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ART : Still Cosmic After All These Years : Four decades after the Dynaton movement, Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican haven't stopped seeking new paths to awareness

January 03, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

When they converged in San Francisco about 45 years ago, Wolfgang Paalen, Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican wanted nothing less than to be image makers of cosmic freedom. The purpose of art, they thought, was self-transcending awareness. Steeped in Eastern philosophy, inspired by the Surrealists' encounter with the unconscious and uprooted by World War II, the three artists shared a vision of art's possibilities when they translated their beliefs into a movement known as Dynaton--but they were an unlikely trio:

* Paalen, the group's theoretician and senior member, was a cosmopolitan European who was born in Vienna in 1905, fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and emigrated to Mexico, where he published Dyn, an avant-garde art magazine.

* Onslow Ford, a well-spoken British painter, born in 1912, left a career in the Royal Navy to become an artist. He joined the Surrealist art scene in Paris in 1937, briefly returned to London during the war, then emigrated to the United States and lived in Mexico from 1941 to 1947.

* Mullican, the wide-eyed kid of the group, was 14 years younger than Paalen and Onslow Ford's junior by seven years. A native of Oklahoma and an obvious misfit in a provincial art scene that equated culture with American Regionalist painting, Mullican claimed two artistic accomplishments: He was an abstract painter, and he had cultivated a deep interest in American Indian art during summer vacations in Taos, N.M.

Mullican had come to the Bay Area in the late '40s in search of an urban art center. Onslow Ford had chosen Northern California to get in touch with nature and the Orient. But the two artists hit it off immediately. When Paalen came to San Francisco on a sojourn from Mexico, the three artists nurtured each other's desires to take Surrealism to a more profound level of expression.

They joined forces in 1951 in a landmark exhibition, "Dynaton" (named by Paalen after the Greek word for "the possible"), at the San Francisco Museum of Art. But the artists eventually went their separate ways--Paalen returned to Mexico, where in 1959 he committed suicide; Onslow Ford settled in Inverness, north of San Francisco, and Mullican moved to Los Angeles and taught art at UCLA. Meanwhile, the Dynaton movement faded from view while retaining its status as one of the West Coast's bright moments of modern art history.

That moment has been revived in "Dynaton: Before and Beyond," an exhibition of 60 works by the three artists, at Pepperdine University's Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art (to Feb. 21) and a related presentation at the Herbert Palmer Gallery (to Feb. 28). The exhibitions also have reunited Onslow Ford, 80, and Mullican, 73, the surviving members of the Dynaton movement, which provided the philosophical foundation for their subsequent work.

Together again for an interview at Pepperdine, the two artists still appear to be a rather odd couple. Mullican, who towers above the diminutive Onslow Ford, lounges on chairs that are always too short for him while his old friend sits at attention. Mullican rambles softly and erupts into laughter while Onslow Ford listens intently to questions and delivers carefully worded responses that often begin and end with "Yes."

But appearances are deceiving--in art as well as life--as the two artists point out in a wide-ranging discussion.

"Yes. All these images to a certain extent are images of ourselves; they're not something different from ourselves," Onslow Ford says, looking around a gallery filled with paintings and sculptures that might be called abstractions. Dots, spatters, spirals, starbursts and auras abound in Onslow Ford's paintings, while Mullican's work can be likened to energy fields. When human forms appear, they are radiant silhouettes, "guardians" or "personages," not representations of specific people.

"We're trying to find images we haven't seen before," Onslow Ford says. "To tell you the truth, we don't know what we look like yet. We haven't made an image of ourselves. I don't believe photographic images. They're quite unsatisfactory. They're very limited. Lee's 'Walking Man' is much closer because he's aware of the chromosomes and the inner structures," he says, pointing to a 6-foot-tall bronze that Mullican made in 1985.

"The Surrealists were interested in dreams, but we saw that the future lay in the realities behind dreams, which I call the inner worlds," Onslow Ford continues. "I'm more and more convinced that that's where art comes from. . . . The ideas, the insights come first. The matter--what you perceive--comes afterward. We're still making our way around how we see the world. The way we have been taught isn't very good, so we're having to change that."

The artists haven't come up with a term to describe what they're doing. "I talk about Inner Realism, but that's too boring," Onslow Ford says. "We have to find a word which is lively. Dynaton is a wonderful word, but that belongs to the past. Yes."

But is their art abstract?

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