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Art Review : Loose Survey Of Crown's Paintings

September 02, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

There may be a concise, respectable survey of Keith Crown's painting inside the great big flabby retro at the Municipal Art Gallery, but it's impossible to find it.

A tightly edited show would not prove the veteran painter to be a modern master or even a local luminary. It might, however, demonstrate that he has had more on his mind for the last 40 years than churning out colorful celebrations of landscape. The retrospective (through Sept. 13) cancels out Crown's strengths as a watercolorist by making him appear undisciplined--little more than a gussied-up John Marin.

A line of type saying "I arrived in L.A. the summer of 1946" leads into the show and sets us up for a personal saga. Instead we get incoherent clumps of work (occasionally accompanied by comments from the artist) arranged by medium or overlapping chronology.

A 1949 oil, "Redondo Beach Stonehenge," presents Crown at his most illusionistic, painting an imposing structure that recedes into the distance. Even in this early work, his tendency toward fussiness is evident. A little background figure and linear wave patterns undercut a powerful architectonic structure. Later, he couldn't resist adding feathers to paintings and giving his work the flavor of New Year's parties, complete with confetti-like showers of color.

By 1949, Crown had already turned from illusionistic space to flat abstractions of nature. He soon began willfully bending horizons, stacking landscapes that resemble striated cross sections and dividing scenes into cellular modules. He painted in oil and casein until the late '50s, when he shifted to watercolor, obviously finding it more compatible with his sensibility.

The best works shown are sparkling watercolors, often organized around a dominant line. "Edison Plant, El Segundo, Ca.," for example, presents a rather whimsical view of the power plant in a diagonally sliced composition. Traveling from Baldwin Hills to Nebraska City and from the Los Angeles International Airport to Illinois cornfields, he has turned all these places into splashy designs.

Crown has also tried his hand at other media. A folding screen is a clumsy disaster, but when he decorates lidded ceramic jars with wrap-around landscapes, he strikes a cheerful marriage of form and surface.

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