If they didn't know better, visitors to the exhibition at Artspace in Woodland Hills might assume that a group show has taken root here. Throughout the gallery, the art and attitude seem to vary, now embracing landscape art, now veering toward abstraction, now dipping into the conceptual batter of Op Art.
But, of course, we do know better, and this one-man retrospective winds up being a twisting, suitably diversified tribute to a local artist and teacher, Alex Vilumsons, who died last year. The exhibition's title--"Process of Discovery--is a fitting one for an artist whose work seems to have been a long process of exploring and discovering new ideas in art.
In addition to the strength of his art, Vilumsons' influence was felt in the region; he was a teacher of note at UCLA and, more recently, at Everywoman's Village, which has assembled the exhibition. It serves as both a portrait of the artist over the decades and a case study of someone who opted for change rather than settling for a singular, logical path.
In the exhibition, Vilumsons shows recurring references to Picasso--that great 20th-century eclectic. An early portrait of a woman, from the '40s, echoes Picasso's pre-Cubist figuration, while a few works from the '50s seem to bow directly toward Picasso's collage aesthetic.
Although his straight-laced still-life watercolors dating to the '40s suggest a conservative hand, Vilumsons was pushing away from the literal by the '50s, and his paintings of Santa Monica Beach and Marina del Rey come replete with blurred edges and with visual details sanded down to an impressionistic finish. His watercolors from this period are marked by experimentation with seeping, blending colors.
Local color and topography are displayed in stylized ways that bespeak the artist's perspective as much as the scenery at hand. In the '60s, Vilumsons intensified the palette while moving further away from representational painting. In these scenes of Long Beach Harbor, of Venice or of oil fields, the landscape subjects have been reduced and redefined, as grids of geometric shapes laid out in a thick icing of pigment and crude checkerboard patterns: Diebenkorn in rough-and-ready 3-D.
Taking a sharper stylistic turn during the mercurial '60s, Vilumsons also made a series of pieces with a more conceptual spin. In these, he skewed the sense of perspective and the relationship of object to environment, making self-conscious statements about art's powers of illusion and optical hi-jinks.
He experimented with flat, box-like tableaux in which the subject is pushed up our noses, rendered fully frontal. In "Towards the Light," a fern is strangely placed in a shallow box, viewed as a kind of mystical emblem of natural forces encased in a constricted area. Often, a touch of Op Art trickery is at play in these pieces, as in "Interplay," in which a central red orb seems to quiver amid the backdrop of irregular squares.
From here, the exhibition jumps to the late '80s, and Vilumsons has returned to representational mode, but with a twist. Here, he takes to female nude subjects, with amped-up color schemes that are distorted in a way that implies the effects of florescent light or infrared photography.
The melancholy nude figure in "Summer Shadows" sits in a moodily-lit corner, framed in shadows and with her face obscured. This is art basking in fading light.
In one of the several artistic statements on the walls, Vilumsons is quoted as saying, "Painting does not begin as an idea . . . it ends as an idea; otherwise it would become an illustration of an idea."
There is a pervasive sense of a restless discovery process rather than a thematic thread connecting the varietal energies contained in this retrospective.
The show unfolds like a life story fueled by the pursuit of an idea or, more to the point, the energy source of an idea, which continually changes shape and direction. In other words, Vilumsons was a product of his time.
* WHAT: "Process of Discovery: Tribute to Alex Vilumsons."
* WHEN: Through March.
* WHERE: Artspace Gallery, 21800 Oxnard St. No. 110, Woodland Hills.
* CALL: (818) 716-2787.