Pure light and space became a serious aesthetic vehicle in '60s Southern California. Such phenomenon-based art flowered here in the work of chaps like Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, but they had artistic ancestors. Painter John McLaughlin is frequently noted. Another less obvious precursor is June Wayne. At 80, she's something of a phenomenon herself.
Her work is reviewed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in "June Wayne: A Retrospective." About time, too. Rarely seen in her adopted hometown, this cultural trailblazer has achieved more than this artistic accolade.
In the '40s, she fought a City Hall that thought modern art was a Commie plot. In 1960, she founded and directed the nonprofit Tamarind Lithography Workshop. It literally saved an endangered art form. She was wife, mother and general family care-giver while actively championing feminist aims, inspiring such kindred younger spirits as Judy Chicago.
Wayne is like a Renaissance figure reincarnated as a scrappy Depression-era Chicago school dropout fending off wise guys while reading John Donne. The exhibition shows her no-guff human side best in "The Dorothy Series," a portfolio of graphic-nostalgia-style prints dedicated to her mother. Its least typical but most mordant image is a Pop-literal picture of a brassiere titled "Power Net." It takes on greater resonance knowing Wayne's divorced mother was a traveling saleswoman of wares then called "foundation garments."
Wayne's opus reveals an artist with an almost problematic range of skills and stylistic virtuosity. A 1957 watercolor self-portrait combines the slightly fin de siecle poetry of James Ensor with adamantly flawless technique.
This machined perfection is Wayne's most consistent hallmark. It puts one in mind of an optical trickster like Victor Vasarely. By contrast, however, Wayne is a humanist. Her '40s-era biomorphic Surrealist variations on artists like Matta and Miro contradict their spooky, ectoplasmic figures with personages that look like lathed metal. Not that she couldn't do them flat, as in "Kafka Symbols, Second Variation." She can do anything.
Anything, that is, except make endearing, cuddly art. The best expressive vectors of her aesthetic are power, mystery and--properly employed--sardonic humor. Her "The Ladder" looks like Hieronymus Bosch satirizing a now-debunked Darwinian notion that humans are the top species.
Wayne's perfectionist style drew considerably more recognition for the '60s "Finish Fetish" art of Billy Al Bengston and his mates at the Ferus Gallery than for herself. Translating techniques similar to Wayne's into macho hot-rod and surfer subculture icons, the boys profoundly irritated female artists who were actually related spirits.
The differences between Wayne and the Ferus studs were probably less a question of gender than generation. While they applied industrial techniques to Pop culture, Wayne retained the expressive vehicles of high culture--drawing, painting, printmaking, tapestry and sculptural relief.
A print such as Wayne's 1973 "Time Visa" seems to mark a chronological crossroads. A hugely enlarged fingerprint floats like an egg-shaped planet in a galactic void. At a distance, its colors look like candy-apple metal flake. Such work stakes her prior claim to art developed by younger talent.
Wayne's subsequent work simply elbows its way into the hippie generation. Her series in metal leaf on gesso and shallow styrene reliefs can be related to Mary Corse's light-reflective compositions. A question inevitably arises about whether Wayne was playing catch-up or legitimately extending her own sensibility. The answer wafts from her late '40s work. Long-standing interests in physics and natural science drew her to imagery of galactic vortexes such as "The Tunnel." Combining fingerprint and void results in an ongoing rumination on the interchangeability of microcosm and macrocosm--a concept less hackneyed when pictured than when spoken.
In these parts, preoccupation with natural forces comes with the territory. Wayne's recurrent series on great orgasmic waves are, I think, her way of translating Abstract Expressionism back into the phenomenal environment.
"Tenth Wave" is a particularly striking example of the artist's Leonardo-esque mentality. An apocalyptic tidal wave simultaneously suggests the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion, the Rorschach blot of psychological subjectivity and--intriguingly--the notion of art made less by human effort than by calculated chemical reaction.
Finally, however, it seems to me that basing Wayne's distinction solely on a contribution to subsequent L.A. art misses the point. After all, L.A.'s environment did more to form Light and Space than she did. Wayne's uniqueness lies precisely in her departures. She offers a fruitful alternative model for the artist. Never allowing a signature style to imprison her, like a creative scientist she investigates her ideals and passions even when they lead her out of the studio. She does more than make superior art in Los Angeles. She helped mold its larger culture.
The exhibition was organized by Lucinda H. Gedeon for the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York and coordinated here by LACMA curator Victor Carlson.
* "June Wayne: A Retrospective," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.; Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Ends Feb. 14.