‘Heaven ’N’ Earth’: Sayre Gomez blurs the reality and illusion of Los Angeles

Sayre Gomez’s ‘Heaven ‘N‘ Earth’ at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels explores the contrasts between wealth and poverty, reality and illusion in Los Angeles

Photograph of destroyed car against backdrop of city skyline at sunset, from Sayre Gomez ‘Heaven ‘N‘ Earth’ exhibition at Xavier Hufkens
We Pay Cash, 2023, acrylic on canvas
(Image credit: Photo credit: Morgan WaltzCourtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels)

‘Heaven ‘N‘ Earth’, Sayre Gomez’s latest exhibition at Xavier Hufkens, begins with the former. Under the celestial glow of the gallery’s top-floor skylight, a meticulously crafted model of a ramshackle two-storey clapboard house occupies the floor’s centre, surrounded on four walls by photorealistic paintings of perfect Californian sunsets.

Scale Replica of the Past, Present and Future (Peabody Werden House) is a recreation of a historic house built in the Boyle Heights neighbourhood of LA, shortly before the turn of the 20th century. When funds for its restoration dried up in 2016, the house was simply lifted off its foundations and moved across the street to make way for a new apartment block.

‘Heaven ’N’ Earth‘ by Sayre Gomez at Xavier Hufkens

Sayre Gomez photograph in gallery, of dumped rubbish and rough sleeper

Family Room, 2023, acrylic on canvas

(Image credit: Photo credit: Morgan Waltz. Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels)

As an accidental monument to LA’s spiralling gentrification and displacement problems, the house symbolises Gomez’s key concern with mapping the physical and spiritual spaces left in the wake of the city’s rampant urban development. Fittingly, residents are absent from any of the work and yet traces of their unseen lives are everywhere.

On the floor below, Gomez’s simulacral renderings of glass emergency doors evoke the eeriness of a decrepit strip mall. Gomez infuses the surface of each painting with tactile signs of wear and ageing, further evidence of a neglected world and the ephemera of commerce that survives it.

Sayre Gomez photograph on gallery wall, showing industrial equipment against city skyline and mountains beyond

Progress Maker, 2023, acrylic on canvas

(Image credit: Photo credit: Morgan Waltz. Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels)

Gomez revels in this blurring of artifice and reality and in the home of Hollywood perhaps this should be expected. In addition to the trompe-l'œil of his glass doors, Gomez digitally manipulates other paintings by collaging photographs and adding airbrushed details to create symbolically resonant compositions.

Large-scale works like We Pay Cash and Progress Maker (both 2023) fuse a foreground of destruction and dinginess with the gleaming glass and steel backdrop of downtown LA’s skyline. In Progress Maker, the hulking form of a concrete paving machine recalls the tractors in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, steamrolling communities in the name of profit and fortifying the boundary between rich and poor. 

Sayre Gomez in studio

Sayre Gomez

(Image credit: Portrait by Sam Ramirez. Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels)

These contrasts between centre and periphery, wealth and poverty, reality and illusion, underpin the exhibition as a whole, offering a poignant reflection on a city where homelessness has grown by around 80 per cent since 2015. Nowhere does this feel more stark than in the gallery’s basement, where the lightwell glass has been tinted orange to infuse the space with an infernal incandescence.

Adding to the sense of catastrophe are two paintings of shopping trolleys, somewhat of a recurring motif for the artist and a ubiquitous sign of LA’s nomadic homeless. Here Gomez presents them on fire, and in direct dialogue with a sculpture of a blackened and melted electric car charger. Down in the basement these powerful portents of climate change and petrochemical nihilism are the proverbial Earth to the upper floor’s heaven. The reality feels much closer to hell.

Sayre Gomez, ’Heaven N‘ Earth’, is on display at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, Belgium, until 2 March 2024 xavierhufkens.com