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100-Year Survey Outlines Inescapable Emptiness

Art review: 'On the Edge' is disappointing despite the aesthetic and sociological interest inherent in frames.

July 09, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Look, I know times are tough in the nonprofit world. But when an art museum displays an exhibition on the history of picture frames curated for a commercial gallery by the owners of a period frame store, something is seriously amiss.

Actually, "One Hundred Years on the Edge: The Frame in America 1820 to 1920"--at the Laguna Art Museum's satellite gallery in the South Coast Plaza mall through Aug. 25--is disappointing on several counts, despite the aesthetic and sociological interest of the frames themselves.

Curated for Tatistcheff/Rogers, an art gallery in Santa Monica, by Tracy Gill and Simeon Lagodich, who restore and sell old frames in their New York shop, the show traces the evolution of home-grown frame design from its austere origins in the Jacksonian era to the sinuous carvings of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Once again (remember the Dr. Seuss show?) the museum takes a flat-footed approach to a subject that begs for wit and irony. After all, an exhibition consisting solely of empty frames is a funny sight on one level, a postmodern wink on another.

Surely there was a way to emphasize the frames without utterly ignoring the art they were designed to display. Particularly in the context of a gallery in an Orange County shopping mall, this omission recalls the cliched response of the art boor who cares more about the frame than the art.

Not only are there no real or reproduced works of art, but there also are no visual indications of the strong influence of architecture--including such giants of the field as Stanford White, who also designed frames.

It is tempting to envision a more ambitious, less self-serving exhibition that would use the design of such familiar household objects as picture frames as a springboard for investigating cultural norms and aspirations.

But even on the more modest level of this show, many chances were missed to demonstrate (rather than simply describe, as in Gill's catalog essay) the way frames reflect the aesthetic ideals and economic fortunes of their time.

The earliest frames of American (as opposed to European-inspired) design were simple models "resembling carpenter-crafted door or window frames," as Gill writes. Named for Philadelphia portrait painter Thomas Sully, these basic frames not only reflected the austere geometry of Greek Revival architecture but also suited an era when the customers of itinerant painters may not have had access to sophisticated craftsmen.

The most fascinating link between frame styles and contemporary viewpoints was a result of a widespread passion for land that gripped Americans especially strongly in the 1830s and '40s.

*

From the battle cry of Manifest Destiny--the self-proclaimed right to colonize the seemingly limitless virgin expanses of a still-infant country--to Ralph Waldo Emerson's espousal of a spiritual correspondence between man and nature, the great outdoors was Topic A.

A major catalyst for this vision was Thomas Cole (1801-48), author of dramatic paintings of the Hudson River Valley and an inspiration to numerous artists who tamed his charged vision into a more benign outlook.

In frames of the era, layered bands of naturalistic motifs reflected the traditional manner of organizing nature into receding planes; the top edge of frames from the 1850s typically contains a miniature token of nature: a gilded twig.

During the Luminist period of landscape painting in the 1860s, frames became more self-effacing. Continuous low-key ornamental bands and broad unadorned areas complement the smooth expanses of water in works by Fitz Hugh Lane, John Frederick Kensett and other painters the viewer is obliged to remember or imagine.

It isn't surprising that the robber-baron era brought with it garish taste in frames; like any nouveau riche, the wealthy of the 1880s and '90s were looking for something glitzy to go with the baronial furniture.

The advent of machine-stamped (rather than carved) ornaments made it possible to combine different designs (from basket weaves to "Egyptian" lotuses and mythological sea monsters) on a single frame. The resulting design overload is typically Victorian.

Happily, the American Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century introduced a new standard of hand-wrought innovation. The frames also apparently were made to complement the art they bordered, a fact viewers of this show have to take on faith.

*

Since the Laguna Art Museum's shopping mall satellite first opened more than a decade ago, the type of show installed there has changed radically.

When William Otton was director, the typical exhibition was of relatively conservative contemporary art. Charles Desmarais significantly upgraded the venturesome and quality quotients with exhibitions showcasing such distinctive artists as Paul Kos, Dawn Fryling, Jean Lowe and Kim Abeles.

But despite differences in taste, both directors seemed to view the space (at least that part of it distinct from the museum's ever-expanding store) as a contemplative oasis in the midst of a commercial emporium.

Now the satellite edges ever closer to being yet another commercial outpost (remember last summer's blatant commercial horror show, "The Imagination of Clive Barker"?). Despite the kernel of a good idea in the frame exhibition, it seems more akin to an infomercial than a museum-worthy look at a chunk of art history.

* "One Hundred Years on the Edge: The Frame in America 1820 to 1920" continues through Aug. 25 at the Laguna Art Museum satellite gallery in the South Coast Plaza mall, Suite 1000, 333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Sunday. Free. (714) 662-3366.

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