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Lively show brings a lot to the table

March 18, 2004|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

We've all felt it -- that fatigue that sets in during a long museum visit. Sensory overload leads to enervation that leads to the gift shop, the exit and the nearest cafe.

Mega-institutions like the Met or the Louvre are obviously fertile ground for this syndrome, but even a single exhibition can induce aesthetic malaise. Among the most common culprits are theme shows, those sprawling surveys that set out to define the subject or style of a certain time and place: French figurative sculpture in the 18th century, say, or British landscape painting during the Victorian era.

Rare is the exhibition in this format that feels more driven than dutiful, but there's one in town now: "The Not-So-Still Life: A Century of California Painting and Sculpture," at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

The show contains just over 100 works, from early 20th century Impressionist floral studies to a 2001 video installation. It was organized by Susan Landauer, chief curator at the San Jose Museum of Art (where it originated in an expanded form), and guest scholars William Gerdts and Patricia Trenton. The team divided the century roughly into three phases -- 1900-20, 1920-50, 1950-2000 -- and the show has been installed more or less chronologically. Though an overall sense of linear progression prevails, what keeps the theme fresh and the show lively is a different kind of rhythm, based on circling back in time as much as moving forward.

The internal dynamics of the show are those of repetition and variation, call and response. As the curators assert, still life is not so still. It's a living, evolving genre whose practitioners continually dialogue with convention and with each other. There are big names in the show and lesser-knowns, works that verge on brilliance and others quite distant from it. A sturdy network of ideas binds them. Where so many historical surveys feel like lectures, the works of art used as thesis supporters, this one has the quality of a stimulating conversation, eloquence peppered with small talk, all orbiting around subjects that fall under the rubric of still life.

One of the most prevalent of these subjects is the domestic table. Armin Hansen's impressionistic "After Lunch" (circa 1915) presents a table not yet cleared of its fine china and cutlery. The moment is one of stalled transition: the painter's satisfaction from the finished meal turns into a lingering delight in the visual opulence of the setting, its white tablecloth soaking up shadows of pink and green, the silver likewise dappled with yellow from a nearby lemon and the luscious red of centerpiece flowers.

Hanging opposite Hansen's painting, George Brandriff's "Sunday Breakfast" (circa 1935) has a similar painterly lushness, though the mood is more private, more austere. Here the table is set just for one, and the viewer, in the position of that lone diner, faces the amusing but static companionship of the Sunday comics, propped up behind the juice glass.

Flash forward to the 1990s, and we have the buoyant humor of Robert Therrien's teetering, 8-foot stack of white dinner plates, each several feet in diameter. In between, there's Wayne Thiebaud's 1965 "Four Sandwiches," which manages to make uniformity seductive and vivid. Each of these artworks starts with a subject that's familiar territory -- both domestically and art historically -- and injects a personal spin, a social dimension, a stylistic tweak. The implicit reverberations between them animate the show.

Another theme that persists from generation to generation among artists engaged with still life is the portrait or self-portrait in material terms. Chronologically, we move from Joseph Kleitsch's early 20th century painting of a table heaped with personal effects (including several musical instruments and a painter's palette) to Chester Arnold's fascinating visual inventory of a lifetime of discards. Contents of Arnold's own private landfill range from bathtub to piano, stuffed animal to rowboat. If Kleitsch paints himself as talented polymath, Arnold renders, through the filter of personal evidence and regret, a stunning indictment of contemporary consumerism.

The condition of abundance crops up again and again in still lifes, launched by 17th century Dutch prototypes, those exquisitely painted paeans to material -- and sensual -- prosperity. Paintings such as Alice B. Chittenden's "Chrysanthemums" and its neighbor, Alberta Binford McCloskey's untitled still life of grapes, celebrate earthy wealth. Other works, such as the paper stacks and cloth bundles of pseudo-currency in Kathryn Spence's "Money Pile" (2001), signify well being in blunt, quantitative terms. A bounty in fruit and flowers is nice, but this, Spence's piece snickers, is what it's really all about.

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