Artist Spotlight: Sterling Wells

Artist Visit by Chela Simón-Trench for Discover LA August 3, 2023

The Los Angeles River goes overlooked by most of the city’s inhabitants, but not by artist Sterling Wells. He has been painting urban waterways in LA for five years. With a floating easel contraption, Sterling wades into the wetlands with his watercolors to paint impressive conceptual landscapes. Sterling’s latest exhibition now at Night Gallery, “A New Flood,” has a few key components: a raft modeled by the artist, the paintings themselves, and the aura of his experience making work outside, the essence of the LA River.

Sterling at his Night Gallery show.

Sterling’s practice is rooted in the careful, sustained study of parts of Los Angeles that have been left to decay, filled with debris and muck. His paintings document the dedicated energy and attention that Sterling afforded to this forgotten place. A littered bag of chips is treated with the same magic and detail as a portrait by Gauguin might be. Sterling’s swirls of blue and green move into tide pools on the canvas–evoking a dream.

Painting by Sterling, La Brea Poppies with Sneakers, 2020. Photo courtesy of Night Gallery.
Sterling painting in the LA River. Photo courtesy of Night Gallery.
Installation view of A New Flood at Night Gallery.

LA city quite literally functions as the backdrop in most of his watercolors, where pieces of city life are seen in the distant background. The compositional contrast between the background of a city’s commercial buzz and the foreground of quiet tide pools is what interests Sterling most. He says, “I moved to LA because I thought it would be good for my work. These themes– the conflict and contradictions of the ecological crisis and LA city life– are in high relief here. People in this city really care about these same issues and can connect with the work.” Sterling says, “When I need to solve a problem, make something new, or feel inspired, I ride my bike along the bike path next to these urban waterways.”

Sterling sketching in Night Gallery.

Sterling is almost the method actor’s visual artist parallel– a method artist. He immerses himself completely in his environment to produce a careful, captivating canvas– a portal for the viewer into the moment in time where he sat in the LA River, painting in the tide pools.

Artist Visit August 3, 2023
Artist Visit June 23, 2021
Collector Visit May 25, 2021