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Art Review : Astrid Preston's Pursuit Of 'Real'

March 07, 1986|ROBERT McDONALD

SAN DIEGO — Just a few years ago, landscape painting along with figurative painting and work that expressed feelings was regarded as fit only for commercial artists and amateurs. The human spirit, however, is perverse. There were always some artists who painted landscapes, even though they were out of fashion; some who used the human figure as subjects, and some who expressed strong sentiments. And there were collectors and a few critics who appreciated their work. Now all of these themes not only appear in the works of leading artists, but they are generally approved of.

"Real" artists follow their own vision, whatever the fashion might be.

Astrid Preston is a real artist. She paints landscapes and has painted them for some years. They are vehicles in which she encapsulates an attitude toward life and a world of feelings.

Her works are well-known in Southern California, whose "built environment" is the source of her imagery. As recently as two years ago, she was known for her paintings of 1940s and 1950s middle-class Los Angeles residences. In our youth, we may have yearned to escape from their seeming uniformity, but now in an age of more pervasive mediocrity in domestic architecture, we admire them for their individuality and even charm.

Preston painted her houses in enamel on the super-smooth face of inch-thick honeycomb aluminum panels whose edges she cut to follow the contours of her images. In some works she included the silhouettes of overlapping environmental forms, such as shrubs. These works had an eerie, chewed-up look, as if they were comments on the bite of reality beyond the surface of nostalgia and illusion.

In her second show at the Patty Aande Gallery (660 9th Ave.), Preston, as she did in her first show there a year ago, uses a similar vocabulary of images, although from better neighborhoods. She also uses traditional materials and format, oil on stretched canvas, and they are, as then, romantic in feeling. But this year's romanticism is that of the better bourgeois area of Santa Monica rather than the romanticism of Beverly Hills and Bel Air estates.

Last year a favorite subject was clouds, a traditional symbol of escape and inchoate beauty. Another was roads, which disappeared either into the edges of the canvases or into their centers, guiding viewers' eyes into illusions of infinity. In two of the most thoroughly romantic representations, roads led from the foreground into the middle ground, ending abruptly at walls. Viewers imaginatively scaled these barriers, however, and ventured into the trees, fields and sky beyond.

Cypress trees, which seem to be nearly as ubiquitous as palms in Southern California, appeared often. Preston used them for their formal elegance and as occasions for expressionistic painting, rather than as traditional symbols of mourning.

In her new "Night Paintings," the houses are less grand than last year's but solid, respectable. They emit a warm light gently pushing back the darkness, which is itself comforting rather than hostile. The feeling is of light and dark as complementary rather than contrasting values, of yin and yang representing wholeness.

It may be a coincidence, albeit a fortuitous one, that the artist made these paintings while expecting her first child. Or it may be another instance of the truth of the Italian Renaissance aphorism that all artists paint portraits of themselves--whatever else they happen to think they're doing.

These "Night Paintings," all beautiful, evince Preston's maturity as an artist and her mastery of mood. All include contrasts.

"In Crossing the Solitude" it is a contrast of palettes: a full one on the right-hand side and a monochromatic one with a little blue sky on the left. The difference is like that between a color photograph and a black-and-white, and the effect is like those wonderful moments when a black-and-white movie changes into color, as in "The Wizard of Oz." Three cypresses punctuate the middle of the canvas, either separating or joining life and death.

"Different Lights" is like a study in differing personalities, although no person is present. A small house on the left emits an orange glow through covered windows. It is a picture of coziness, but a tree associated with it in the foreground has an assertive presence. The house on the right emits a dazzling light beyond a looser, broader tree.

Variations on the theme of contrasts appear in "Veiled in Night," in which darkness surrounds a single source of light, and in "Night Shadows," in which light surrounds darkness. The complex middle area of this last, reductive painting ambiguously recedes and advances. It is a very painterly painting and very successful, possibly the masterpiece in an exhibition of very strong works.

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