Cybele Lyle: Lured to the Local

New Takes

Cybele Lyle: Lured to the Local

By Kelly Kirkland October 30, 2018

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

Desert (n): Arid land with sparse vegetation
Desert (v): To leave without intending to return

As anyone who has returned home after a period of time away would know, things never quite remain the same way you left them. The Los Angeles–based multimedia artist Cybele Lyle grew up in Pasadena, California, with the San Gabriel Mountains in her backyard. Nothing embodies Los Angeles’s curious topography the way this location does: look east and this picturesque backdrop opens onto the vast Mojave desert; look west and the hazy lights of Hollywood glimmer through the smog. After attending schools in Ohio, New York, and San Francisco and living in Oakland, Lyle now makes work in L.A.’s Fashion District, creating installations out of fabric she has purchased from a local store for three dollars a pound. Location is at the center of her recent series, The Desert in Four Parts (2018), currently on view at Et. al etc., alongside photographs from Lyle’s Untitled (Desert Series) (2018). In these works, Lyle renegotiates her relationship to the rapidly changing landscape of her childhood home: “I feel like I'm seeing a place I've known forever for the first time.”1 

In the gallery, six rectangular wooden structures draped in layers of painted fabric lean against three walls. Each piece stands upright, approximately ten feet tall and five feet wide, occupying a space somewhere between painting and sculpture. Rather than being affixed to the walls, Lyle’s fabrics hang gently off movable posts that slant ever so slightly into the room, extending the space toward the viewer invitingly. The first piece, The Desert in Four Parts (1), consists of a warm-orange fabric rectangle with a white crocheted cloth slung on top and cascading down to the right. The two swathes of material are delicately attached together by a single safety pin in the center, creating a wrinkled pinch where they meet. Emblazoned on the orange fabric is an outline of where the crocheted one once hung; a smoky rim of black surrounds the outline, giving the impression that it has been burned. The result is an elegy to evidence. 

Cybele Lyle. The Desert In Four Parts (1, 2, and 3), 2018; installation view, The Desert In Four Parts, Part 1: Between What Came Before, 2018. Courtesy of Et al. gallery. Photo: Aaron Harbour.

I am reminded of prehistoric hand stencils on cave walls, one of the earliest forms of mark-making, in which artists would place their hands on a surface and blow pigment around them, creating a negative-space imprint that connotes: “I was here.” Lyle’s high-contrast mark-making also recalls early photographic methods, such as Niépce’s shadowy heliograph View from the Window at Le Gras (1826), one of the first fixed-image exposures. The crocheted fabric bears traces of green and red ink—perhaps a regional homage to the Mexican flag or a far less symbolic expression of naturally occurring desert hues. The following five pieces continue in the same vein, with varying combinations of shades, brushstrokes, and textures. The Desert In Four Parts (3) and (6) incorporate the same overlay technique as (1), making visible the material that left its mark, while (4) and (5) speak more to absence, highlighting the outlines of fabrics that no longer exist and dividing the surface into Rothko-esque color fields. The Desert In Four Parts (2) stands out from the rest: a slimmer drape of cloth is slung squarely down the middle of the frame, cascading like a waterfall of iridescent blues, yellows, and greens. 

Lyle’s works at Et. al etc. hover between what is seen and what is implied. They incorporate overlay and cutaway patterns, leaving traces of paint and outlines of negative space where something once was. Similarly, her inkjet prints employ a deliberate revealing and obscuring of landscape. Three pieces from Lyle’s Untitled (Desert Series) hang in the back room of the gallery, offering an alternate vision of Lyle’s land. While the prints appear to be of typical desert vistas, the majority of each frame is obscured by a pinkish-white wash. Here, the artist hesitates to claim knowledge of the places she represents. Recognizing that untouched photographs are often considered stand-ins for objective truth, she instead embraces the image as an unknown. What is absent suddenly becomes more intriguing than what is presented to the eye. Singling out a glimpse of blue sky here and green shrubbery there, Lyle reframes landscape as a selectively personal experience.

The threshold between the known and unknown, or the static and the mutable, is made tangible through Lyle’s architectural frameworks. The wooden frame is a recurring element in Lyle’s practice: in a 2014 show at Et. al, entitled The Moon Is Slowly Rising, a series of wooden structures intersected the room, re-drawing the traditional white-wall- bounded gallery into a playfully open perspectival experiment. Similarly, Everything I’ve known I have forgotten (2016), created for di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art’s exhibition, Radical Landscapes, features a landscape photograph blown up to massive proportions and disrupted by white paint. Wooden beams protrude from the wall-mounted image, extending the work three-dimensionally and supporting it at the same time. Like the scaffolding found on construction sites throughout the city, these wooden frames are foundational but necessarily unfinished. Lyle’s disinterest in architectural certainty allows for a more flexible inhabitation of space—one that does not build exclusionary boundaries but rather makes room for multiplicity within existing spaces.

Cybele Lyle. The Desert In Four Parts (4, 5, and 6), 2018; installation view, The Desert In Four Parts, Part 1: Between What Came Before, 2018. Courtesy of Et al. gallery. Photo: Aaron Harbour.

In the introduction to The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, the art historian Lucy Lippard establishes place as the locus of desire. She writes, “Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there.”2 Lyle’s work, I argue, is not located in the layers of fabric and paint but rather between them, in the gaps between past and present, absent and present, and history and memory. Lured back to her desert home by the desire to inhabit the formerly known, Lyle has peeled back the paint and invited us in to take a look.  

The Desert in Four Parts, Part 1: Between What Came Before was on view at Et al. etc. in San Francisco through October 27, 2018.


  1. From an email to the author, September 27, 2018.
  2. Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997), 7.

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