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Art review: 'American Falls' captures power, beauty and utility

'American Falls' melds sublime beauty and down-to-earth usefulness

Beauty and utility often seem to be at cross-purposes. The first is prized for the pleasures it generates and the latter is valued for the work it gets done, the more efficiently the better.

At the Center for Land Use Interpretation, “American Falls: Overlooking Urban Waterfalls” weds sublime beauty and down-to-earth usefulness in a way that might make you think differently about art’s place in life and our role in it all.

Eight flat-screen TVs line the walls of the darkened gallery. In the center stands a viewing platform that recalls similar structures at outdoor overlooks. Each monitor displays millions of gallons of water, pouring swiftly and powerfully, over a waterfall.

Shot with a camera set on a tripod, which neither pans nor zooms, the images resemble photographs. Their stillness elicits attentiveness and serenity. The gushing waters add drama, without diminishing the tranquility.

A similar sort of complexity is triggered by the urban locations of the waterfalls: Spokane, Wash.; Minneapolis; Greenville, S.C.; Lowell, Mass.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Paterson, N.J. Rather than inviting visitors to travel, in our imaginations, to a fantasy of unsullied nature, “American Falls” roots us in cities whose existence is inextricably tied up with our nation’s industrial development.

The combo is potent. Its richness is intensified by the inclusion of the Great Falls of the Passaic River, where Alexander Hamilton established one of America’s first planned industrial cities.

In 1967, Robert Smithson made an enormously influential body of work based on Paterson’s industrial past. That same year, the Great Falls of Paterson became a National Natural Landmark. This smart little exhibition takes things full circle, combining art, nature and industry to tell a story that is far from over.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., (310) 839-5722, through Aug. 31. Open Fridays through Sundays. www.clui.org

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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