If Oscar Wilde had known as much about nature as Lily Simonson does, he might not have dismissed it so quickly. He might even have liked it.
At CB1 Gallery, Simonson’s paintings of crabs, jellyfish, slugs, roaches, mollusks and moths reveal that nature — in all its weird, unbelievable detail — is as inspiring and eye-opening as the refined works of art that Wilde admired.
Art, in Wilde’s eyes, left the dull facts of reality behind in order to change the way we think about the world. Simonson’s paintings do something similar, but by different means. Rather than departing from the facts of life to cultivate highly aestheticized pleasures, her realistic pictures of actual creatures dive into the details of the organic world to make nature look fantastic — more fascinating than usual, far stranger than fiction and nothing short of mind-blowing.
Titled “Wet and Wild,” Simonson’s first solo show in Los Angeles comes in two parts. In the first gallery, eight variously sized oils on canvas look as if they might have been painted 200 years ago, during the golden age of scientific discovery. Each close-up is both abstract and representational: a taut arrangement of color, shape and texture as well as a faithful exploration of each creature’s physical features — usually claws, antennae and eyes, but also limbs, wings and fur.
In the second gallery, black lights illuminate five similar paintings, each of which has been accentuated with subtly mixed ultraviolet pigments. Space opens up in these trippy images, whose Day-Glo palettes suggest visits to aquariums where exotic fish are displayed as well as flashbacks to the 1960s, when all sorts of hallucinogens were experimented with.
Ever since Romanticism, the fantasy of immortality has been a part of art. That dream has nothing on the jellyfish that appear in “Benthic Bacchanal.” After becoming sexually mature, these little immortals sidestep death by reverting to their polyp stage and starting life over.
Group sex is taboo in most cultures, but it’s business as usual for the mollusks commonly known as sea hares. In “Like Bunnies (Sea Hare Mating Chain),” Simonson shows a cluster of these highly efficient hermaphrodites, each impregnating the one in front of it while being impregnated by the one behind.
Other species featured in her paintings include methane-breathing yeti crabs, which live near hydrothermal vents 7,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface; other crabs that dance in unison or cuddle in clusters of up to 600; and a five-eyed arthropod with a clawed proboscis.
Truth is stranger than fiction, and painting, in Simonson’s hands, makes you wonder where one ends and the other begins. Wilde would go wild.
CB1 Gallery, 207 W. 5th St., (213) 806-7889, through July 29. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.cb1gallery.com