Painting the Landscapes and Cityscapes of California
by David Oehler BA ’14
The oil paintings of Jake Longstreth BA ’99 are quiet and spare, but also beautiful. Sometimes, they’re even a little funny. Gorgeous Southern California vistas are paired with parking lots. Expansive blue skies illuminate fast-food restaurants devoid of people. The familiar facades of aging retail chains grace suburban strip malls.
“I’ve been interested in corporate subject matter going back to Lewis & Clark,” says Longstreth. “My senior project was six paintings of my friend Adam eating a cheeseburger at Wendy’s. My artist statement was just a quote from McDonald’s. Very bleak. But there’s something about corporate retail that’s very specific to our time and place. I think it’s resonant and a little bit funny.”
Longstreth says he got serious about painting at Lewis & Clark, where he majored in studio art. “[Professor Emeritus] Phyllis Yes was my painting teacher, and she was great,” he said. “She was pretty hands off—she let me pursue whatever subject matter or stylistic approach interested me. Then I could drill down. It was a good fit for me. I remember being very engaged with the work I did.”
At the start of his career, Longstreth was able to make ends meet delivering pizza while he gained experience as an artist. “I knew there were people who had careers selling art, and I wanted to do that,” he says. “I did a ton of shows at coffee shops and restaurants in Portland. I was able to break even on painting pretty much immediately.”
Today, Longstreth is a successful painter based in Los Angeles. Much of his work depicts natural landscapes and the plant life native to Southern California. “I’m basically obsessively painting the trees,” he says, about his current work. “There are pines, palms, and eucalyptus, which are foregrounding the kind of arid, Chaparral-studded hillsides of Southern California. And there’s a smoggy, atmospheric haze overhanging all of it. The air is what makes it for me. It’s the sense of light and air that makes or breaks a landscape painting.”
If viewers are looking for a through line in Longstreth’s recent work, they would probably point to that special atmospheric sense of air. It’s a prominent feature in both his landscape and plant life paintings, as well as in his other focus area, commercial architecture. He says these are “the two main threads” of his work.
The commercial architecture thread was the focus of a recent show, Seasonal Concepts, which was exhibited at Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles in fall 2021. Familiar brands like IKEA, Chuck E. Cheese’s, and Olive Garden figured prominently in several works.
One painting, titledBuddies, depicted men in military fatigues congregating outside of a Chili’s grand opening. “I was just going for it with that one,” says Longstreth, chuckling, “I thought, ‘Let’s go maximalist American painting.’ And yeah, the painting would have been much different if everyone was just wearing street clothes. On a formal level, I just liked the camo pattern. I remember my art dealer saying, ‘So a lot of people aren’t sure about that painting. The politics.’ And I asked, ‘Well, what are the politics? Is it a critique of U.S. empire, or do they think it’s pro-military? You tell me what the politics are.’ To me, it’s like the rest of my work: It is what it is.”
After his graduation from Lewis & Clark, Longstreth earned an MFA at the California College of the Arts in 2005. In the years since, his work has been displayed in galleries in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Beijing. He’s currently working on a portfolio of work for two more shows, one in Brussels, Belgium, in April 2022, and the other for New York’s Armory Art Fair at the Javits Center in September 2022. More information about Longstreth and his work can be found at www.miergallery.com.