Culver City, only a month after her return. Road Trip: Projecting Possibilities (2021) contained 24 still images transferred to video that were projected onto an outdoor storefront on a repeated loop (12 feet x 30 feet). “It created a trippy, science fiction [sensation] that took viewers on an out-of-this-world journey,” Abait said. “Since we couldn’t travel physically, the idea was to travel with our minds and our imaginations.”

Abait brought that same installation – along with an accompanying photographic and sculptural exhibition – to the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) this fall. Now through March 8, viewers can join her on a road trip through California, Nevada and Arizona that’s at once beautiful, nostalgic and hopeful, but also a reminder of the fragility of our planet and all we stand to lose.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

An image from Luciana Abait’s “Road Trip” (a video montage of 24 still images)

Ascend the stairs to LAM’s second floor. Even before you reach the top, your road trip is already underway. You’ll encounter one of the artist’s signature digital collage sculptures. Abait created a mass of world maps, their geographies jumbled and reassembled into something unrecognizable, yet resonant.

The Maps That Failed Us (2018 – 2023) reorders our chaotic world. The Middle East sits alongside Canada. Namibia is near Texas. There are no borders in Abait’s version of Earth. Whether you see a mountain, a cresting wave or a melting iceberg (Abait had all three in mind), you’ll imagine nature in all her majesty, fragility and scale.

“[I wanted to represent a] world that has changed beyond recognition,” Abait said. “I’m also talking about immigration and the difficulty that immigrants find when they’re trying to go into a new land.”

Abait emigrated to the U.S. from Buenos Aires in 1997 at the age of 26 and has lived in Los Angeles since 2005. Immigration plays a large role in much of her work.

“The whole map can also look like a deflated world. A metaphor for all the changes and challenges,” she said. Abait molded the sculpture to make a commentary on environmental justice and the populations most affected by climate change.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“The Maps That Failed Us” (2018 – 2023)

Now with all those maps to orient you (or maybe disorient you), your journey begins. You’re behind the wheel, your windshield splattered with rain, red ridges soaring above you and a car’s red taillights ahead. Abait takes you through rocky landscapes, snowy mountain passes, desert highways, all with the aim of heading toward water. “For me, water is a symbol of renewal and being reborn,” Abait said. “The idea of this project is to present this journey – which is both internal and physical – searching for your own self. Searching for your home. Searching for water.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Windshield” (2023). The photograph incorporates acrylic paint on raw canvas

Drawing inspiration from Edward Abbey’s 1968 book Desert Solitaire, Abait sought to put images to Abbey’s ideas. And though the two works are 55 years apart, Abbey’s work seems even more relevant today. “Everything that I have been documenting, and everything that I’ve been fascinated by in the American West, he included in that book,” Abait said.

Abbey wrote and Abait quoted: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope…Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”

For Laguna residents, that observation might reflect our relationship with the ocean. Whether or not we set foot in the Pacific, its presence is a constant reminder of the larger world – of possibilities and escape.

Back to Abait’s Escape – Route. When we at last reach the water, it’s black. Abait created Black Water (The Exquisite Edge of the Precipice) in 2022. “I’ve been working with the theme of water for the last 20 years,” she said. “This particular exhibition is a physical and metaphoric search for water.” That black wall with its black water represents the end of Abait’s journey.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Black Water (The Exquisite Edge of the Precipice)” (2022)

Perhaps the standout piece in her show is the five-minute looped video Road Trip (the same installation she showed in Culver City), a montage of still images that play like a vintage slideshow from someone’s 1960s vacation. But unlike back then, now we know our planet is in crisis and the images feel at once nostalgic and urgent.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

An image from Luciana Abait’s “Road Trip” (a video montage of 24 still images)

Look close and you’ll also discover some playfulness. Every road trip requires a stop at a convenience store. Alongside her photography, Abait is a gifted acrylic painter and sculpture artist. She included a vintage store at the mid-way point in the exhibit as an element of pause and whimsy. “It’s the typical convenience store that you find on one of these empty roads. It presents a sense of nostalgia and relates to our childhood,” she said. “It also has this kind of surreal element and an element of mystery that makes you stop. I look for those moments of contemplation and reflection.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Convenience Store” (2021)

A careful observer will note that Abait went over some of the photographs with acrylic paint to add a mixed media element. You’ll also see people hidden in some of her work. A little boy appears, for example, in Snowscape Vision. “Many times, when I took the photographs, I didn’t see the people,” she said. “It was only when I selected the work and edited the image that I realized people were there. It was a very nice surprise, but it also shows that humans are everywhere. Even in the most remote places of the world. So, it’s also about our intrusion into nature.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Snowscape Vision” (2023). Zoom in close and search for the little boy

I suspect we all had several surreal moments during the pandemic lockdowns. We got a glimpse of the world without us, and, in many regards, it looked like a better place. In just those few months of staying inside, the planet began to heal itself. While studies now suggest the “anthropause” had a much more complicated impact on the environment than the tidy explanation that humans are screwing up the planet, it was an undeniable time for reflection about our role.

But we’re adaptable creatures and we’ve adapted back to the “new normal” quite quickly. We’re already forgetting. Abait’s exhibition reminds us not to forget. Whether it’s the ocean outside the museum’s doors or the wild landscapes of Arizona’s national parks, we all need wilderness. But what will we do to protect it?

“Tell me,” poet Mary Oliver might have said, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious planet?”

escape route 9

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Escape – Route” can be found on LAM’s second floor

Escape – Route is on display at the Laguna Art Museum through March 8. For more information, visit their website here. For information about Luciana Abait, visit her website here.

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