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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Filling the Big Lull in Laguna : Works by Beach Artists From the '20s, '30s and '40s Break Up Summer Doldrums for Exhibits

July 06, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

In the weeks before two major exhibitions ("Terry Allen: Youth in Asia" and "Kustom Kulture") open at the Newport Harbor and Laguna Art museums, respectively, the Big Lull has settled over the Orange County art scene.

What with college and university galleries closed until fall, the pickings for choosy viewers are awfully slim. (I'll be taking a look at the plethora of juried shows next week, but you're on your own when it comes to summer exhibitions of California Impressionist paintings at the Irvine Museum and the Brea Cultural Center.)

However, if you happen to be in Laguna Beach before Aug. 22, a pocket-sized display of local art from the late '20s, '30s and '40s--the third installment in the museum's anniversary-year exhibition series, "Art in Laguna Beach, 1918-1993"--is worth checking out.

During the Depression and World War II, local artists--like most of their colleagues nationwide--ventured baby steps toward modernism or (more often) retreated to the conservatism of representational paintings. Rather than making grand but unsupportable aesthetic claims for the so-called California School--or simply hanging the works without comment--curator Susan Anderson offers a few wall texts (too bad there aren't more) that help put the period in context.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 7, 1993 Orange County Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
ARTIST'S NAME: "Thrifty Drug Store," a painting that is part of the "Modernism Into Regionalism: Art in Laguna Beach, 1920-1950" exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum, is by Elsie Palmer Payne. The artist was identified as Elsie Palmer in a review of the exhibit that ran in Tuesday's Calendar section.

She points out, for example, that during World War II, artists no longer were permitted to paint along the seashore, "for security reasons." So they found their subjects indoors.

The two women dancing together in Barse Miller's sketchy "Jitterbugs"--and the May-December pair of white-haired guy and platinum bombshell--testify to the man shortage during the war. Not that there weren't eligible servicemen in Laguna (which then boasted a USO): In Rex Brandt's "Horsemen at Mission Beach," two Navy guys horsing around on a carousel turn their attention to a woman in a green dress demurely riding sidesaddle.

Elsie Palmer's "Thrifty Drug Store," from 1945, recalls a time when drugstore eateries were hugely popular with just about everyone. Thrifty patrons include an epicine-looking fellow eating pie European-style (with a knife and fork), numerous hatted and turbaned women, and a guy wearing a cap and no jacket (unusual in this formal era) who ruminates over a cigarette.

The painting focuses on a smartly uniformed waitress who absent-mindedly mops the counter while holding, with her other hand, a plate of salad garnished with hard-boiled eggs. The young woman looks out into space in a way that dimly evokes Manet's bar girl in his famous painting "Bar at the Folies Bergere," filtered through a William Inge scenario or a B-movie plot.

You can imagine her daydreaming about becoming "discovered" in Hollywood, murdering her lover's wife, or simply getting off her shift. Anderson suggests that she might be "questioning the circumstances that sent women into blue-collar jobs during the war."

*

During the 1930s--perhaps due in part to women's new roles outside the home (and less restrictive, more revealing clothing)--national interest in outdoor sports and activities was on an upswing.

It was then that Laguna Beach began to develop an image as America's quintessential beach paradise, which dovetailed happily with the broad popularity of figurative painting. (In the late '50s and early '60s, however, when Venice Beach became the center of Southern California art activity, the new local aesthetic--which emphasized perception rather than storytelling--no longer neatly coincided with popular taste.)

The image in the exhibition that best captures the vintage Beach Capital, U.S.A., mood is Phil Dike's "Surfer" (also known as "Surf Riders"), from about 1933. Far above the sun-dazzled ocean, a tanned giant, toting his wooden surfboard on his back, pauses as he ascends the last steps leading from the beach.

Framed by another surfer and a hook-nosed older man in a smartly striped beach robe, the blond surf god is pure icon. A shadow renders his face featureless; one meaty, toe-less (amphibian?) foot is planted on the wood platform; and the late-afternoon sun behind him conveniently outlines the contours of his physique.

Several Laguna Beach artists, including Dike, Miller and Tom Lewis formed the Progressive Painters of Southern California in the mid-'30s. "Progressive," of course, was a relative term. Lewis's untitled watercolor of a fish on a platter shows off his technical mastery but the theme and the style were safely conventional.

Similarly, although Anderson writes that an earlier contingent of Laguna Beach artists "experimented with . . . Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Symbolism," such forays into styles that, for the most part, had been developed decades earlier remained tentative and genteel.

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