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Art Review

Tracing the Influence of Romantic Art

May 03, 1997|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

The Pasadena Armory for the Arts' exhibition "Romanticism and Contemporary Landscape" is a thoughtful assembly of paintings, drawings and photographs by 10 artists. According to a handout sheet by exhibition curator Jaime Villaneda, the intent is to explore the continuing influence of the 19th century Romantic movement.

Villaneda's exhibition makes the point. All selected artists retain aspects of historical Romanticism--from its emphasis on imagination and sentiment to the curious sense of shadowed depression that marks so much of its art. Brad Durham, for instance, shows three big elegiac paintings, such as "Celtic Memory #4." They hark directly back to the French Barbizon landscape school, with its emphasis on back-lit silhouette and memories in the gloaming. They are done with virtually no reference to Modernist innovation as if, for the artist, it simply hadn't counted.

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Villaneda reminds us that Romanticism dovetailed with the Industrial Revolution, the beginnings of atmospheric pollution and the coming of urban slums. Thus Romantic glorification of nature's nobility was carried out with the realization that the landscape was endangered. That suggests an explanation for the downbeat character of both the original impulse and its spontaneous revival here.

In both, there is an emphasis on dusk, as symbol of an ending. The most pointed examples are David Bierk's sunsets. They acknowledge Modernism by superimposing lettered words like "Memory" and "Faith" over the scenes, in Jasper Johns fashion. Yet the most conspicuous aspect of these pictures isn't their subject matter. Significantly, they all share the funereal title "A Eulogy to Earth."

And even that is less important than the fact that they are painted to appear as if embalmed in layers of thick, yellowed varnish, long the cliched symbol of art that is over and done with. So what Bierk mourns is, by implication, not just the end of a day or a time--but as the approaching millennium seems to guarantee--the end of the romance of Modernism.

The painters on view seem particularly dispirited. The historical context suggested by Villaneda's organization links the show with more than just contemporary worries about ecology and musings associated with millennial change. It draws a crucial difference between 19th century Romantic painting and this painting. As pure painters, the old guys were just better.

As a pointed example, Myra Gantman's "Echoes #4" is a strange image of a dog who appears lost in a blizzard or heavy fog. He remains courageous even though the whole universe seems to be closing in on him. The piece comes off very well but with little thanks to its journeyman painting skills. It's hung in a wonderfully spooky cement corridor which--if memory serves--was once the armory's ammunition dump. Now it provides a setting that optimizes Gantman's work by turning it into a theatrical installation.

Don Suggs does something similar in "Clearing." He has filled a room-size space by drawing underbrush on a wallpaper of manuscript pages provided by his collaborator, poet Paul Vangelisti. The combination of text and image opens wide on the larger question of individual relation to nature. In a way, the rest of the artists provide their particular answers.

Carlos Almarez is virtually alone in finding magic in city landscapes. The pastels he left behind celebrate the urban night of Echo Park and freeway crashes that somehow cauterize as well as destroy. By contrast, John Huggins' photographs evoke the almost unbearable sight of dead squirrels, deer and birds lying innocent on the roadway. Anyone can understand the impulse to escape from such careless slaughter.

Hilary Brace gets away into the cloudscape, making pastels that seem observed in flight. Photographer Joel Aaron Glassman lies on his back staring serenely into tree branches above.

Diane Cook and Len Jenshel are a husband-and-wife team who photograph lava from Mono Lake to Hawaii, making this earth look as strange as the surface of another planet.

These neo-Romantics divide about equally between those who worry about nature with a kind of Wagnerian intensity and those who seem more serene. They sit under the trees reading Darwin and Freud. They realize that if our foolishness has set us on a collision course with nature, it's us who'll wind up as the poor little dogs' bodies beside the road. Nature will just roar on her way, creating as we cannot.

* "Romanticism and Contemporary Landscape," Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through June 8, closed Mondays and Tuesdays. (818) 792-5101.

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