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Sunny views, deeper shades

Don't take the blue-sky world painted by D.J. Hall at face value. It might lead back to a child's longing.

June 29, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — "This IS when I started leaving the smile behind. I felt calmer and I didn't feel the need to have all my models looking at me and blasting you with a histrionic expression."

D.J. Hall is talking about "Reflection," her 2001 painting of fellow artist Candice Gawne. Neither blond nor giddy, like Hall's signature subjects, Gawne is seen in profile as if lost in thought over an afternoon cocktail. An equally reflective woman in the background turns out to be Hall, sitting on the far side of a swimming pool and casting visible reflections in rippling water.

The introspective painting is among the surprises in "D.J. Hall: Thirty-Five Year Retrospective," an exhibition of about 100 works at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Along with the artist's trademark, sun-soaked world of swimming pools, bright blue skies and ladies of leisure who flaunt big sunglasses and dazzling smiles, there are night scenes, still lifes, academic figure drawings and travel sketches. Perhaps most tellingly, there are also images of Hall -- as a child, a birthday girl, a working artist and an observer of what she has created.

Like all retrospectives, this one (up through Sept. 14) is a walk through a career. A complementary show, "Full Circle" at Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Culver City (through July 12), features the Southern California painter's new work. But the Palm Springs exhibition is also a biography of an artist who has come to terms with herself through her metier.

"I don't look like an artist and I don't talk like an artist," says Hall, who considers herself something of an outsider. Although never in the mainstream, she won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1977 and established herself in New York in 1981 with the first of several solo shows at OK Harris Works of Art. In California, she has compiled a substantial resume of exhibitions, publications, teaching positions and works in public and private collections.

When people ask why she paints so many women -- and they often do -- she has lots of answers. She may say matter-of-factly that "women are more interesting visually" or note that men have painted women for centuries without having their motives questioned. "I have always said that men were not part of my life when I was growing up," says the slim, intensely engaged artist who describes herself as "hyper" and obsessively concerned with every last aspect of her paintings.

Born in Los Angeles in 1951, she began life as Debra Jane Hall and spent her early years in Santa Ana. Her parents divorced when she was 3, leaving her with a mother who suffered from mental illness and needed a lot of help from her daughter. The divorce and her mother's instability were taboo subjects, so the little girl created what she calls "an illusion of reality" and looked forward to her birthday parties at her grandmother's house, where everyone gathered at the pool and posed for happy pictures.

"Now I think I'm painting from my experience," Hall says. "My longings, my fantasies of what the world should or shouldn't be. That's from my perspective. Why would it be otherwise? I'm definitely creating characters to fill in for lonely spots, lost people or past people."

She started young

Hall developed a talent for drawing figures in her youth. But when she studied art at USC, she shifted to illusion- istic abstractions made of airbrush-painted, intricately cut wood. "They were really pretty," she says, "but not interesting to my mentality." In frustration, she bought traditional oil paints and linen at the end of her senior year, in 1973, and painted the earliest works in the show. "Bit-O-Honey" depicts Hall and two female friends showing off their bare midriffs and sexually suggestive foodstuffs. "WMD 166" is a portrait of the artist dressed to match her sports car.

Adapted from photographs and executed in a soft, creamy style, they may put viewers in mind of more sharply focused Photo-Realist images of the same period. But Hall's paintings are the work of a timid 21-year-old who didn't know what she was doing, she says, someone who "was just picking up on the same stuff" as many other artists and taking Pop art as "a point of departure."

She found her subject matter in December 1973, when she and her husband, architect Toby Watson, drove to Palm Springs in search of a location for a photo shoot. They settled on the Spa Hotel, Hall says, "because it was where I could get the maximum amount of bodies and they had several swimming pools." Young, pretty and innocent-looking in a resort that mainly attracted older people, Hall told potential subjects she was taking "hobby pictures." They probably would have been horrified at the paintings, which exaggerate the lumps, bumps, veins and wrinkles of aging bodies.

Hall's telephoto lens "emphasized that information," she says. "I loved to see how outrageous it was, but when I was translating the photographs, I was just painting the shapes close up, as abstractions."

Progressing with pools

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