Emil Jean Kosa Jr. also draws on Hopper, but more deftly. The only artist with three works on display, he shows himself to be a melancholic connoisseur of understated ambiguity. Painted in the 1940s, his evocative pictures of L.A. neighborhoods capture the oddly collaged feel of the city. The sense that L.A. not only expands outward, eating up the desert, but buries the past beneath new buildings takes vivid form in "Freeway Beginning" (1948), a masterpiece of tarnished idealism and ghostly regret.
Kosa's watercolor establishes a more distant view of its subject -- an unfinished freeway cutting through the long shadows of a sunbaked landscape -- than any of the other watercolors. It functions as a bridge to the next gallery, its measured detachment becoming the cool objectivity of the nine paintings on canvas and panel made between 1950 and 1995.
No people appear in any of them. Instead, houses, highways and skies are portrayed as if they've taken on lives of their own.
Each of the images of buildings by Edward Biberman, Larry Cohen and Edward Ruscha freezes the cacophonous tumult of big city living into a moment of silent stillness that's at once serene and terrifying.
Robert Bechtle, Roger Kuntz and Wayne Thiebaud similarly turn city streets into the backdrops for existential dramas that ricochet between the ridiculous and the sublime. Peter Alexander, Carlos Almaraz and Pierre Sicard paint L.A. after dark, when the night sky is aglow with stars and streetlights and anything seems possible.
In contrast to the watercolorists, who believe that the best way to capture reality is to march into the world and directly record one's impressions, the oil and acrylic painters spend more time in the studio, refining their compositions, keying up their palettes and amplifying the artifice in their canvases and panels.
Consequently, the second gallery of "Cities of Promise" provides far more pleasures than the first. As a whole, the bifurcated show demonstrates that it's a mistake to treat art as a transparent window through which to view such sociological issues as urban development.
Cities of Promise: Imaging Urban California
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Ends: April 25
Price: $5 to $7; 11 and younger, free
Contact: (949) 759-1122