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‘Artists Transform the Archive’ in new La Jolla Historical Society exhibition

"Small Wound on Shell Beach" by Chantal Wnuk consists of oil paint, sand and mixed media.
“Small Wound on Shell Beach” by Chantal Wnuk consists of oil paint, sand and mixed media.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth Rooklidge)

When it came to creating the pieces in the La Jolla Historical Society’s upcoming exhibit “Memory Traces: Artists Transform the Archive,” artists had one prompt — visit the Historical Society’s archive, dig around and find something to use as a point of departure for making new work.

The items they found included postcards of palm trees, statues, the backs of photos, posters from La Jolla’s early film and theater days and more. Seven artists will show the resulting works starting Saturday, Feb. 5, at Wisteria Cottage on Prospect Street.

“I’ve always loved exhibitions that have artists engaging with an institution’s collection,” said curator Elizabeth Rooklidge. “The perspectives that artists bring are unexpected and shake up the way the community views the collection and can even shake up the way an institution sees itself.”

She said the La Jolla Historical Society has “such a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection and I thought it would be interesting to give the artists free range of the archive.”

The source material for a new work will be shown in a catalog next to a photo of the piece.

Rooklidge selected seven artists with previous works that focus on history or memory. They are Robert Andrade, Janelle Iglesias, Joshua Moreno, Shirin Towfiq, Allison Wiese, Chantal Wnuk and Joe Yorty.

"Partially Protected (Process Collage)" is a digital collage by Robert Andrade.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth Rooklidge)

“The material they chose and the ways they used them were really surprising,” she said. “One artist [Iglesias] found and was inspired by images of palm trees, from very old photos of La Jolla from when it was first built, and postcards from the early days. They document the labor and the process of planting palm trees and palm trees being lifted by helicopter. … They are an icon of La Jolla but take an enormous amount of money and labor to maintain that image.”

When thumbing through the photo albums, another artist, Towfiq, noticed the backs of photos and thought they were more interesting than the sides with the image because “they have water stains, adhesive marks, writings by unknown persons, residue from photo albums,” Rooklidge said. Towfiq “liked the idea of how memory travels across time and the traces it picks up along the way” and scanned the backs of photos and printed them on glass.

Additional pieces look at La Jolla’s LGBTQIA history, how the concept of home can mean safety for some and loss for others, La Jolla’s Shell Beach and more.

“The exhibition speaks to the complex history of archives,” said La Jolla Historical Society Executive Director Lauren Lockhart. “What’s most exciting to me about this approach … is that it offered the artists the chance to reinterpret familiar histories and highlight some not present in our collection.

“The discoveries made by the artists led me to think about our archive as a living, breathing entity that the Historical Society, as its steward, is responsible for helping to nurture and evolve over time. And what better way to do that than to use artistic interventions to invite new interpretations of our materials, as ‘Memory Traces’ does. And ultimately, as Elizabeth has stated, these artistic interpretations reinforce the importance of keeping memory alive.”

According to the Historical Society, the exhibit draws its title from a 1925 essay by neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in which he explored the way remembrance functions. Observing memory’s natural inconsistency, Freud used the term “memory trace” to signify a note made to serve as a future reminder, an aid to maintaining a clearer picture of the past.

An archive traditionally has functioned similarly; it is a collection of materials compiled over time to constitute a representation of history. Together, the materials — or memory traces — establish a kind of collective memory.

"The Beach That Dares to be Different" is a graphite-on-paper work by Joshua Moreno.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth Rooklidge)

“This range of subjects … questions this long-standing concept we have of an archive as a tool for keeping a truthful record of history,” Rooklidge said. “It makes up a collective memory that we think of as the truth but is shaped by the underlying systems of power in our culture. The seven artists in the exhibition have interpreted this and created themes that range from the deeply personal to urgently political in an array of mediums. They are getting at some challenging issues of post-colonialism, erasure of Indigenous people or land use, and lighter subjects like the history of theater. I hope the visitors will think more critically about the assumptions we make about how history is recorded and how memories are made.”

‘Memory Traces: Artists Transform the Archive’

When: Feb. 5 through May 15

Public hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays

Where: Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St., La Jolla

Cost: Free

Information: (858) 459-5335, lajollahistory.org

Updates

2:50 p.m. Jan. 20, 2022: This article has been updated to correct the first name of artist Joe Yorty.