The art museum at Pepperdine University looks like a modern medieval carnival, both delightful and haunted. Kids are sure to love it. Cutouts of life-size angels hover near the high ceiling. Lower, serried ranks of framed pictures resemble illuminated manuscript pages. In mid-gallery stands a colorful wood tableau of the Mad Hatter's tea party.
Wait a minute. "Alice in Wonderland" isn't medieval. That's right, and neither is the guy who made all this, DeLoss McGraw. A longtime, scantly noticed Southland artist in his mid-50s, he's finally accorded appropriate exposure in a 80-work traveling survey put together for the Scottsdale Center for the Arts by its curator Debra L. Hopkins.
"DeLoss McGraw: As a Poem, So Is a Picture" is an installation-cum-exhibition by an artist particularly devoted to literature. The subtitle, derived from the Roman poet Horace, recalls an ancient equation between pictures and verse. McGraw's work is inspired by writing, but he's not an illustrator.
The "Alice" tableau, for instance, bears no resemblance to John Tenniel's classic drawings. If it looks like anything else, it might be one of David Hockney's opera sets. McGraw is particularly inventive with characters seated around the table, such as Alice, the March Hare, the Dormouse and the Cheshire Cat. Figures fuse with chairs. Alice's head forms the back of one. In others, arms represent both chair and person with hands added. The device wonderfully evokes the unstable reality of Carroll's world. The whole piece tickles a wish to see more such inventive sculpture by this artist mainly known for works on paper.
McGraw is one of those chaps who achieves distinction by Osterizing such a variety of sources that he winds up looking like himself. Whiffs of Giotto, Chagall, Klee and Richard Lindner blend with a generic look of children's art, producing a new scent. The artist's pictorial naivete might be too coy if it weren't contradicted by a sophisticated sense of color and juicy handling.
Similarly, McGraw's visual suites are drawn from literary sources as wildly mismatched as William Blake, Mary Shelley, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. That's rather formidable company when you consider that Blake was his own artist and everybody else's prose is very visual. How does McGraw deal with that?
Easy. On evidence, the artist practices what Salvador Dali called "paranoid criticism"--that is, he personalizes his sources to match his own experience. Guthrie and McGraw, for example, share the hometown of Okemah, Okla. Steinbeck's masterpiece "The Grapes of Wrath" is, of course, about Oklahomans migrating to California. McGraw did likewise, studying at local schools and teaching at UC San Diego until he quit to make art full time in 1983.
The result of McGraw's Steinbeck-Guthrie musings is a suite called "Rambling Shoe" and a limited-edition book, "Hard Traveling." They blend the literary sources with the artist's own life and memories of his granddad in hard times, resulting in such images as "The Mocking of the Okie--After Giotto."
McGraw collaborates with contemporary poets. He and Pulitzer Prize winner W.D. Snodgrass have a long friendship that has brought forth such works as "The Death of Cock Robin." Poet and artist share a fey surface with dark undertones, so there are nice cross-disciplinary harmonics.
At UC San Diego, McGraw hooked up with writer and English professor Bart Thurber on a fizzled project to turn "Frankenstein" into an opera. One resulting image depicts Shelley as an angel holding Blake's face in her hands. He looks startled if not scared. The title is odd--"Mary Touches William Blake Without Sensuality."
McGraw's admiration for Blake produced a tour de force wall-size picture that seems related. The gold-ground composition shows a flying angel placed ambiguously between a delicate maiden and a strapping red-headed boar (pun surely intended). The title, "Interruption," seems to explain the action. It also acts as a reminder that McGraw's art rarely expresses passion. Exceptions go unconsummated.
At the same time, virtually every work is about confrontation. Figures of adults and children, angels and monsters, clowns and saints face one another, rarely touching, as if frozen. McGraw's people are weightless and without substance. An art that clings to childhood purity bespeaks something missed and is poignant.
An exhibition about the love of literature deserves a well-written catalog. This one is smart, affectionate, funny and devoid of artspeak. It includes contributions by the curator, McGraw's collaborators, America's poet laureate Robert Pinsky and writer Garrett White, as well as critics Robert L. Pincus of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Leah Ollman, who writes art reviews for The Times.
* Frederick R. Weisman Museum, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway; through Oct. 4, closed Mondays. (310) 456-4851.