Moment of Friday: Hagfish hanky-panky, Lily Simonson's oceanic obsession

Painter Lily Simonson is obsessed with underwater worlds and picks a brine pool video for Moment of Friday

Step into the main exhibition hall at CB1 Gallery in downtown Los Angeles and you will see a series of stark, practically Martian landscapes illuminated by blacklight. These paintings, however, do not depict alien worlds. They are a series of works produced by L.A.-based artist Lily Simonson during a sojourn she made to the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica last year. 

To produce the paintings, Simonson spent almost a month in a tent, outfitted in three sets of long underwear and a pair of wind pants.

"It was in the 20s," she says of the temperature. "Which isn't that cold. There are sites that go to 50 or 100 degrees below zero in winter. But I was there in the height of summer."

It may not have been cold as far as Antarctica goes, but it was still pretty darn cold — especially considering that Simonson was painting outdoors. "I don't like using photographs, which is why I go into the field," says the artist. "It all started with me going to labs to see specimens."

The specimens she means are sea creatures. Simonson is an artist with a bit of an oceanic obsession. More than half a dozen years ago, she was making paintings of mammoth lobster. Then she turned her attention to the furry Yeti crab, which somehow manages to exist alongside hot and gassy hydrothermal vents. For a painter, she is surprisingly knowledgeable about Antarctic benthic worms.

"I'm drawn to life in extreme environments like the vents," says Simonson, "places where it seems counterintuitive for life to thrive."

Her quest for specimens to paint has taken her around the world in search of new sources of inspiration for her oversized, hyper-real still lifes and landscapes.

A couple of years back, she worked on an exploration vessel run by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she assisted a research crew studying clams and worms. During the journey, she also created temporary paintings on the side of the ship using ocean sediment.

Last year, she was in Antartica, a place to which she will return under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, to make more painted works.

But this week she's floating off the coast of Grenada on the "E/V Nautilus," an exploration vessel loaded with scientists studying life on the flanks of the underwater volcano Kick'em Jenny. (I spoke to Simonson last week, before she took off for the Gulf of Mexico.)

The Nautilus sends down a submersible Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to the depths of the ocean floor to shoot video and retrieve specimens. It also maintains an online feed of its underwater proceedings. And it is geekily riveting, offering live views of underwater research sites, along with plenty of scientist chit-chat.

Which brings me to Moment of Friday...

For her pick, Simonson chose one of the Nautilus' highlight reels (embedded in this post), which the crew regularly posts to YouTube. It consists of the exploration of a brine pool, an underwater lake that is three to five times saltier than the ocean around it. 

"I love those brine pools," says Simonson. "It's so uncanny. A body of water within a body of water. It's pretty surreal."

The scientist banter makes the video even better, offering a play-by-play of what's happening on camera. This includes discussions about bacteria-eating snails and the slimy qualities of hagfish (not to mention images of hagfish hanky-panky). Also in the narration are observations like, “It’s like you’re going in the water but you’re already in the water.”

"There's something really incredible about it," says Simonson. "I'd never seen such high-resolution footage of sea life. I like to keep it on in my studio when I'm working. It's kind of like being there."

There is indeed something pretty hypnotic about it, and of the idea that in this day and age, there are still worlds that remain unexplored.

Lily Simonson, "On Ice," will be on view through Oct. 26 at CB1 Gallery, 207 W. 5th St., downtown Los Angeles, cb1gallery.com.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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