Frye Art Museum

photo by Jill Berarducci

Seattle, Washington


Representing LA, Pictorial Currents in Contemporary Southern California Art

December 9, 2000 - February 11, 2001


"Representing LA, Pictorial Currents in Contemporary Southern California Art" is the first group exhibition to explore the rich and varied representational painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture produced by Southern California artists from 1990 to 2000. On view Dec. 9 through Feb. 11, Representing LA fills a gap in West Coast and Southern California art history by surveying and interpreting about 80 works by 70 artists working in representational or realist styles and approaches.

Guest curator, Gordon Fuglie, Director of Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in West LA, discovered a strong and vital thread of figurative, realist, illusionist, fantasy, and narrative work being produced by a large number of Los Angeles-area artists. Los Angeles's "new representation" is a multi-faceted tendency rather than a "school." Much of the work engages the viewer with startling configurations of familiar subjects and themes. (left: Patty Wiskman, A Thief in the Night, 1996, oil on canvas, 72 x 115 inches)

This important exhibition provides a platform for a body of works that breath new life into a number of themes and genres long thought passé in contemporary art, often with an ironic twist. Fuglie, working closely with the Frye's executive director, Richard West, has organized the exhibition into nine themes: new portraiture, the image of the artist, imagining selfhood, expressions of the body, the city, still life, landscape, narrative strategies, and the spiritual realm.

The art in this exhibition includes the neo-traditional to the conceptual, the heart-on-the-sleeve to the sardonic, the ambiguous to the factual, the nitty-gritty to the beautiful. According to Fuglie, "material this wide and rich calls the curator to work in an encyclopedic mode."

Among the better-known artists in Representing LA are Peter Alexander, Lynn Foulkes, Robert Graham, D. J. Hall, Jim Morphesis, John Nava, John Register, Alison Saar, Ruth Weisberg, and Robert Williams. This exhibition is the third to address late 20th Century contemporary art in Southern California, joining the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles' Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art's Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A., 1960-1997.

After premiering in Seattle, the exhibition will travel to the South Texas Institute of Art, Corpus Christi, TX. An extensively illustrated catalogue produced by the Frye, with essays by guest curator Gordon Fuglie will be available through the Frye museum store.

Following are selected essays by guest curator Gordon Fuglie:



Portraiture also got a boost in the 1980s when it became driven by ethnic and gender studies in college and university art departments, resulting in a "politics of cultural identity." Much of this art had an activist or community focus and found support in the previously arts-deprived communities of East and South Los Angeles. It also meant that for a number of artists- originally Black and Latino, later Asian-ethnicity and history was the most viable subject for their work. Chicano Art had its heyday in this period and now has pretty much joined the artistic mainstream of Southern California art via museum and gallery exhibitions, as well as through the presence of Latino artists on the faculties of a number of local college and university art programs.

In addition, figuration in painting, drawing, and sculpture has long enjoyed respect in African-American and Latino cultures, and it was this mode that dominated the production of the artists from these communities. This often caused friction in academic art programs. Young Latino and Black art students wanted to pursue traditional art training and demonstrated a distinct lack of interest in the abstract, minimalist or conceptual modes that were de rigeur with the middle-class white faculty in so-called cutting edge art departments. For a large number of minority artists, traditional art training was seen as the best way for them to represent their communities and themselves.

Akin to identity-and more personal-is the sense of self. Psychology has been an important tool for self-understanding for the white middle class since about1950, when it started to "go popular," and it spread to other ethnic groups by the end of the century. In addition, the recollection of people, events, and places in psychotherapy encourages visual representation.

Sociology, too, has trickled down from academe to become part of the way we look at the individual in relation to society. It is no surprise that aspects of psychology and sociology have come to inform the work of a number of representational artists in Southern California, sometimes combining with issues of identity. Judith F. Baca began her artistic career in the 1970s with a series of public murals and monuments that she and her staff continue to produce today. A populist and a progressive, her works depict history, society, ethnicity, and self - occasionally fusing them all. Her portrayal of Mexican-American identity in the color pencil drawing La Mestiza is robust and accessible in the muralist tradition, depicting the "new race" that came about with the intermingling of the Spanish and indigenous peoples of post conquest Mexico.

