Rex Southwick’s third solo exhibition with Unit London takes its name from the Latin word “topia”, a word rooted in representations of landscape in which both natural and artificial features provide a sense of place.
Unlike its etymological siblings “utopia” and “dystopia”, “topia” describes a more direct representation of a place without connotation or embellishment. Inspired by this concept, Southwick’s Topia presents the familiarity of the well-known resort city, Palm Springs, in an objective, yet distinctive light. Topia presents a series of large-scale canvas works that explore the mid-century and desert modern architecture of the iconic location of Palm Springs. The exhibition examines the city in relation to the continuously evolving desert landscape and the people who inhabit, build and maintain it. Two years in the making, Topia chronicles Southwick’s time in Palm Springs, depicting the push and pull between man-made and natural environments.
For the artist, Palm Springs has always embodied a sense of fascination and myth, seemingly defined by its ties to the film industry and the legacy of Old Hollywood. However, the city’s roots are much more ancient than its commonly associated heritage allows. The area has rich Native American history which has mostly faded away or been built over to make room for new real estate developments. Now, the most tangible links Palm Springs has to its past are its street names. Topia observes these more overlooked aspects of Palm Springs, reflecting on the invisible labour that has been crucial to its construction and maintenance. A purely observational and objective body of work, Topia studies the illusions created by these picture-perfect environments, shedding light on the unseen work that underpins the Palm Springs area and California as a whole.
To create these artworks, Southwick spent months documenting and living in Palm Springs, working with family-run landscape installation companies and construction crews to gain access to private homes. Topia is therefore imbued with a more personal dimension than any of Southwick’s previous bodies of work, which were created remotely and not from in person observation. First, the artist captures his vignettes in black and white photography. Working from an archive of images, Southwick paints his large works first and then creates smaller retrospective studies. The artist’s use of large canvases and his highly saturated colour palette is reminiscent of religious imagery, reflecting the frequent romanticisation of Palm Springs.
Yet, Southwick’s artworks undercut any sense of idealisation. Unlike images from real estate brochures, his paintings are always occupied by people at work. In addition to mid-century architecture, landscapers, cleaners and labourers are the protagonists of Southwick’s artworks. For example, in Planting the Flag, two landscape workers plant a cactus in the soil outside the Dr. Franz Alexander House. The bent position of the figures, the angled stake and the title of the painting suggest militaristic undertones influenced by American Civil War imagery. However, Southwick upends the expectations of this type of nationalistic imagery, ironically transposing them onto the mundane task of planting a cactus.
In this sense, Topia is concerned by the gulf between perceptions and reality. The exhibition considers how these perfectly built environments, surrounded by seemingly natural greenery, are in fact heavily manufactured and cultivated. Topia appears to break the spell conjured by these flawless real estate developments, typified by those found in Palm Springs. Instead of hiding the behind-the-scenes aspects of this famous location, Southwick brings them to the fore, casting the people who are pruning every hedge, sweeping every patio and laying every brick in vivid colour.
229 x 208 cm
Planting The Flag
203 x 178 cm
Krisel House – Twin Palms
260 x 240 cm
Early workers on Rose
220 x 200 cm
N High road night study
87 x 67 cm
La Jolla mural
56 cm x 71 cm
Excerpt from U-Topia/ Dis-Topia, essay by Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Prof. Art History, Yale
“The true subject of his Topia paintings is the labour taken to sustain the idyll, the skill and graft of the usually invisible figures in what (in a famous account of Gainsborough and Constable) the critic John Barrell called The Dark Side of the Landscape…The Topia series offers a revisionist intervention in the long history of landscape painting, utilizing bravura brushwork to reveal the paradoxes implicit in the genre since the Romans inaugurated it with their own foundational topia. Southwick’s Topia announces the arrival of a major talent, one prepared to insist that the defining genre of Anglo-American painting—the sublime landscape—must confront its own economic and ideological underpinnings at this moment of global reckoning.”
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