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ART : Artful Look Back : The National Watercolor Society brings together award-winning works from 1955-85. Many of them had been in storage.

February 19, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

In recent years, Southern California art historians and collectors have begun to uncover the richness of our region's art history. With this newfound respect for California artists' contributions to the larger art world have come exhibitions of the work itself.

Last year, the Southern California-based National Watercolor Society, spurred on by Century Gallery's director, Lee Musgrave, decided to organize a show of award-winning watercolors from its annual exhibitions.

Known as the California Watercolor Society in 1921, it held its first exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, which would later become the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The work of 11 members and three non-members was displayed.

Every year since, the organization--which, due to its steady growth, changed its name first to the California National Watercolor Society in 1967 and then to the National Watercolor Society in 1976--has presented a show. Last year, for the 72nd show, jurors selected 75 watercolors from 1,409 slide submissions by artists from all over the country and the world.

The society has brought together almost 30 award winners in the exhibit, "National Watercolor Society Collects, 1955-85." It is on view at Century Gallery, an art space administered by Mission College that is in Veterans Memorial Park in Sylmar. Many of the watercolors had been collecting dust in an art storage company warehouse while on loan to the Laguna Art Museum.

"I like this show because of the historical nature, and the fact that the work had not been seen since it was first made," Musgrave said.

"It is a history of what was considered at the cutting edge at that time," said Jim Salchak, the society's president. "In the mid-'50s, there was a lot of experimentation. The society has always placed a strong emphasis on innovation."

Unlike typical watercolor shows that present images in bright, transparent colors full of light, many of the works here were made from various other, more opaque water-based media.

Challenging the boundaries of the medium, artists used gouache, casein, tempera and acrylics to tackle subject matter and create compositions in artistic styles not commonly associated with watercolors.

The standard watercolor impression--"with a brilliance to it like stained glass, which takes on a spiritual aura," Musgrave said--is hardly in evidence here.

Edward Betts used bold, opaque colors to convey a hardy rather than ethereal vibrancy to the abstract "Rocks and Snow" (1957). The rich color scheme of Jo Rebert's highly abstract "People in the Park" (1970) gives the work an electric quality.

Alexander Nepote employed rather somber tones in his nonetheless lively, completely non-representational "Traveling" (1955). So did Clinton Adams in his totally abstract "Desert Landscape" (1960), which conveys the volatility inherent in an arid, wide-open landscape. Helen Stanley's "Beatle Bug" (1984) is almost entirely confined to shades of black, white and gray.

Douglas Parshall heightened the mystery of his "Sculptured Cliff" (1962) and "Clam Diggers" (1964) by combining veils of transparent color with earthy hues. And in a more orthodox approach to the medium, David Solomon's 1976 "Corner Light" portrays that dreamy, nostalgic feeling one often wants from a watercolor as it captures a woman about to cross the street with a cart full of groceries after leaving a corner market.

Musgrave said visitors have been surprised by the unconventional nature of the show.

"We talk about the fact that this is not the traditional approach, and about investigating new possibilities in the media and how that can evolve into new directions," he said. "That's part of the mandate of this gallery, to function on an educational level. This show is a good example of that."

Also in the gallery are recent watercolor works by 11 artists, all of them regional representatives of the National Watercolor Society.

Where and When What: "National Watercolor Society Collects, 1955-85." Location: Century Gallery, 13000 Sayre St. in Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, through March 6. Call: (818) 362-3220 or (818) 367-8561.

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