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The American Dream, to an Outsider

A second Westermann show is a sober view through a determined individualist's eyes.

July 14, 2002|DAVID PAGEL

The image of a grinning skull, set between a fiery pit and a lightning storm, greets visitors to "See America First: The Prints of H.C. Westermann." And before you make it through a small gallery off the entryway of Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, you see a naked woman cartwheeling from the top of a tall building, a blood-red "Death Ship" drifting aimlessly at sea, the aftermath of a train wreck, the explosion of the Hindenburg and six other air disasters, including rocket ships plummeting from the sky and jets slamming into the sides of skyscrapers.

If such reality-based devastation isn't enough to get your attention, the two biggest works in this gallery travel to the far reaches of the galaxy to deliver even more chaos and mayhem. "Red Planet 'J' " and "Green Planet Pi" depict tiny spacemen whose futuristic outposts are being overrun by aliens that resemble genetically altered dinosaurs and the mutant offspring of an enormous lobster and Sesame Street's Big Bird. In two smaller prints, the "Human Fly" and the "Human Canonball" perform daredevil acts without safety nets.

This is the stuff of tabloid headlines. In Westermann's hands, however, it's also the raw material for a sobering portrait of American culture.

Life in the United States may be as vulgar and cheesy as it is vicious and cheap, but that doesn't mean that there's no room for honesty amid the overblown sensationalism. Both are hallmarks of the 53 images Westermann (1922-81) printed from 1962 to 1977. They have been brought together for the first survey of his graphic works. Organized by the David and Alfred Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, the accessible yet far from easygoing show runs concurrently with a retrospective of Westermann's terrifically out-of-step sculptures at MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary.

"See America First" is a comprehensive exhibition that stands on its own and shouldn't be missed by anyone who visits its counterpart in downtown Los Angeles. Accompanied by an informative catalogue raisonne, it paints a poignant picture of one man's love of a country he felt most at home in when he kept his distance from its social conventions.

Almost half of the images in the entry gallery are page-sized black-and-white works Westermann made from commercially produced blocks of Linoleum. Inspired by 1930s movies (like "The Bat Whispers") and illustrated magazines (like Air Wonder Stories), most depict imaginary aerial disasters.

Three include cheery Christmas greetings, along with the date and salutations from the artist. One diptych uses an old-fashioned railroad crossing sign to spell out "X-mas!" Its right half is blank, to be filled in with messages Westermann would write to friends.

The rest of the works in this gallery consist of two garishly colored woodcuts, the tumbling "Mad Woman" and the soaring "Human Canonball," and Westermann's first lithographs, a series he printed at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1967. These include the smoldering "Death Ship of No Port" (based on a German novel); the rat infested "Port of Shadows" (based on a French film); the loony pair of extraterrestrial landscapes (based on such American sci-fi movies as "Red Planet Mars" and "Rocketship X-M"); and the black-and-white "Woman From Indianapolis" (based on Westermann's drive from Chicago to Kansas City, Mo.)

At once foreboding and slapstick, this image stands out for its tight-lipped strangeness. Like a curdled version of an Edward Hopper painting of a small-town filling station, Westermann's picture is as enigmatic as a street scene by De Chirico and as biting as a newspaper illustration by Mexican political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada. It also anticipates his next suite of prints, which, installed in the main gallery, is the centerpiece of the show.

In 1968, Westermann spent 2 1/2 months at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles printing his 17-piece series, "See America First." Where his homemade, disaster-themed greeting cards put a twisted spin on their mass-produced counterparts, his idiosyncratic travel posters depict a world that's unlike anything advertised by the tourist industry.

In contrast to the Great Northern Railroad and the Gray Line Sightseeing Co., both of which used similar phrases and formats to promote trips to specific destinations, Westermann's works focus on the interior landscape of the imagination. They are among his most understated and open-ended pictures. Gone is the loopy, over-the-top drama of his earlier pieces. In its place is the fascinating stillness of an image that sometimes gets stuck in your head when your mind wanders off on its own.

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