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Art Review

'California Paintings' Show Hits You Where You Live

September 08, 2000|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although none of the artists in "California Paintings, 1910-1940: Selections From Mills College Art Museum" is a household name, most of their works would look good in your home. To step into Loyola Marymount University's Laband Art Gallery is to travel back to a time when ambitious art was meant to be lived with. Strange as it may seem, that time is now.

For the last three or four decades, the idea that adventuresome art could appeal to adventuresome members of the middle-class has been unfashionable, especially among artists and viewers who like to think of themselves as avant-garde or at least on the cutting edge. Many still assume that for art to be interesting, it must offend the sensibilities of anyone so old-fashioned as to be satisfied by the comforts of home.

Contemporary art museums contribute to the devaluation of domestically scaled works by commissioning individual pieces that are larger than houses. This reinforces the idea that the intimacies of art experienced up-close and over time are passe and puny, irrelevant to a public weaned on the belief that bigger is better and fast is best.

But a growing number of artists are behaving as if art that hits you where you live is more powerful than art that distracts you while you shop. Although different in style and demeanor from the modestly scaled landscapes, still lifes and portraits in "California Painting, 1910-1940," the user-friendly works share many of the impulses that animate the accessible images in this perfectly pleasant exhibition.

Made up of predominantly Northern California paintings collected by Oakland's Mills College for the opening of its art gallery in 1925, more than half were donated by local philanthropist Albert M. Bender and his friends, many of whom were artists. No jaw-dropping masterpieces are to be found among the 35 oils on canvas and eight watercolors by the 35 artists that independent curator Ann Harlow has selected. But the everyday pleasures these earnest works deliver are considerable.

Most work slowly, forgoing the wallop of instantaneous gratification for experiences whose quiet intensity builds gradually. The more familiar you get with the best ones, the stranger they seem--in an endearing, often idiosyncratic manner.

Landscapes, both imaginary and realistic, steal the show. In the foyer, Chiura Obata's image of a snow-covered tree and swiftly running stream--painted in watercolor on silk--has the presence of an exhaled breath on a crisp winter morning. Its ethereal wafts of color also anticipate the effects of an airbrush, a technique that would bring similar imagery to customized cars, vans and motorcycles.

Laid down with the confident swipes of a loaded palette knife, Florence Lundborg's visceral picture of a mountaintop pine that has been struck by lightning marries the no-nonsense starkness of paint-by-number sets to the rigors of Modernist abstraction. In contrast, Emilie Sievert Weinberg's sweet little image of a farm's fields treats the countryside as a quilt patched together by a quirky colorist.

On first glance, it's easy to dismiss Maurice Braun's "Mesa Grande," Clark Hobart's "Up Carmel Valley," Eugen Neuhaus' "Monterey Bay," Lee F. Randolph's "Hills in Autumn" and Granville Redmond's "Marin County" as pat, standardized renditions of California Impressionism. But this catchall category fails to capture what is unique to their individual works: the various ways each plays with light, space and color, coaxing these intangible elements into deceptively straightforward pictures.

In a pair of understated canvases, Giuseppe Cadenasso turns the sharp focus of photographic close-ups to stunningly sensual ends. Likewise, Will Sparks' "Mission Chapel Near Ensenada" exploits the dramatic lighting of stage sets to give his nighttime painting the impossible clarity of a flash photograph shot with a telephoto lens. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to Xavier Martinez's shadowy "Water Carriers," but when they do, soft light spills from his humble picture of twilight labor.

The works that fall flat do so because they never get beyond the sentimentality of their subjects. Lacking formal acuity, a good number are corny if not downright hokey, including Elinor Ulman's clunky portrait of her gardener, Helen Forbes' bluntly illustrative "Julia, Piute Indian" and Gene Frances McComas' uninspired still life.

The two most intriguing paintings stand out by almost fitting in. Jessie Arms Botke's juicy image of a red-breasted pheasant reflected in an inky black pond filled with blossoming lily pads and John O'Shea's equally lush painting of a tree whose leaves resemble exploding fireworks have one foot firmly planted in the world of honest realism and the other in that of outlandish fantasy. Wearing their weirdness on their sleeves, these profoundly strange paintings depict a world that may be too beautiful to be true, but is too vivid to be anything but the real thing.

* Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, 7800 Loyola Blvd., (310) 338-2880, through Sept. 30. Closed Sunday-Tuesday. Free parking and admission.

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