The only thing really wrong with "Sunshine and Shadow: Recent Painting in Southern California," at USC's Fisher Gallery, is that it's just one show. The exhibition should be the beginning of a series, an annual affair or an inspiration for other equally judicious samplings of Los Angeles art.
Art professor and historian Susan C. Larsen has selected 32 recent paintings by 29 artists for a small survey that cuts across boundaries of age, recognition and style. She presents a strong image of Los Angeles painting, but if space allowed she could have ferreted out another 29--and possibly another 29 after that--without sacrificing quality.
The show, as it stands, is a celebration of cultural and stylistic complexity within the traditional framework of painting. That so many good painters were left out is less a weakness of this particular assembly than a testament to the Southland's overflowing pool of talent.
The venerable old guard is singularly represented at USC by Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park No. 135," surely one of the most delectable abstractions he ever painted. It follows a familiar Diebenkorn format--capping a vast expanse of luminous blue with a high horizon line of architectural allusion--but presents it as a freshly thought-about, lucidly realized concept.
Joining forces with Diebenkorn's work are other mainstays of Los Angeles painting: Ed Moses' muscular abstraction, stated in a vocabulary of slashing acrylic strokes and diamond patterns on stair-stepped panels of raw mahogany; William Brice's soft gray memories of antique sculpture and architecture; Charles Garabedian's eccentric visions of headless "Greek" figures engaged in ritual activity.
Craig Kauffman weaves a pink chair into a characteristically elegant gridded abstraction; Ron Davis shows a splashy but unimpressive canvas; Llyn Foulkes combines an ominous, black-and-white landscape with searching poetry in "Ghost Hill" and Joe Goode evokes dangerous beauty in an orange "Forest Fire."
All these works hang together in one large gallery, apparently grouped as a foundation for the spectrum of the remaining exhibition--encompassing everyone from mid-career artists who are as accomplished and nearly as celebrated as the big boys to relative newcomers. We find the solid, energetic abstractions we have come to expect from Margit Omar and Karen Carson, along with less familiar pieces such as Luis E. Serrano's darkly mysterious interior.
No consensus of style or attitude emerges from this selective overview of recent painting in Los Angeles, nor is one intended. The thesis of the show is vitality and diversity, and it's amply substantiated.
Rigorous formality exerts its staunchest state of perfection in the canvases of James Hayward and John Miller. Peter Plagens follows his private muse, now making his broken-ring trademark encircle an irregular cross of colored shapes on a warm beige field that shields explosive underpainting.
Among figurative works, poignant romance lives in Dan McCleary's lovely "Woman in the Garden," mystical energy in Tom Wudl's quivering "Yoga." An ominous hush emerges through acrid light in Candice Gawne's impastoed landscape, called "Rush Hour."
The "Sunshine and Shadow" referred to in the exhibition title may be rather obscure to casual viewers, but it's an important issue to aficionados. The matter goes beyond obvious contrasts of dark and light sensibilities; it addresses Los Angeles' stereotype as the origin of a cosmetic-conscious, slick-surfaced art made by hedonists whose brains have been barbecued by too much summer.
Stereotypes die hard, particularly when they grow from a shred of truth and trenchant observation. But, by now, it seems that the '60s art that so suavely got at the essence of Southern California's light and our fascination with cars, movie stars and gorgeous appearances has perpetuated one aspect of a varied scene to the exclusion of all others. If the real Los Angeles art scene ever stands up in the nation's consciousness, it will be due in part to such efforts as "Sunshine and Shadows."
The exhibition, through Feb. 23, is sponsored by the Fellows of Contemporary Art.