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Go Figurative: Realism Returns to Art

Show * The Laguna Art Museum surveys 110 works by Southland artists who are revitalizing representationalism with new materials and styles.


Not long ago, a group of young artists rooted in realism worked virtually unnoticed in their studios, scattered across the Southern California landscape.

Now they emerge as part of a movement that combines realism with contemporary themes and twists.

Their works will be seen collectively for the first time in an exhibition opening Sunday at the Laguna Art Museum.

"Representing L.A.: Pictorial Currents in Southern California Art" surveys 110 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by 80 artists who prefer to create emotional images that clearly depict people and objects rather than abstract shapes and forms.

The show makes the statement: Representational art is back.

"I knew there was a reemergence of representational art since the 1980s, but I didn't realize how large the body of work was until I started doing this show," said guest curator Gordon L. Fuglie, director of the Laband Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The show is organized around nine themes: the artist's image, portraiture, identity, the body, narrative, city, landscape, still life and spirituality.

The neo-traditionalist artists use everything from paint to pubic hair in their works, which range widely in their sensibilities from traditional to edgy.

Llyn Foulkes' 1995 "To Ub Iwerks (Portrait of Walt Disney)" is a bizarre portrait dedicated to Iwerks, a pioneering animator who fell out of favor with Disney. In the piece, Disney wears a tweed jacket and is set against a barren landscape surrounding a sinking Fantasyland castle.

"The artists are looking at the wide world and representing it," Fuglie said.

The works cut a swath across Southern California's art scene within the last decade with artists from different ethnic backgrounds whose ages range from the 20s to 70s.

Mexican American artist Salomon Huerta's anti-portraits are views of the backs of shaved heads. They are "dressed as if they were lifted from out of a hip-hop concert," Fuglie said. "The thing with portraits is the engagement of the sitter and making eye contact with the viewer."

Artists who insist on producing figurative art are returning to the traditions of the 19th century master painters. After World War I, the art scene became increasingly dominated by the abstract style. Modernism distanced itself from classic traditions that were regarded as literal translations, or mimicking, of the real world.

"Albeit scorned and fragmented, figurative artists continued to practice and teach where they could, forming a sort of underground resistance movement to the imposed hegemony of Modernism," said director Richard V. West of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, where the show premiered. The show moved on to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi.

This third and final show at Laguna has 15 more pieces by 10 more artists than the previous shows, including works by Peter Milton, Don Bachardy, Patty Wickman and Margaret Lazzari.

The show is a response to five decades of abstract, Pop, minimalist and conceptual artwork that at times baffled lay viewers. In the 1990s, the representational art movement reached critical mass. Art in America critic Michael Duncan called it "L.A.'s figurative revival."

The show is filled with familiar Southland scenes of beaches, suburbs, the high desert, cityscapes and urban lifestyles.

Sarah Perry's "Darwin's Portal" is a sculpture of an upright human hand made of tiny reptile and amphibian bones.

Margaret Morgan's "Portrait of Sigmund Freud as Feminine Sexuality" is an image that looks like a pencil sketch but is made of pubic hair on linen.

Many of the works are humorous, such as Laguna Beach artist Jonathan Burke's "Tie-Up," which illustrates L.A. freeways jammed with cars and accidents, flames, fighter planes and a Godzilla-like creature. Mark Ryden's "Princess Sputnik" is a fantasy painting of a cherubic child dressed in a red spacesuit and holding a copy of a Stephen Hawking book as Jesus whizzes by in a rocket. Other works examine beauty in discarded objects, from fast-food napkins to cigarette cartons.

Resolved in his pursuit to tell stories through images, Burke appreciates his freedom as a contemporary artist to look back on the past while trying to bring figurative art into the future.

"Art was always a means of communication for humanity, and representational art was always there to instruct and entertain and describe the world to us," said Burke, who also is dean of fine arts at the Art Institute of Southern California. "And it still has those functions."


"Representing L.A.: Pictorial Currents in Contemporary Southern California Art," Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Ends Jan. 13. (949) 494-8971.

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