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The Court Painters

Inside Story

Three L.A. Artists Pay Homage to Their Adopted City

August 02, 1998|Patt Morrison

For too many years, the Hollywood sign has managed to bigfoot virtually every other image of Los Angeles, to become the city's visual resume. What it has obscured is the here-and-now L.A.--the lyrically modulated light of its palmy postcard vistas, sure, but the real city that labors and plays at the penumbra of those klieg lights.

That L.A. is acquiring its own court painters. They render it frankly and affectionately, in urban plein-air landscapes. They put to canvas the smog-hazed colors of its working-class cafes and bungalows, its gone-to-seed downtown splendors, the sun-and-shadow angles and colors of stucco walls and tile roofs.

These three artists, none of them native, are giving Los Angeles, in its third century, a canvas tour of its own undiscovered and uncherished self.

STEVE HODOWSKY

Stuck indoors during New Jersey winters, Steve Hodowsky used to order the Dodgers' yearbook just to look at the stadium--"something about those palm trees . . . . " And when he first visited L.A. with a girlfriend, "it was like I was meant to be here. I always say you can't get me out of here with a pitchfork."

The beach held no artistic interest. "I'm not trying to make pretty pictures. I'm trying to make pictures that are interesting to a certain mindset."

When he began to paint what he saw from his Santa Monica apartment, where he lived before moving to his current Beverlywood home, "people would say, like, 'Where is that? Is that Bermuda? I'd say, 'No, it's right behind your house. You just never looked at it.' "

Then he discovered R-1 L.A., Mid-City houses with deep-perspective lawns, Exposition Boulevard homes with odd topiary trees. "I've always been into suburbia. I understand the promise of suburbia--that everybody can have a little piece of the pie." And there is "something about the light here just makes things look better than they really do."

A few people have told him that his paintings of houses with closed doors and shuttered windows make them tense. That's part of the point. "It's like you're a total outsider" to the precise nature of L.A.'s suburban life, lived indoors and in backyards, in "the sanctity of that little unit."

SUONG YANGCHAREON

In art school in Bangkok, the other students were all caught up in abstract European conceptualism. But Suong Yangchareon, who spent much of his childhood in his father's movie house watching American films, "just wanted to paint pictures."

He was 22 when he came here, and "it was the old cliche. I really love L.A. Forget New York--California, this is it."

Then he spent too many years studying and working in commercial art, "stuff like taking the cracks out of Burger King buns in the ads," before he gave it up to paint his own work, available through the Mendenhall Gallery in Pasadena, the Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach and the Pratt Gallery in San Diego.

Enchanted by the city he saw from his Eagle Rock house, and from his car, he couldn't understand why others weren't equally charmed. "It's the backyard syndrome--you take it for granted, not see it or appreciate it." Take a favorite subject--downtown. It's "almost a desert, the buildings sticking out almost like cactus--the tallest cactus in the world."

His light-suffused, densely textured images "make people take notice of what they see." Some notice the trash cans, the cracked sidewalks, the faded signs, and say, "It's ugly, why would you paint that?' Other people look at it and enjoy it, appreciate it."

For himself, "it's the act of painting that I love . . . . My high is the middle of the process--I'm a little kid again. When I'm alone with that canvas, that's what happiness is about."

DANA TORRY

Dana Torrey learned his craft on a coast-to-coast learning curve, from plant science student at the University of Massachusetts to medical illustrator to Pasadena art student to Hollywood.

There he painted movie backdrops and scenic set designs, forced perspective, architectural trompe l'oeil and a compression of space that Einstein could appreciate. "All of that forces you to consider what something in the real, 3-D world looks like when you have to compress it to 2-D."

Moreover, the movie work took him to "every bizarre little spot, every nook and cranny of L.A." that now shows up in his work: Angels Flight, the Central Library, the curve of the 210 Freeway in Pasadena where local plein-air artists have been putting paint to canvas since the turn of the century.

The charm and appeal of that style contrasted with the meticulousness of his medical artwork but demanded more of his own imagination and style than did movie backdrops. "If you're illustrating something for a magazine, it often is very literal. If you can paint something that isn't so literal but captures the sense, the spirit of something, it allows viewers to attach their perception to what they're looking at."

High noon and twilight, l'heure bleu, are his favorite time/light/place combinations, although one winter morning "we had clouds, and I had to rush downtown to photograph them" for future painting.

"You're living in a city, but I love being outdoors, in nature, and L.A. is one of those few places you can be in both." at the same time."

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