Palm trees are found around the world—and yet are particularly associated with Southern California, Los Angeles even more so. Both non-native and emblematic, they embody a curious paradox such as befits a city and region like ours, built on layers of arrivals that initially displaced Native Peoples and has kept right on displacing—along lines of class, race, and immigration status and at the hands of capital-driven development.
The palm tree has emerged as a symbol of status and a curious kind of social luxury, but it has also endured as a resolutely feral and tenacious botanical population, and muse to countless artists, architects, musicians, and filmmakers throughout generations.
As these three assembled artists take on SoCal’s palm trees as both symbols and living things, their more complex aspects emerge—fire-ravaged, beacons of dreams and of isolation, the iconic silhouettes of sunshine and noir; interfered with by industry, transplant beloved of environmentally devastating real estate schemes; decor for seats of all kinds of power from civic institutions to Hollywood studios, guardian angel of the Palm Springs proto-Pop modernist fantasy and its untenable appetite for groundwater; avatars for the role of humans in making the way the world the way it is now.
In Andrew K. Thompson’s various photography-based modalities, the palm occupies a place of prominence as a literal and figurative lightning rod. By casting them in the starring roles of his meditations on power and purgatory, before puncturing, piercing, stitching, chemically distressing the prints and otherwise complexifying the viewer’s expectations, Thompson involves conceptual histories of photographic process with a nuanced assessment of today’s visual culture—and how it all feeds into the way we are treating the world and one another.
Francesca Bifulco works in expressive, richly detailed and intricate paintings and explosive (sometimes literally) sculptural installations, bringing all the senses and a variety of mediums to bear on her fascination with the palm trees of Southern California. With an appreciation for both poetry and spectacle, a fearlessness when it comes to collaborating with formidable found and natural materials, and an emotional patience for close attention to her subjects, Bifulco treats her palm trees as anthropomorphic portrait subjects, stand-ins for her own fraught journey to America, and as fuel for the fires of her dimensional imagination.
Osceola Refetoff’s work with multi-spectral exposures creates arresting infrared images of iconic Palm Springs neighborhoods’ architecture, landscape design, and encroaching wild nature. The impossibly rich chromatic character of the work is in conversation with both Pop art and the technology of scientific survey; the assertive beauty they express contains the unease of invisible color, an inverted dance of naturalism and surrealism, and the seeds of a deeper consideration about the viability of putting a town in the desert in the first place. Lovely, sparkling, water-intensive, manicured, natural, unnatural, otherworldly, seductive, subversive—paradisiacal and problematic.