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Nudes to machinery, and things between

Extensive exhibition in Pasadena is a study in the evolution of Impressionist Alson Skinner Clark, from masterful to mediocre.

November 25, 2005|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Alson Clark could paint a eucalyptus with the best of them, but don't go calling him a California Impressionist. That's the plea couched in the artist's first full retrospective, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. California Impressionists, according to the conventions of art history written on the opposite coast, are minor leaguers. American Impressionists -- Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, et al. -- are the real thing. In the deliberately titled, "An American Impressionist: The Art and Life of Alson Skinner Clark," guest curator Deborah Epstein Solon makes a case for Clark's major league status.

Although Clark (1876-1949) lived in Southern California from 1919 until his death, his interests were more global than regional. He painted scenes not just of the requisite flower-flecked fields of Giverny but also of markets in Spain and Croatia, villages in Mexico and the rooftops of Prague. Being categorized as a regional painter may have hindered Clark's broader reputation, as Solon asserts, but even a comprehensive show of 77 paintings with a lucid and thorough catalog can't correct historical error in judgment if the paintings themselves don't merit such revision.

Gladly, there are some remarkable paintings here, but only a handful. Clark was a highly inconsistent painter whose early acuity eroded into the trite predictability of postcard views in a saccharine palette as the decades wore on. The contrast between early and later paintings is so dramatic, and unflattering to the later work, that Clark's reputation would have been better served by a show far less comprehensive.

Clark demonstrated such early promise that he was taking evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago by age 11. He returned there to study as a young adult, then moved to New York, where he became an avid student of William Merritt Chase. One nude from this period, a sensuous column of flesh against stark studio walls, kick-starts the show. The most absorbing of Clark's work soon follows.

In 1898, he moved to Paris, a classic next step in the education of a young artist at the turn of the century. Clark eventually adopted Impressionist techniques, but first he explored, with great potency and conviction, the aesthetic of James McNeill Whistler, whose atelier he joined in Paris.

"The Violinist" (circa 1901) comes straight from Whistler's Japon-esque world of subtle tonalities and emotional interiority. It's a painting of exquisite understatement. Teal walls and a hanging scroll painting behind the musician set off his drab brown clothes and the sweep of floor that tilts up to make our spaces continuous and yet also reinforces his solitude. The mood -- and the painting is more about atmosphere than detail -- feels muted but active with latency. Peeking out from beneath the violinist's coat, near the very center of the painting, is a wedge of his brick red vest, the eye's signal to stop, stay, pay attention. The painting was Clark's first to be exhibited in the Paris Salon.

A few years later, he painted "The Necklaces," a portrait of his wife, seen from behind standing at the hearth handling some jewelry. Thanks to Clark's keen balance between the quiet details of rug and wallpaper and the luminous sweep of her white dress, the painting reads as symphonic, even though it's nothing but a domestic, liminal moment.

Clark spent the next dozen years traveling between Europe and several cities in the U.S., including Watertown, N.Y., Chicago, and Charleston, S.C. He painted landscapes and scenes of soft-edged urbanity wherever he landed. Sometime around 1904 or '05, Clark's brushstrokes started to shorten and his colors lighten. His attention shifted exclusively to the surface, to light, color and activity in themselves, and away from their corresponding emotional moods.

In 1913, he traveled to the Panama Canal Zone, where construction on the massive engineering feat was nearing completion. His paintings of the locks and earthen cuts and steam railroad (he made 40, and eight of them are in the show) are innately incongruous. The bulky machinery and daunting scale of the enterprise make an odd and not terribly successful match with Clark's plein-air lightness of touch and sprightly palette. The work looks like the chronicle of a photojournalist who has brought the wrong set of tools. The paintings, though, were given a prestigious place in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco.

It was considered inventive for an Impressionist to have tackled such a big industrial theme, but Clark's painting style was becoming more and more contrived. He had given up completely on the Whistlerian sense of nuance and restraint. His paintings from the late teens on have a uniformity of touch and a sameness of spirit.

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