Victor Hugo Zayas: The River Paintings at MOLAA

From time to time on InTheArtistStudio, Kelley and I would like to offer you something besides an answer to an art related question. As artists we all find inspiration in many different places. Recently, I visited the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, CA. to see a career-spanning show of the work of Victor Hugo Zayas. It inspired me and I’d like to share my experience with you. If you are near the L.A. or Orange County area, I recommend a visit.

Written by Kim VanDerHoek

L.A. River / Grid Series 2015

I believe that an artist’s body of work becomes most interesting once they move beyond simply trying to paint an inspired image for it’s own sake and into the realm of saying something with their work.

Zayas Show Grid 1
Grid Series in Gallery 2



Victor Hugo Zayas used to be a plein air landscape painter, working through the years capturing views of Los Angeles on large canvases in the back of his truck often at night. He’s been threatened by gang members and was once shot at. He’s lived, worked and taught in Los Angeles for more than a decade and he finds inspiration in the city.

Zayas Show Detail
Detail, Grid Series in Gallery 2



Two rooms at MOLAA are filled with his paintings with an entryway that has several of his sculptures and a video interview with Zayas (sadly, there isn’t any footage of him painting). The museum staff suggests starting the show with the room at the very back left side of the museum. This room contains smaller works, some from his Grid series, several abstracts, some representational pieces and L.A. pieces.

Zayas Show 4
Gallery 1

In the first room, the L.A. paintings were by far the strongest pieces. To the left the entire wall is dominated by a monumental landscape painting “Merinda” an early piece dated 1991. Opposite that piece are L.A. River paintings and this is where you begin to get a feel for the entire show. On the far wall hang several color studies for larger works. Some of the other paintings in this room feel out of place with the     theme of the show (like the abstracts filled with triangles or the giant dog piece) but they must represent milestones in the artist’s career or moments documenting the evolution of his work or they wouldn’t have been included.

Zayas Show 6
Gallery 2

The most challenging and interesting work hangs in the next room. Six large paintings hang in this space, each measuring 96” x 96.” These pieces are abstracted views of the L.A. River and Grid series. Many of these works are stripped down to the minimum and Zayas seems to be asking you to decide if you are looking at an intimate view of L.A. at night or an expansive one. One piece appears to have a night sky above subtle reflections on the river with the criss-cross of bridges above. Admittedly, the large almost black canvases are easy to dismiss and pass by, but if you sit with them in your view for a little while you might be surprised by what they have to say. They are atmospheric, moody and have a dangerous feeling to them, much like the city at night.

Zayas Show 2
L.A. River / Grid Series 2009

On the opposite wall the canvases are painted with paint that appears to be more than an inch thick in places and the texture is as gritty and unkept as the city itself. Two other Grid paintings hang in the gallery and these are the most representational pieces in the room that reveal the city of Los Angeles in all its orderly chaos. Additional walls contain more Grid and LA River pieces that are a bit smaller, some on canvas and some on paper behind glass (which unfortunately, is distracting because of glare).

Zayas LA River 1
L.A. River 11, 2015

The common visual thread of this show is more than a number of painterly urban views of Los Angeles. The work speaks about how all of us urbanites are connected through infrastructure in spite of riots, fire, flood and crippling drought. Zayas shows the hidden structure of Los Angeles with its roads, bridges and freeways and then takes us deeper with views of the often-overlooked main artery running through the city that is the L.A. River. He repeatedly paints the river, a typically natural entity, that has been captured and sterilized by infrastructure. Nature attempts to reinsert itself as large bushes make appearances in many of the L.A. River paintings. In one particular grid painting (one of the more representational works) the city seems to have sprung up around the river almost as if the concrete channel was fertile enough to give birth to L.A. The sky is the most repeated natural element present in these pieces and it often looks to be at odds with the urban sprawl below.

The work offers the viewer another way to connect to both the city and to nature even while the two seem to clash. The unexpected marriage between both worlds is intriguing, a reminder of our delicate dependency on each for comfort and survival. I left the show feeling conflicted, unsure of who I should root for in this visual battle – nature or city.

Zayas Show LA River 5
L.A. River 13, 2015

If you enjoy a show that challenges you, with large tonal paintings, thick painterly paint and something more to say than “here’s a pretty picture,” then this show at the Museum of Latin American Art is worth a visit.





Zayas Show 3
Gallery 2

Victor Hugo Zayas: The River Paintings

Oct. 17, 2015—Feb. 7, 2016

Museum of Latin American Art



To learn about Victor and his work, visit his website.


2 thoughts on “Victor Hugo Zayas: The River Paintings at MOLAA

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