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Review: In 'Unnatural Disasters,' Merion Estes paints the beauty of nature and the horror of what we do to it

Review: In 'Unnatural Disasters,' Merion Estes paints the beauty of nature and the horror of what we do to it
Merion Estes, "Smithereens (detail)," 2012, fabric collage and acrylic (CAFAM)

When American aerial bombing of Baghdad began in March 2003, spectacular visual splendor fused with cruel carnage and death. The aggressive televised friction between sensual delight and visceral horror circumscribed our perception of the event.

“Smithereens,” a 2012 painting by Merion Estes, exudes something of that clashing, conflicting energy, with its starbursts of red-gold color and spidery black splatters above swelling, roiling waters. So too does “Neptune’s Revenge,” all melting arcs of bright runny color entwined with the serpent-like coil of a Japanese dragon, and “Los Alamos Sunset,” a rush of butterflies in a flaming sky streaked above silhouettes of nuclear reactor towers.

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War, oceanic pollution, nuclear meltdown — in Estes’ extravagant paintings, not only do exquisite nature, abhorrent degradation, opulence and death coincide. They are inseparable.

These and 17 other paintings, most from the past six years, plus seven earlier (and unfortunately less-compelling) sculptures, are on view in “Merion Estes: Unnatural Disasters” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum. The well-known Los Angeles-based artist, now 80, has lately been making some of her strongest work.

"Merion Estes: Unnatural Disasters," installation view
"Merion Estes: Unnatural Disasters," installation view (Craft & Folk Art Museum)
Merion Estes, "Fire Power," 2014, fabric collage and acrylic
Merion Estes, "Fire Power," 2014, fabric collage and acrylic (Craft & Folk Art Museum)

Estes was an early adapter to the emerging Pattern and Decoration movement in the 1970s. P&D was born of liberation politics, especially feminism, and enthusiasm about non-Western artistic traditions. The works rushed in to fill a vacuum created by spare Minimalist geometries and a Conceptualist emphasis on ideas over objects, all within the new international dominance of American art.

Estes integrates painting in acrylics with fabric collage. Her use of decorative, commercially woven textiles is a marker for the inescapable social dimension of her observations on nature. The tight CAFAM show, organized by guest curator Howard N. Fox, is focused on 21st century developments, when the sumptuous stylistic language of Estes’ art has been increasingly applied to the likely prospect of environmental collapse.

Climate change, like other examples of the despoiling of the environment, is not happening on its own. As if to underscore the point, “Strange Fruit” doubles back on man-made crimes, this time embellishing a lynching tree with patterns clipped from an African textile. Dozens of eyes likewise stare skyward from a crimson river in “Fire Power,” its heavenly clouds of wildfire smoke offering no solace.

Paintings — colored woven cloth — are materially akin to textiles. Absent those direct connections, however, sculptures partly assembled from such decorative found-objects as ornamental butterflies, deer antlers and bees feel less dexterous — more like applied pieties about a fundamental truth than forceful disclosure of it. Worldly beauty is a double-edged sword, and Estes’ best paintings incisively cut both ways.

Craft & Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Through Jan. 6; closed Mondays. (323) 937-4230 cafam.org

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