Lily Simonson is not your typical L.A. artist. Engaged in producing science as well as art, she creates a unique view of the natural world in her paintings. Her first solo show, “Wet and Wild” which is up at CB1 gallery in downtown, shows some of the fascinating creatures — alien and familiar — that reside in the deep ocean.
“Wet and Wild” comes in two parts. The main gallery room includes eight oils on canvas depicting some of the life in the deep — yeti crabs that live at hydrothermal vents and breathe methane, jelly fish that reach maturity only to regress back to the polyp stage, and a clusters of sea hares mating in a chain, as sea slugs tend to do. Each canvas is glossy and lush; Simonson uses a glossing technique reminiscent of old Dutch masters.
The second room features five more paintings of crabs and other creatures, but this time, Simonson has painted over her works with glow-in-the-dark paint, and the works are illuminated with a black light. The effect is a trippy, '60s-esque world, but it also evokes ideas of bioluminescence of the sea.
Her subjects, coming from the deep ocean environment, don't survive for long at the surface because of the changes in pressure. To achieve a level of detail that wouldn't be possible from photographs, Simonson was able to borrow jarred specimens from the lab of Lisa Levin at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. That made it possible for her to create oil paintings at 86 inches by 104 inches from the furry yeti crab that measures just 2 inches long.
Simonson has always loved the sea. When interviewed this week, she had just stepped off a research vessel doing a cruise off San Diego, collecting deep-sea critters from 700 meters below. “It's kind of a culture shock to be back on land,” she says. “I like being at sea; there was a lot of interesting new muses and subject matter, being around all these researchers and scientists all the time was really interesting and inspiring. I want to stow away on a ship.”
While on the ship, Simonson helped the researchers sort through mud they pulled from 700 meters below the surface. When they were done sorting out the creatures, the mud was going to be dumped back overboard — until one of the ship technicians suggested she do something with it. So each day, she painted murals of creatures they had found on the ship — using the deep-sea mud. The following day, she'd wash it off make a new one. “It was all ephemeral,” she says. On the ship, she was able to see critters — up close and alive — that she'd previously only been able to view in jars.
“For a long time, natural illustration was how we documented the world, but now painting is something different,” she says. “I get to zone in on some essential element of the fauna and try to capture not just what it looks like but what it feels like to look at it.”
Simonson's show is up at CB1 Gallery, 207 5th St., downtown, through July 29. Open Wed.-Sat., 11 am-6 pm, Sun., 1 pm-6 pm. Closed Mon. and Tues.
In conjunction with the show, CB1 Gallery will host a panel discussion on Saturday, July 28 at 2 p.m, entitled “Deep Thoughts.” The panel, including Lily Simonson and scientists Lisa Levin (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Regina Wetzer and Dean Pentcheff (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) will discuss the symbiosis of art and science.