Victor Hugo Zayas, LA River 17, 2015, courtesy of the artist.

Victor Hugo Zayas, LA River 17, 2015, courtesy of the artist.

VICTOR HUGO ZAYAS

MUSEUM OF LATIN AMERICAN ART / Los Angeles

With 40 expressive oils, Victor Hugo Zayas’ exhibition “The River Paintings,” responds to the ebb and flow of the Los Angeles River in its many moods and manifestations, with each piece flowing naturally to the next. Created from 2013 to 2015, these huge paintings, some as wide as 96 inches, depict the LA riverscape burnished by the bright desert sun, moonlight and the night-time glare from nearby factories and freeways.

Working from his studio near the concrete banks of the river, he endeavors to resituate our perception of the river, which has been paved over, polluted and nearly destroyed, with this series of landscapes recalling the early 19th Century Romantics who were in awe of nature and its majestic and seemingly endless capacity. More than just a nostalgic view of the river, Zayas’ paintings question how Los Angeles understands this major artery that flows through it. His investigation is well timed in light of the city’s recent plans to revitalize the river.

LA RIVER 14 2015 38 x 34 inches oil on wood1 VICTOR HUGO ZAYAS

Victor Hugo Zayas, LA River 14, 2015, courtesy of the artist.

Zayas asks us to “see” the river by appealing to our senses; we can almost feel the river droplets and fog on our skin, its musty smell infused with a hint of the sea, and its rushing sounds, seeming to rise to musical crescendos. Zayas seems to inhabit the river, translating his personal connection to it through these expressive works painted in muted greens, blues, browns and grays. Using thickly applied paint, he portrays the river as an often-violent brew of debris-infused water soaring up into the sky; then he brings the viewer along on this nearly celestial ride.

He draws on his half-year of roaming the European continent in the early 1980s, visiting museums, studying the paintings of the Romantic Masters and the late 19th- and early 20th-Century modernists. Several paintings—including LA River 14 through 17—depicting closeup the wild swirling waters are executed in thick impasto strokes, recalling van Gogh and Soutine. LA River 2011 and LA River 13, with their broader vistas, include traces of the industrial neighborhoods surrounding the river—the warehouses, freeways, bridges, railroad tracks, telephone poles and power lines—nudging the viewer back to reality.

The “Grid Series,” also in this show comprises 14 paintings, with several paying homage to Cezanné. These aerial views of the LA river basin, painted in the artist’s characteristic subdued palette, present the river flowing through LA’s industrial districts of warehouses, factories and rail yards. In several of these paintings, Zayas’ crisscrossing slashes render these neighborhoods like deliberately laid piles of concrete and asphalt. In later “Grid” pieces, numbered 22 through 25, Zayas portrays closeups of these landscapes, and in doing so generates geometric arrangements that  appear like patchwork quilts with their broad swaths of color, leaving the river behind  for abstraction.

Show ends Feb. 7, 2016