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Laguna Art Museum : Once-frumpy Lady Now Has Style

September 20, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

A sense of deja vu wafts by as you descend the familiar stairs or enter the old central gallery of the recently expanded Laguna Art Museum. Otherwise, there are few reminders of the formerly frumpy institution.

Stylishly colored, carpeted and contoured, the new museum is a pink stucco box with a dramatic glass "greenhouse entry" that envelopes the original structure. Even the name is new, streamlined from the former Laguna Beach Museum of Art.

For people who haven't been watching the 18-month transformation on the corner of Cliff Drive and Pacific Coast Highway, it's as if a rumpled beige bag lady suddenly ducked into a beachside gazebo and emerged as a sleek, pink 'n' gray yuppie.

Revealed to invited guests last week and opening to the public Tuesday, the museum has been considerably enlarged and revamped by architect Paul Barnard. Keeping such projects in perspective, it must be said that the 20,000-square-foot Laguna Art Museum is still a relatively small showcase.

And it's not perfect. Containing stationary walls and mostly small galleries with low ceilings, it will neither be flexible nor accommodate the most expansive of contemporary artists' products. Lacking an auditorium, the museum will have to use galleries for performances and other special programs.

But the improvement is so dramatic that it seems inappropriate to dwell on shortcomings. The place has an appealing feel to it now--light, pretty and simultaneously cozy and sprightly. The pink museum seems to fit the neighborhood even as it distinguishes itself from the adjacent restaurant.

Michael Davis' indoor/outdoor sculpture, which seems to cut through the building and expose classical columns, Marlo Bartels' chunky mosaics and a temporary installation of massive figures by Fred Stodder lift the trendy building out of ordinary context.

Too bad the art inside is less interesting than the new look of the museum. The trio of inaugural exhibitions proves to be more a position paper than an art experience. In presenting "Early Artists in Laguna Beach: The Impressionists," "California Contemporary: Works From the Security Pacific Collection" and "The First Step: Photographs From the Collection" as its opener, the museum has simply staked out its territory.

Laguna plans to be a steadfastly regional museum by concentrating on Southern California art, including photography. It will balance its tradition of historical conservatism with an equal measure of contemporary exploration. That's a sensible stance, worked out by director William Otton to meet the needs of a conservative constituency and make use of the permanent collection while pushing forward into a more adventurous program.

The mix of old and new local art will shift from one exhibition line-up to another. Currently, tradition occupies center stage as the Laguna Impressionists' show (through Nov. 5) celebrates the museum's early history. Guest curator Janet Blake Dominik has selected 83 works by 30 artists. Combining paintings from the museum's holding with canvases gathered from private collections, she has focused on the period around 1918-1928 and on the artist colony that founded the museum during that era.

Taken at face value, these paintings are lovely, well-executed interpretations of an unspoiled countryside that rolled out like a lush carpet from mountain peaks to ocean. Franz Bischoff peered down on cottages nestled in a valley and painted them as an "Afternoon Idyll." Edgar Alwin Payne used his brush to chisel nearly sculptural views of snowcapped mountains and rocky cliffs. Other luminaries of the region--including William Wendt, Marion Wachtel and Clarence Hinkle--recorded sun-drenched landscapes in distinctive styles that shared an interest in representation through loose brushwork and high color.

Infatuated with the scenery and fresh air, the artists who gathered at Laguna seem to have poured as much adoration and optimism into their art as pigment. And why not? At the very least, they recognized the remarkable beauty of a place that was certain to be overrun with tacky houses, highways and shopping centers.

Their work is so self-assured and contented that it inspires nostalgia for a time that only lives in the imagination. The only problem with this art appears when you compare it to what was going on elsewhere.

When you consider that California's brand of Impressionism trails the French version by several decades and that it lags behind or parallels such modern watersheds as the Armory Show, the Russian Avant-Garde, De Stijl and the Bauhaus, you begin to realize just how provincial Laguna was in the early 20th Century. That fact doesn't render the art insignificant, but it does restrict its place to a chapter of regional history.

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