Free exhibit in Irvine frames idyllic California landscapes against impact of development of the west

Maurice Braun, "Yosemite Falls from the Valley," 1918, oil on canvas
Maurice Braun, “Yosemite Falls from the Valley,” 1918, oil on canvas, 36 by 36 inches, is part of the collection at UC Irvine’s Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art.
(Courtesy of the UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art)

A free exhibit of 26 oil and six watercolor paintings opening Saturday in Irvine frames idyllic scenes of the West Coast from the first half of the 20th century against the documented explosion of industrialization taking place at the time those works of art were being created.

The exhibit, titled “Indefinitely Wild: Preserving California’s Natural Resources,” is on display at UC Irvine‘s Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art. It predominantly features works of California impressionism, a style focused on capturing unique qualities of light in grand natural environments.

The pieces on display transport viewers to unspoiled meadows blossoming with wildflowers, sea-sprayed coastlines battered by uncontested waves and loamy forests shaded by massive, ancient trees. They are accompanied by historical material recording how the spread of human settlement and industrialization fundamentally altered what the West Coast would look like for future generations.


Antique ads for land development in coastal Orange County at the Langson Museum.
Antique ads for land development in coastal Orange County accompany idyllic California landscapes at “Indefinitely Wild: Preserving California’s Natural Resources,” on display at the Langson Museum through Sept. 9.
(Eric Licas)

Maurice Braun’s “Yosemite Falls,” for example, depicts a heavily wooded northern California grove. It is accompanied in the exhibit by pamphlets and photos of widespread logging activities that devastated much of the forestland that inspired the artist by the time the piece was completed. One historical image shows a group of people dancing in celebration atop a massive tree stump.

“From my perspective, I look at those stumps as beautiful redwood trees that have been cut down, and I feel sad,” the exhibit’s curator, Cassandra Coblentz said. “To me that’s about loss. But in that moment, it was almost like they were celebrating the bounty of that. For them, here’s all this wood that we can sell and build with.”

Coblentz hopes the exhibit’s images and stories will help viewers understand the perspective of people living in the early 20th century rather than immediately judging their actions as wasteful in hindsight. She said many back then viewed humans as existing separate from nature, whose resources could uplift mankind if properly exploited.

“It wasn’t that they had bad intentions,” Coblentz said. “They just had a different point of view about what nature was for. But now we know better. We know that these things can run out.”

It’s difficult to say whether all the artists featured in the exhibit were concerned about saving the environment, Coblentz said. But their work did often express a sense of awe and appreciation for the natural world that lies at the core of conservationism.

Langson Museum Director Kim Kanatani discusses the exhibit "Indefinitely Wild: Preserving California's Resources."
Langson Museum Director Kim Kanatani discusses work on display for the exhibit “Indefinitely Wild: Preserving California’s Resources,” which runs through Sept. 9 in Irvine.
(Eric Licas)

“Their work did definitely preserve a sense of why wild spaces, big open spaces, these pristine natural environments are worthy of our attention and protection,” the curator said.

She hopes the material juxtaposed by the exhibit will get viewers to think about their relationships with the natural world and lead to discussions about how society might better coexist with it.

“I really wasn’t trying to tell people how to think,” Coblentz said. “I just wanted to put the information out there to create a conversation around the works of art.”

“Indefinitely Wild: Preserving California’s Natural Resources” is free to attend and runs through Sept. 9. UCI’s Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art is temporarily located off-campus at 18881 Von Karman Ave., Suite 100.