How Abstract Art Can Help You Appreciate Your New, Ugly, Brown Lawn

Our new graveled yards may not fit the traditional ideal of beauty, but artists such as Analia Saban, whose Erosion (Room) #1 is pictured, are fans of browns and taupes.
Our new graveled yards may not fit the traditional ideal of beauty, but artists such as Analia Saban, whose Erosion (Room) #1 is pictured, are fans of browns and taupes.
Photo by Brian Forrest

"Grass is America's No. 1 crop," painter Greta Svalberg says via text message. She moved away from Los Angeles two years ago, before our drought reached its current heights, but while here she made half-green, half-brown aerial landscapes and arranged dry, painted rice on canvas in sometimes-geographical patterns. She recently did a painting called July, based on a photo from a lawn-care book. Children prance under sprinkler water, with grass-shaped green specks everywhere. "Outdated ideologically but perpetually attractive," Svalberg writes. "I love grass. I can see why people are so unreasonable as to insist upon it in a desert."

Even after increases in state water-use restrictions, much of Los Angeles still seems bent on being unreasonable, if just in spirit. Grass painting has become a thing: spray-painting lawns green, so that they keep their color without water (Lawn Painting Pros is now a franchise). Then there is the Astroturf. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power replaced the lawn outside its building on Hillhurst with Astroturf, conserving water in the most literal way while still implying that green-means-beautiful.

A veer away from green did accelerate this year, though, after Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that steep 25 percent water-use cut and Mayor Eric Garcetti expanded the "cash for grass" rebate program — though all allocated funds had been used up by July 11. And now, driving through stretches of Silver Lake or Venice, you more often see those compact bushes and rocky paths amidst expanses of overgrown natural grasses.

But there are new problems, too: Companies such as Turf Terminators, initially formed to cash in on the rebates, are offering four gravel-heavy "California-friendly styles" to choose from and getting business faster than other, more careful landscapers. "Don't gravelscape L.A." was the title of an L.A. Times op-ed co-written by landscape designers Mia Lehrer, Claire Latané and Margot Jacobs. There are smart, thoughtful ways to save water, the three argued: "Even 'shallow' L.A. can become known for a beauty that goes beyond skin deep."

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Can it? And how much is our under-examined, overly green idea of beauty limiting our imaginations? Quite a few other factors hold us back, too. There are the overwhelmed nurseries, unable to acquire enough native plants to satisfy demand. There's the fact that indigenous, interesting lawns are harder to maintain; the fact that the city doesn't have the technical systems in place to help homeowners scientifically gauge how much water they need for these new kinds of landscapes. But still, the beauty question looms.

In the field of visual art, where ideas of beauty have been torn apart, trampled on and reinstated over the past century and a half, the concept of arid, abstract and rough-hewn has been deemed compelling for a while. Perhaps we've stumbled into a situation in which art appreciation or a dive into recent aesthetic theory and musings actually has hands-on, immediate utility. Spending some time with abstract art, land art and abstract ideas may help you adapt to a more open-ended, drought-appropriate idea of pretty — and then adapt your yard.

Turf Terminators is covering Greater Los Angeles with replacement landscaping using gravel and mulch.
Turf Terminators is covering Greater Los Angeles with replacement landscaping using gravel and mulch.
Photo by Ted Soqui

Aesthetics have, of course, always been tied up with some kind of idealism. Those aerial, drought-shaming photos of super-lush celebrity estates still suggest well-watered lawns as the aesthetic ideal, wrapped up with prosperity. In SoCal, they've been the ideal since the era of postwar conformity, when aerospace and new tech-industry employees "borrowed this idea of the lawn from New York, where rainfall was plentiful," says landscape architect Esther Margulies.

Back in 1972, author Wallace Stegner said of the Western states, "You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale." Embrace the West's bigness and dryness, he meant, or risk landing yourselves in an epic water crisis. We opted for the latter.

Delusions are so key to this city's landscaping history that it's hard to imagine letting them go — consider the palm trees, not indigenous but everywhere, though they don't even thrive in this climate. Writer Victoria Dailey recently described them as "castrated examples of an incomplete dream" that "reviled" the subtler, truer Los Angeles environment.

Could a truer Los Angeles perhaps be filled with dry grasses and naturally growing "weeds," like the yard of L.A. writer Jonathan Kim, who called "attractive or ugly ... extremely subjective" in the open letter he posted to the Huffington Post and addressed to his annoyed neighbors?

Viennese art historian Franz Wickhoff argued as far back as 1900, in his lecture "What Is Ugly?," that people saw as ugly anything blurred, indistinct or lacking clear outlines. Years later, art historian Henry M. Sayre would write about land art of the 1970s, and argue that entropy, emptiness, vast openness and an interest in detritus had become a new kind of sublime beauty. He cited outdoor artworks that resembled, and sometimes literally were, abstract dryscapes.

Greta Svalberg's painting July
Greta Svalberg's painting July

It's funny how many contemporary paintings resemble dryscapes these days. Sergej Jensen, a New York–based painter, has turned a preoccupation with brown into a highly marketable endeavor. Imagine if, in designing its "California-style" formats, Turf Terminator adapted some patterns from an earthy, stitched-together painting like Jensen's Delft, in which irregularly shaped rectangles that include just a bit of green (maybe this could be rosemary?), come together? Jensen's calculated rawness probably would seem less pretentious in the context of a yard than in a gallery. Or a landscape could take inspiration from L.A.-based Analia Saban, also a fan of browns, letting heavy taupe fabric drape from walls, imposing order in only select places. Such a landscape might bulge with overgrowth in places, and then be rock-speckled and dirt-covered elsewhere.

Contemporary art movements have influenced commercial trends before. Once, when minimalist Carl Andre was being sexist, artist Sarah Morris riposted, "Well, your lasting contribution to history has been kitchen design." Riffs on his raw-wood rectangles and zinc grids certainly show up in pared-down, designer kitchens. It's even possible kitchens have made minimalism more appealing to a general public; certainly, minimal is in.

Land artists in the 1960s and '70s were minimalists, too, interested in single, ambitious gestures, such as a gash in the desert or a spiral in the Salt Lake. And maybe it's not so much of a stretch to think of land art somehow translating to lawn art. Especially since land art often reads as fantasy, as if land artists are trying to somehow influence, underscore or preserve some aspect of nature's bigness. Maybe this fantasy of agency in the face of Western vastness could be a corollary to the controlled prosperity grass represents.

Consider Michael Heizer's boulder Levitated Mass at LACMA. A hugely iconic object against a spare expanse of dryness, hovering over a smartly engineered trench, it's meant to suggest permanence and impressive aptitude. Imagine a big rock like that in a backyard, with some tasteful desert plants spaced far enough to not distract from its prominence. It would be a drought-appropriate delusion of grandeur, easier to imagine in L.A. than a full-on shift to indigenous authenticity.


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