Blue-collar male Latino identity is the subject of Tony de Carlo's His Everlast, an acrylic on canvas. In a neoprimitive, decorative style, the self-taught artist has rendered an icon of working-class aspiration: the triumphant boxer. This path out of poverty and the barrio is tempered by possibilities pictured in insets at the fighter's left and right, some whimsical, some ominous. On the other hand, it might be a stretch to assert that Salomon Huerta's dead-still rear view of a standing youth (the seamlessly painted Untitled Figure #1) raises issues of Latino identity. Perhaps the figure does, but its surroundings are as void of cultural reference as de Carlo's image is packed with them. The figure's baggy attire, nondescript tennis shoes, and shorn head could place him in the rave or hip-hop scenes of Monterey Park or Malibu. In his arrested stance he resonates a kind of iconic presence for male adolescence.

Young males on the threshold of adulthood and its responsibilities are the subjects of Deni Ponty and Dan McCleary. Using an illustrative mode, chiaroscuro lighting, and lots of narrative detail, Dutch artist Ponty has no postmodern aversions to the sentimental. First Job depicts a gangly youth with too-long shirt-sleeves and scruffy shoes. Rather than the back of a head, Ponty wants you to look into the young theater usher's eyes, to feel for him, to acknowledge his vulnerable humanity: he is, after all, looking at you, waiting for your ticket! If Ponty could be called a Pre-Raphaelite transplanted to 2000, no such thing could be said of McCleary, who views his scenes of ordinary life as formal constructions. In Seven-Eleven, #2, his young counterman betrays no affect as he waits for payment for a proffered Styrofoam cup of coffee. His identity is virtually subsumed under the homogenous efficiency of the convenience store.

A few years ago, if you were to mention gay male identity and art in the same breath, what generally came to mind were the homoerotic caricatures of Tom of Finland and others of his ilk: big hunky guys, with big pectorals and genitals - adorned only with good-natured, come-hither grins. Outside this world of sentimental, breathless kitsch, serious art with gay themes was the sort of thing that straights gradually learned to intuit or had their gay friends "decode" for them. For all intents and purposes, its meaning was closeted from the straight world. No longer. In Southern California in the past decade, a number of gay artists have treated gay identity (often after struggling to personally realize it) with compelling content and style. In fact, as a theme, their work is "out." Three works directly address gay identity and selfhood: John Sonsini's Gabriel (discussed previously in the Portraiture section); Tom Knechtel's The Old Centaur, and Roberto Gil de Montes' Boy Indian. The latter two are more intimate pieces from both artists' oeuvres. Knechtel has produced large, complex, but minutely crafted narrative paintings with layers of meanings that often weave gay life into the larger world, containing elements of the sacred and the profane. The Old Centaur is an autobiographical musing on an ancient Roman sculpture seen while touring Italy. Gil de Montes has a propensity for dreamy, symbolic, and whimsical works; in his small, quick oil study Boy Indian, a slender youth with a towel around his waist and a necklace about his neck leans against the picture's edge, lost in reverie.

What passes for selfhood in some quarters of Southern California is ironically proclaimed in the color-saturated paintings of Venice artist D. J. Hall. In her ongoing series of paintings of thirty-something blondes at home in the Westside's dazzling light-with their orthodontically correct smiles, Fred Siegal clothes, north of Montana Avenue addresses (Santa Monica's toniest district), Smith & Hawken gardens, Sunset magazine al fresco lunches, and invisible, high-salaried Industry (and you know which) husbands-we get the feeling that something is terribly amiss. A sense of dread seeps out of these sunny gatherings of happy, bubbly friends who seem to all look, think, and act alike-and never get old. The diptych Glee is Hall's image of overlush perfection that hopes to stave off grief, death, and illness. Selfhood as an uneasy state of mind and being is imaged in the relationship-haunted narratives of Cynthia Evans (Something Blue), Robin Palanker's boxed-in and gender-dichotomized "figurines" (Patience), and Sharon Alicotti's series of interior/exterior metaphorical desert narratives (Rear Window).



