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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Collecting's Human Touch : Irvine Exhibit Is a Proud Marker of the Past Decade's Growth in Tastes

September 28, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

One challenge in putting together a show about collectors and their holdings is keeping some sort of balance between personalities and objects. Do viewers care more about Ms. X, who divorced her faithless megabucks hubby, founded a successful widget company and breeds pit bulls, or the abstract sculpture she owns by artist Z? Well, hey, what's more popular, People magazine or Art in America?

When the subject is local collectors, the balance may be even more delicate. "Irvine Collects: 10 Years After"--at the Irvine Fine Arts Center through Nov. 7--serves as a hearty pat on the collective backs of Irvine residents, a proud marker of growth in collecting tastes since 1983, when the first "Irvine Collects" show was organized by the center. (Sue Henger, former museum editor at Newport Harbor Art Museum, curated both exhibitions.)

During the past 10 years, more art-collecting individuals and corporations have moved to the city, and two museums have put down roots in Irvine (the Severin Wunderman Museum, which memorializes the art of Jean Cocteau and his circle; and the Irvine Museum, a repository for California Impressionist paintings).

But whether the show offers proof of "growth" or expansion in local collecting in a grass-roots sense is an open question. Half the lenders to the current exhibition--drawn from 18 collections--are, or have been, involved in some facet of the art world.

In addition to the two museums, four lenders are present or past employees of art institutions (Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum, Ellen Breitman, director of education at Newport Harbor, Phyllis Lutjeans, former education curator at Newport Harbor, and Peggy Mears, former director of the Fine Arts Center), one teaches art history (Monica Rothschild-Boros), one is an art consultant (Dennis Hudson, a former Irvine resident), and one couple are art dealers (Susan and David Stary-Sheets).

A more hopeful sign is that, while the earlier exhibition was augmented with objects from collections in neighboring cities (such as Beacon Bay Industries in Newport Beach, and Saddleback College in Mission Viejo), the current show seems to be furnished exclusively with works owned by people who have lived or worked in Irvine.

The current version of "Irvine Collects" has roughly the same mix of nationally known and local contemporary artists as the 1983 show, although nearly all the names are different this time around. For some reason, UC Irvine--a major presence in the previous exhibition--is represented only with work by three current or former faculty members (Gifford Myers, Tony DeLap and John Paul Jones).

Novelties include several older 20th-Century pieces (two paintings by Millard Sheets, an atmospheric small work by Sam Hyde Harris and a seaside view by Alfred Mitchell) as well as artifacts from American Indian and other cultures (Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Mexico and Cameroon, in west-central Africa), most of which are collected by people who also own contemporary American art.

One exception is Sun Ten Laboratories, which specializes in 20th-Century Taiwanese works. The two samples on view are quite bland.

In Chen Tseng-whei's 1937 painting, "Lady With Orchids," a wistful young woman in a gray cheongsam holds a sprig of flowers. Taiwan was still under Japanese occupation in 1937; it would be interesting to learn whether political realities--or the influence of an allied but alien culture--had anything to do with this otherwise unremarkable portrait.

Rather surprisingly, "Irvine Collects" fails to reflect the influence of a decade of exhibitions at Orange County art museums--granted that newcomers can't be expected to have seen these shows.

One possible exception is Suzanne Caporael's weirdly plaintive 1985 pastel, "Stay the Night" (loaned by Doree Dunlap and Ed Dornan); the Los Angeles artist was the subject of a Newport Harbor "New California Artists" exhibition in early 1985.

Overall, there's a good deal of middle-of-the-road stuff, as well as some disappointing showings by significant artists. Short of begging for dinner invitations, there's no way to tell whether the collections are all fairly represented by what's on view, or whether some collectors declined to lend better pieces.

Happily, the collections of Peggy and Christopher Mears, Foresight Capital and a few others spice things up with adventurous contemporary works.

The Mearses loaned Kim Dingle's wonderfully deadpan "Great American Landscape"--a large painting of grass and sky with the names of likely details (dew, ducks, "unidentifiable rodent," Piper Cherokee, and so forth) written in tiny script.

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