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The briny beauty of the Salton Sea

Special to The Times

Entire chapters of the weird and troubling story of the Salton Sea unfurl from each of the photographs in Kim Stringfellow’s thought-provoking show at Michael Dawson Gallery. The images are unsentimental, quiet and informative. At once they riff on the melancholic appeal of ruins while posing questions about a future course -- ecological, commercial and otherwise.

The Salton Sea is California’s Pompeii, a mythic and wondrous disaster. Historians trace its beginnings back to a “creation flood” in 1905, an accident of nature and culture alike, which humans aggressively exploited, determined to make a profit. Entrepreneurship and opportunism form the bones of the story, ecological adaptation its flesh and soul.

Stringfellow has been trekking to the area from her home in San Diego since 1995, photographing, collecting artifacts and researching. The 10 pictures in the Dawson show appear, among others, in her new book, “Greetings From the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905-2005.” In this concise, compelling account of a fallen paradise, Stringfellow describes the Salton Sea as “a study of contrasts, a compendium of the unexpected and ephemeral.”

The photograph “Abandoned Trailer” makes the point stunningly. Its subject -- an oxidized, encrusted metal shell -- sits sunken in a broad pool of liquid rust, the water’s edges salty and crystalline. Green buzzes against orange, the sky’s sharp, clean blue putting a cap on the friction. The “sublime and surreal beauty” that captivated Stringfellow has pungent origins: brine and bacteria in the water, industrial and agricultural runoff that have made the sea an ecological mutant, littered with corroded debris.

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Everything that flows into the sea stays in the sea, becoming concentrated and potentially toxic. The extreme salinity has killed off most of the fish population. Birds feeding on the rotting fish carcasses spread botulism among the avian population, which includes numerous threatened and endangered species that make their primary home there.

Tourists to the area, once plentiful, have naturally become scarce as well. A photograph of the desolate and dry Salton City golf course, once a destination for celebrities, looks like a scene of war reportage from Iraq.

An image of an abandoned residence is similarly redolent of violent decline. Bare mattresses are stacked askew in the trashed bedroom. Amid the grit on the floor are clumps of pigeon feathers, like the severed wings of the whole enterprise of turning the area into agricultural heartland, vacation oasis and resort community.

The military has had a hand in the Salton Sea pot as well. A bombing range was established there, as well as several weapon-testing sites. One of Stringfellow’s pictures shows a squat concrete building straddled by a pyramid of metal scaffolding. It’s called “Whirl Tower” and could almost pass for an abandoned carnival ride -- but in fact it was erected by the military to test parachutes, without having to drop them from planes.

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The sole romantic landscape in the group portrays a narrow river receding in honeyed afternoon light. In yet another example of the area’s freakish beauty, what looks incongruously like chunks of ice floating downstream are actually mounds of white foam. The river, which feeds into the Salton Sea, flows north through Mexicali, where it picks up under-treated sewage, industrial waste and phosphate detergents that generate that billowing foam.

Fishery, wildlife refuge, film set -- these too have been functions of the Salton Sea area. It was rumored that a Spanish galleon lay under its waters. One developer imported sea lions and plopped them into the sea for effect.

The richness of the sea’s century-long history is indisputable. What the place will become in the future, though, remains to be seen.

Stringfellow does a persuasive job of articulating the area’s blight in her photographs. In her text, she also addresses the region’s promise, if restoration efforts succeed.

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In the meantime, the Salton Sea remains eerily seductive for photographers.

Publications by a few other artists drawn in by the site’s complex oddity are set out at the gallery along with related books and documents. Stringfellow’s images, taken alone, may be understated, but seen in numbers and backed by her crisply elucidating text, they make for quite a saga.

Michael Dawson Gallery, 535 N. Larchmont Blvd., L.A., (323) 469-2186, through Sept. 3. www.dawsonbooks.com. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

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Stitched works: tangled threads

Jen Pack’s work at Sarah Lee Artworks & Projects appears light and lithe, but in choosing her methods and materials, Pack has knowingly taken on a heavy load. Stitching onto delicate silk chiffons, she assumes the baggage of traditional associations with feminine craft.

