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TAKE IT SLOW : A Long Beach Exhibit of Morris Graves' Works Is Something to be Savored

December 19, 1991|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition

If you like your art exhibits slam-bam snappy, be warned: The only way to do justice to "Art as Meditation: Selected Works by Morris Graves" at the Long Beach Museum of Art (to Feb. 9) is to slow down, pay close attention and open yourself to a quietly harmonious fusion of nature and culture.

Born in Fox Valley, Ore., in 1910, Graves has spent most of his life (except for prolonged periods of worldwide travel) living in seclusion on the Northwest coast. His lifelong passion for living things and his study of Asian philosophy and art fed each other in paintings that express the mystery and brevity of life.

Graves' most important works date from the 1940s, when he virtually abandoned oil paint for subtle washes of watercolor and calligraphic brush painting and honed his mature repertoire of motifs: vessels, moons and animals (birds, fish, serpents). In his mid-30s--after teaching him self to paint, traveling as a seaman to the Far East and working for the Federal Art Project as an easel painter--he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to Japan, then still under U.S. occupation.

While waiting for the necessary clearances, he spent time at the Honolulu Academy of Art, making copies of Chinese bronzes in the collection. This study inspired "Han Bronze with Moon No. 1," from 1947, an elegant and luminous image of a tiny moon glowing in a rich golden sky above a massive oxidized bronze vessel in which a small fish swims.

For Graves--as he wrote in an exhibition catalogue the following year--the vessel symbolized "the psychic experience of the human race . . . in a state of disruption, overthrow, disintegration." Yet "the deeper inner waters" of the vessel "retain unruffled equilibrium" and the minnow, which represents human consciousness, "rises to the surface and is aghast at the state of affairs!"

The artist's early work, with its weird anatomical grafts and dreamlike space, reveals the heavy influence of Surrealist art. A few years later he would employ symbols that figure in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and borrow the spiky, weblike "white writing" of fellow Northwest painter Mark Tobey to create pockets of mysterious, unknowable space.

But Graves' legacy consists of much more than a handful of symbols. His gawky birds were in some ways corollaries of the artist himself, and by extension, Everyman: lone creatures making their way in the world. He had an uncanny ability to embody the ineffable, as in "Vessel Feeling the Grandeur of Space," from 1944. In that watercolor and tempera painting (in a tall format, like a Chinese scroll painting), a small watery pink vessel "bleeds" into a vast mauve-colored emptiness, animated by the elephant hide-like wrinkles of the paper.

Graves' other major obsession, particularly in recent years, is still life. "August Still Life," an oil painting from 1952, is a delicate and rhythmic composition in which fruits and a stalk of tiny flowers in a tall vase seem to float on a table that vanishes abruptly into a dreamy salmon-colored universe flecked with hints of the dark green paint underneath.

But most of Graves' flower paintings--painted in the '70s and '80s after a long hiatus from making art--tend to be disappointing. The artist's small-scale intensity dwindled into a tidy and pristine recording of visual information, too fussily self-contained to resonate the way his major works do. One exception is "Spring Bouquets" of 1977, in which the spacing of humble floral arrangements stuck into small bottles resting on clay-colored earth has something of the quiet, everyday poignancy of Italian 20th-Century still life painter Giorgio Morandi.

The exhibit, organized by Schmidt-Bingham Gallery in New York, has been augmented by some fine works from California collections, including the Long Beach museum's own tempera and ink painting, "In the Night," from 1943. Close scrutiny reveals delicately rendered insects and animals hiding out in the darkness, enveloped within a protective webbing of fine, pale lines, under the glow of a crescent moon.

What: "Art as Meditation: Selected Works by Morris Graves, 1932-1986."

When: Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. (Thursdays noon to 8 p.m.), through Feb. 9.

Where: Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Garden Grove Freeway East (Seventh Street), left on Cherry Avenue and left onto Ocean Boulevard.

Wherewithal: $2 general admission, children under 12 get in free.

Where to call: (310) 439-2119.

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