Life, liberty and the pursuit of unhappiness could be the motto of a group exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art.
Organized by guest curator and critic Michael Duncan, "High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime" turns world-weariness into a perverse virtue: the capacity to experience heart-wrenching sorrow, exquisite silliness and just about everything between with mind-blowing intensity, unforgettable depth and, sometimes, poignant absurdity.
Understatement was not Berman's forte. He lived for drama. Not to mention adventure, danger and romance -- all the better if they arrived via art. Known as a stage designer, he also painted, drew and sculpted. "High Drama," which continues through Oct. 30, features examples of all of these media as well as works by his contemporaries and artists working today.
In the lobby, three paintings introduce viewers to Berman's long-forgotten works. "Cassandra" (1943) shows the back of a satin-clad femme fatale. Resting her elbows on a wood platform, she gazes, like us, through the symmetrical slats of a ruined gateway into a hellish abyss. Berman's figure may be doomed, but her open hands suggest a fearless acceptance of fate.
"Perspective of Columns at Paestum" (1960) features a towering column that bisects the picture plane and appears to support the canvas' top edge. In the background, a double-decker maze of columns and lintels recedes toward the horizon. The gutted structure is inhabited by men and goats.
"Rock Temples in Aswan" (1968) surveys the aftermath of a desert cataclysm. Front and center is a prostrate corpse. A lone survivor in the middle of the symmetrical composition prays silently. Rubble and a ruined temple are visible in the distance. Shafts of light descend from the heavens, as do gigantic birds of prey and pterodactyl-size scavengers.
From the get-go, "High Drama" takes visitors on a hallucinatory tour of a vividly tinted universe where unspeakable suffering and fantastic potential exist side by side. And that's just the beginning. The excitement increases in the first gallery and maintains its giddy pace through the six rooms in which the exhibition has been adeptly installed. Along with 24 paintings, drawings, sculptures and maquettes by Berman (1899-1972), Duncan has included approximately 50 pieces by 25 of Berman's contemporaries and 16 works by artists currently working in a vein related to his over-the-top realism.
Portraits predominate. Some put a human face on the show's expansive ideas. Others show that melancholy comes in all shapes and sizes, and that its meanings shift as viewers interpret it for themselves.
The first gallery is presided over by Julie Heffernan's "Self-Portrait as Infanta on Eggshells" (1999), a deliciously creepy painting of a precious, larger-than-life-size child standing in an Edenic landscape that appears to be on the receiving end of a napalm bombing. Pavel Tchelitchev's "Portrait of Feral Benga" (1938) strikes a more playful yet far from carefree tone by depicting the nude Parisian dancer, flat on his back, his lithe black body in stark contrast to the white blanket beneath him.
With glistening precision, Dorothea Tanning's "Children's Games" (1942) shows three little girls, dressed in their Sunday best, making dreadful mischief. One has collapsed from the trauma. The other two enact a Dorian Gray drama, peeling away the walls of the long hall they stand in as their dresses shred similarly and other unspeakable mutations take place.
Less troubling silliness takes shape in Eric Schaal's six silver prints that document a fun-house pavilion designed by Salvador Dali for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Like an adult version of a Disney attraction, Dali's "Dream of Venus" embodies the strand of crass, campy frivolity that runs through the exhibition, bringing comic relief to its often dark works.
The most potent pictures in the next three galleries mix preposterous kitsch with earnest vulnerability, making for works that are hard to take at face value but impossible to ignore for their curious allure and unsettling sentimentality. The juxtaposition of Tanning's portrait of Deirdre from 1940 and Cindy Sherman's untitled photograph of herself masquerading as an anonymous nobody brings classical mythology and suburban life into charged contact. More sparks fly from the show's high point, a red-walled room that is a gorgeously eccentric rogues gallery of portraits by Christian Berard, Amy Adler, Thomas Woodruff, Edmund Teske, Leonor Fini and Berman.
In these images, victims behave like heroes. Plants and animals stand in for people. And inanimate objects come to life, embodying qualities usually deemed human.
In the two large upstairs galleries, landscapes set the stage for a roller-coaster ride of affects, as well as affectation, for which Berman had a weakness and which he made into a strength.