Working with stark squares, reiterated in line, she incorporates the discipline of Minimalism -- its formal and emotional restraint. For the most part, Pack’s technical ambition carries the work. A cloying prettiness trivializes some of it, but in several pieces her disparate motivations come together with grace and power.

“Red Mess” is the finest example. Pack stretches translucent, acid yellow chiffon over squared stretcher bars and stitches across the surface in staggered, stunted streaks of crimson thread. The surface pulsates with stops and starts. Each fragmented line is punctuated at the end by the back-and-forth stitches of closure and then, like an ellipsis, a dangling thread. The threads multiply and tangle until they form a frizzy beard, narrowing to a scraggly tail. The vaguely erotic allusions carry further the bodily references Pack builds into other works -- one a delicate skeletal dress articulated in taut thread, another a Rapunzel-like tress of dense blue threads falling from their square source high on the wall into a fluid puddle on the floor.

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Eva Hesse comes to mind. So do the weavers and color theorists Anni and Josef Albers. Pack anchors her work in the essentials -- color, form, line and light -- but lets it fly by playing the regular off of the irregular, control off of abandon.

Sarah Lee Artworks & Projects, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 829-4938, through Sept. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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A death penalty debate in pictures

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If premeditation is what distinguishes murder from manslaughter, then why isn’t capital punishment considered murder, punishable by law? Because capital punishment is the law.

This paradox, to artist Malaquias Montoya, is irreconcilable; the death penalty is institutionalized, medicalized, state-sanctioned murder. His paintings, drawings and prints at Track 16 Gallery detail his stance, through the force of their imagery or through incorporated text. The works, born of outrage and dismay, are at some level intended to evoke the same from viewers. Montoya’s work isn’t subversive or subtle enough to change minds, but even preaching to the choir can be stirring -- powerful enough to re-sensitize those already sympathetic.

Many of Montoya’s images are cluttered with evidence -- words, numbers, collaged elements -- in support of his argument. His most arresting works, however, are his simplest: charcoal drawings of single figures suffering the penalty of death. Stark portrayals of individuals, they distill the issue of capital punishment to a fundamental struggle between humanity and inhumanity.

Montoya’s show is accompanied by an impassioned catalog -- a panel discussion with the artist will be held Saturday at 7 p.m. -- and complemented by an exhibition of international posters opposing the death penalty. How race and class factor into sentencing is pursued in some of the pithiest works, for instance one from the 1980s by Peg Averill, which reads: “Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.”

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Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-4678, through Aug. 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.track16.com

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Looking anew at everyday objects

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Alma Ruiz has guest-curated a two-person show for the 18th Street Arts Center, called, “Compulsive Repetition: (Re)reading the Object in Space.” It’s a bulky title for such a slight offering, one that might have benefited from a bit more of the compulsive’s irrationality and riskiness.

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Sandra Tucci, a Brazilian making her first local appearance, presents a single, sprawling work titled “Dead End.” Across two walls of the gallery, she’s mounted shallow, narrow aluminum boxes filled with mundane objects: drawer pulls or doorknobs, wooden skewers, napkin rings, belt buckles. The objects sit in what looks like painted plaster or, alternately, clear resin. The containers travel across the walls in a continuous path, end to end, moving up, over and down. The eye and the body cannot help but follow, tracking the sculpture through space. This physical compulsion to echo the sculpture’s movement is the most interesting aspect of the work, which adds up to little more than a fleshed-out doodle.

Joe Davidson’s three sculptural installations are more compelling. Each consists of a grouping of casts of a familiar object. The scattering of 120 cement baseballs is a leaden gesture, but the hanging cluster of white plaster sunflowers has an elegiac beauty, as if the blossoms’ natural vibrancy has been sucked dry, leaving this ghostly residue. A rectangle of about 3,000 small toiletry bottles cast in plaster reads as a carpet of urban sprawl -- a city built of its own junk.

18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3711, through Sept. 30. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.


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