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Lesser-known artists are poised for a breakthrough

The Pacific Standard Time museum extravaganza will give some of the unsung heroes their due as well as their more celebrated colleagues.

September 18, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Oscar Castillo, '47 Chevy in Wilmington, California, 1972.
Oscar Castillo, '47 Chevy in Wilmington, California, 1972. (Oscar Castillo, Fowler…)

Nobody thought a 12-sided geometric painting by a little-known artist could top a Hockney. The painting, "Vector," has languished in storage for at least 30 years. The painter, Ron Davis, has been living off the grid near Taos, N.M., for almost as long.

But when the curators of the Getty Museum's "Crosscurrents" exhibition first saw the work in a warehouse used for Tate museum storage outside of London, right after viewing one of David Hockney's greatest "splash" paintings, it was nonetheless arresting.

"It was a knockout moment," says Rani Singh, describing how Davis' dodecagonal painting (made of resin on fiberglass, not paint on canvas, in 1968) is shaped and colored in such a way that it seems to jut from the wall in three dimensions.

"It makes an enormous impact in your field of vision," adds her co-curator, Andrew Perchuk. "We knew instantly we wanted to borrow the piece."

Now part of "Crosscurrents," which opens Oct. 1, Ron Davis is one of the discoveries awaiting visitors to the museum extravaganza known as Pacific Standard Time. At its core, it consists of 60 exhibitions throughout Southern California exploring facets of the region's art history from 1945 to 1980.

As expected, the shows celebrate the lions of contemporary art here such as Hockney, John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha. But many say the initiative's real purpose was to supply much-needed historical context and to identify other regional artists worth greater consideration.

Some, like Davis, were lauded by art critics at one time but have since dropped out of sight. (In his case, psychiatric problems and his move to New Mexico played a role.) Others never got their due in the first place, perhaps because they were Chicano or African American and showed in community spaces instead of bigger galleries or museums.

"Ed Ruscha's stock will not lower because of this, and rightly so," says Chon Noriega, a Chicano art expert who has co-curated five shows under the Pacific Standard Time umbrella. "But the great thing is that there will also be a number of artists who receive some overdue critical attention."

So who are the breakthrough artists of Pacific Standard Time? Of course in time one could survey the next generation of curators, critics, academics and also collectors, who increasingly shape art history. But at this stage another tack is to ask some of the shows' curators themselves: Whose work felt like a discovery to you, and which artists do you think are ripe for reappraisal?

Noriega, who suspects most names in his shows are unknown to a broad audience, named Oscar Castillo, subject of a solo show at the Fowler Museum. As a photographer, Castillo did much to document the Chicano community in L.A. starting in the late 1960s. Noriega praises his ability to sidestep ethnic stereotypes and expose "contradictions apparent between aspirations and reality."

He also discussed Roberto Chavez and Dora De Larios from "Art Along the Hyphen" at the Autry National Center. Chavez, he says, "is someone who experimented in all styles — he's extraordinarily prolific — but it's really his portraiture of Mexican Americans, family members and others, that stands out."

De Larios, the only sculptor in the Autry show, interests Noriega for her "lifelong attempt to integrate the deep history of two national art forms, Japanese and Mexican." He attributes it in part to her growing up in downtown Los Angeles among immigrants from both countries, until World War II internment policies ripped the community apart. "I think that through art she is trying to bring the community back together, and it's fascinating to see," Noriega said.

Davis, from the "Crosscurrents" show at the Getty, is poised to be one of the biggest comebacks for his "astonishing perceptual play," which points the way to Light and Space art, according to co-curator Perchuk. Davis' paintings will appear in a gallery along with Hockney, Ruscha, Sam Francis and Richard Diebenkorn. "We really feel like the work holds its own, and that's a pretty major statement," says Perchuk.

Perchuk also praised the early work of feminist legend Judy Chicago, who went to school to learn auto-body paint techniques to make her own contribution to the hot rod-inspired branch of California minimalism known as "finish fetish."

"I think the work she was doing in the 1960s, when she painted the [Corvair] car hood in our show, will be a real revelation to people who think of her explicitly sociopolitical work," he said.

Another name on Perchuk's list is the late Noah Purifoy, who led a group of artists in making assemblage out of charred railroad ties and other detritus of the Watts riots — "one of the great unsung projects of postwar Los Angeles."

Purifoy also figures in the Hammer show, "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980," which is rife with reappraisals. "I would say all of our artists are underappreciated in a way," offers the show's curator, art historian Kellie Jones.

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