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True to a Significant School

Faculty and alumni have joined a show on freewheeling Chouinard's place in Los Angeles art history.

July 01, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Chouinard Art Institute closed its doors 29 years ago, but it refuses to die. Even if the building on Grand View Street, just west of downtown Los Angeles, is now the home of the Korean American New Times Church and the school has long since evolved into CalArts, way out in Valencia, fond memories of the long defunct school pop up in nearly every panel discussion, symposium, lecture and article on L.A.'s art history.

Still, there has never been a Chouinard love fest like the exhibition of works by 137 former members of the school's faculty and student body scheduled to open Saturday and run through Aug. 26. Presented by the Chouinard Foundation--a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving and expanding the legacy of the school's founder, Nelbert Chouinard--and sponsored by the Oceanside Museum of Art, "Chouinard: A Living Legacy" is a three-part show. "The Early Years: 1921-1945" will be at Palomar College's Boehm Gallery in San Marcos; "The Middle Years: 1946-1955," at Mira Costa College's Kruglak Gallery in Oceanside; "The Last Years: 1956-1972," at the Oceanside Museum of Art.

Chouinard's staying power is largely due to the stellar roster of artists affiliated with the school during its 51 years of operation, from 1921 to 1972, and its role in shaping Southern California Modernism--in all its eclectic manifestations.

Rather than being identified with a particular style, the school is remembered as a freewheeling environment that fostered creativity while training everyone from painters and sculptors to animators and fashion designers. It also inspired fierce loyalty, evidenced by the large number of Chouinard students who returned to teach there.

Painters John Altoon, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, Matsumi Kanemitsu, Millard Sheets and Emerson Woelffer were among the faculty's leading lights, as were architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, Disney animator Marc Davis, costume designer Edith Head and critic Jules Langsner. In addition to those who had lengthy gigs at Chouinard, Russian-born sculptor Alexander Archipenko, French painter Jean Charlot, Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros and other international art stars passed through as visiting professors.

For many alumni, Chouinard (pronounced Shuh-NARD) was exactly the right place at the right time. Take Edward Ruscha, L.A.'s quintessential artist. He headed west in 1956, fresh out of high school in Oklahoma City and full of plans to become a sign painter. As he told the audience during an artists' panel discussion at the Getty Research Institute's recent "Media Pop" conference, he intended to enroll at Art Center School (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena). He was crushed to discover that the school of his dreams had no room for him, but it turned out to be a good thing. "Art Center had a dress code--no facial hair, no sandals, no affectations of beatnik culture," Ruscha said, rolling his eyes. After asking around, he landed at the relatively casual Chouinard, which suited him much better.

Robert Perine, a painter and graphic designer who lives in Encinitas, Calif., was slogging through required courses at USC on the GI Bill in the late 1940s when he decided to transfer to Chouinard. "I was in heaven," he said. "Every day I could draw and paint." In 1978, 28 years after his graduation, Perine was still so infatuated with the school--and so distressed by its transformation into CalArts, with the help of Disney money--that he began conducting interviews and compiling information for a book. "Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed," his chatty, opinionated but ambitiously researched account of the school's history, was published in 1985.

The exhibition is intended to "put Chouinard in its proper context as the vital Los Angeles art institution it was" and to give "full credit to Nelbert Chouinard, a woman who was ahead of her time," said Perine, who curated "Chouinard: A Living Legacy" with artists James Aitchison and Ed Flynn. It's the first public project of the 2-year-old Chouinard Foundation, and the organizers hope it will inspire other curators to delve into the school's history.

As for the founder, Nelbert Murphy Chouinard was born in 1879 in Montevideo, Minn., and studied art at Pratt Institute in New York. She moved to California in 1909 to teach design and crafts at the Throop Polytechnic Institute (now Caltech). In 1916, she married Horace "Bert" Chouinard, an old friend from Minnesota who was serving as a U.S. Army chaplain, and they moved to Washington, D.C. He died of cancer about a year later and Nelbert returned to California.

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