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In 2015, as a fairly recent Camberwell School of Art graduate, my partner Sam and I took a two-month trip around the USA. At the time I was living with Sam, a musician, in a tiny one bedroom flat in Brockley, South London, and was working weekends in retail in a very quiet design shop in Shoreditch. I spent a lot of my time there researching our trip as there were rarely any customers and I had a six-hour shift to kill. I was also interning a few days a week at the (now defunct) Camberwell Press and taking on freelance illustration work here and there, but it was all far from a steady income.
Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s I was fascinated with American culture and the American landscape as depicted in films, television and novels. I longed to attend a high school with lockers in the hallways, homecoming dances, and drive-in movies at the weekends. The landscape of California that I knew through pop culture seemed like such an exotic place compared to the home counties town of Tunbridge Wells where I lived. The view from my window was grey skies, beech trees, soggy leaves on the ground and 1930s English architecture.
I had images of what the West Coast of the USA looked like implanted in my head: blue skies, palm trees, wide roads and huge mansions. In short I imagined a dramatic and glamorous landscape.
Palm Springs Construction, 2015
Once I was at art school this attraction to what I understood as the visual language of Hollywood became a running theme in my work. I became captivated by Julius Shulman’s photographs of mid-century architecture as well as the Bauhaus and its international influence. My interest in films grew from the scope of references we were introduced to at Camberwell.
La Jolla 3, 2015
The dual coordinates of photographs and film led to a deep dive into the history and aesthetic of West Coast Modernist and Mid-century Modern Architecture, and their place in mid- to late-20th century cinema. John Lautner’s modernist houses for example seemed to be the quintessential villains' lair, and are frequently blown up in Hollywood films of this era. In my BA Illustration dissertation I went on to pose the question ‘Is Modernist architecture used as visual shorthand for malevolent characters in popular films?’
La Jolla 5, 2015
LA Confidential, 2013
A series of paintings titled Modernist Architecture in Film, where I painted stills from iconic movies, such as North by Northwest, Diamonds Are Forever and A Single Man (which feature both real and stage set modernist homes) continued this theme. A series titled The Dark Underbelly of Suburbia also followed, based on an essay written by Sam—who at the time was studying English—on David Lynch’s films.
These projects had all been in the making years before I ever visited the locations I painted.
Lethal Weapon, 2013
Sam and I landed at LAX mid-April 2015. We drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, then up the coast through Big Sur to Yosemite and San Francisco, by which point it was mid-May. The contrast between reality and the vision I had seen, filtered through the popular culture I’d grown up with, was striking. For one thing, the dominance of freeways in the LA landscape had never occurred to me. In the first few days of our trip I kept coming back to Joan Didion’s descriptions of the endless freeway driving in Play it as it Lays...
‘... She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour…’
Never a hugely confident driver, I became preoccupied with and terrified of the enormous web of freeways and dense traffic. This fixation on the driving experience unfolded as a key subject for my work. A number of pieces in USA: IRL, the series I painted based on photographs from our trip, focus on parking lots and views from the car.
Another shock was that the weather wasn’t all blue skies and sunshine - California had had a two month drought before we arrived and once we were there it poured with rain for ten days straight. Hiking in Runyon Canyon with a looming thunderstorm was not the way I’d pictured the hills of Los Angeles or how I would first see the Hollywood sign. The LA landscape feels like it was made to be seen in cinemascope, the homes are mainly one story and the city spreads out far in every direction. This wide angle view seen from Runyon Canyon seemed to be emphasised by the huge grey storm clouds pressing down upon the city. All of the flora of the hillside seemed desaturated by the dark skies.
Bates Motel, 2015
As anyone who has been to Los Angeles knows, the city is sprawling: a collection of small towns and villages joined by freeways. We were lost a lot. The huge expanses of residential neighbourhoods jarred with the polished homes of Beverly Hills, Malibu and Venice Beach that I’d so frequently seen in films. I photographed a lot of signage in these less polished neighbourhoods, it triggered a new interest for me in the more everyday America: grocery stores, 99c stores, bungalows and craftsmen-style homes, with their low pitched roofs, covered porches and overhanging eaves.
Back in 2013, another part of my BA final project had been La Jolla Road - which entailed me trawling Google Street View. The choice to use Street View as the only reference was mainly due to the fact that I wasn’t yet able to visit in person and was a strangely up-close way of exploring a town. Clicking along La Jolla Road, which lies in a mid century modern stretch of Palm Springs, as if on a very jolty drive, I fully embraced the distorted angles inherent to Google Street View photography, which made its way into my work.
La Jolla Road, 2013 (detail)
Meanwhile, in 2015, while aimlessly walking around near our hotel in Palm Spring, I stumbled across La Jolla Road in real life. It was surreal seeing this place I knew so well; I knew the details of the rocks and the elaborate cacti landscaping but had only seen it through the warped camera angles of street view. I felt an echo of David Lynch - something strangely familiar but uncannily different.
La Jolla Road revisited, 2015
ALICE TYE is a painter and illustrator based in London, UK. She graduated from Camberwell College of Art (UAL) in 2013 with a BA in Illustration. She has worked for a number of companies and publications such as Airbnb, Moët Hennessy, and The Guardian as well as exhibiting in various spaces around London, UK. Her work utilizes the visual language of film through both her compositions and choice of colour palettes. INSTAGRAM.
(Image credit: all paintings are oil on paper and shown by kind permission of the artist)