It is by now a cliché to remark on Southern California's receptivity to nontraditional and experimental religions. For over one hundred years the newness of the region and its propensity to see itself as a place for personal experimentation on the western edge of the continent encouraged a more open-minded approach to religious matters. H. L. Mencken and other East Coast writers have satirized the extremes of spiritual credulity in Southern California, but also missed that which had spiritual depth.

In recent years, artists have noted the spiritual emptiness in contemporary American life. As a result, during the 1990s, artists introduced more spiritual and religious themes into their work. While abstraction has always been a mode open to the spiritual, whether in trying to image "the One" or evoking a sense of spirituality via mood and symbol, representational and figurative artists have found spiritual content more difficult to deal with. After all, how does one paint an Annunciation in the late twentieth century? How can one depict sacred subjects or narratives and remain contemporary? For a long time these and similar questions were taboo in the art schools. And most writers and critics were uncomfortable with, and indifferent or hostile to, the notion of contemporary spiritual or religious art, much less representation. But the temper of the times has changed and religious content has become more acceptable. Along with this change, a number of artists also discovered "spiritual places" that had been in Southern California all along.

Such is the case of Peter Adams, a plein air artist who became aware of a small, low-ceilinged votive shrine at Mission San Juan Capistrano. His Candlelight in St. Peregrine Chapel: Mission San Juan Capistrano is a ruddily lucent impressionistic evocation of this spiritually intense place, filled with the prayer offerings of the faithful and hopeful. Similarly, it might be said that the Quaker-raised Wes Christensen recognizes that a deserted Santa Monica beach fire ring can be imagined as a kind of postmodern funerary altar in Pyre.

Two artists who are Christian, Patty Wickman and Duncan Simcoe, have used their families and domestic settings to connect with the New Testament. In A Thief in the Night, Wickman drew on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-21) and one of St. Paul's letters (Thessalonians 5:2) to paint a parable for our consumer culture. The monumental canvas depicts a burglar departing with some of the worldly goods of a young couple as they stand transfixed by their array of remaining possessions (the setting is downtown Los Angeles studio of the artist and her husband and recalls an actual nocturnal break-in). On the other hand, Simcoe responded to the miraculous birth stories of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke to reconfigure the Annunciation in his Study for What if Kathi was Mary? - a sketch for a series of paintings with the same title (Kathi and Duncan Simcoe are childless).

With a nod to the Baroque masters, the lives of the saints get an entirely novel interpretation in Jacquelyn McBain's series of small and claustrophobic oils. A self-described agnostic who is studious about religious matters, McBain reconfigured the saintly narratives by making them into hypersensually rendered flowers. In The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, an iris stands in for the martyr, pierced by agave thorns instead of arrows. McBain warmed to St. Francis when she learned that he spoke to animals and painted him as a hospitable peony, hosting in his petals a butterfly, a bird, two frogs, a wasp, and a beetle (St. Francis of Assisi). Reputed to consider all "belief systems" as equal, Mark Ryden turns his formidable painter's craft to the creation of fantasy scenes where spiritual and scientific notions are embodied and coexist in happy innocence, with no trace of contradiction (Princess Sputnik). His style runs in the vein of polished, sentimental calendar illustration as propelled by the imagination of a childish savant.

Brian Mains (see also Body) doesn't believe in a safe spirituality, at least as he draws and paints it. In Mains' darkly limned universe, light and dark, stasis and change are the principal forces; it is a place where epiphanies sear consciousness before they do anything else (Untitled). Katie Phillips' explorations in her series Spirit and Matter (1990-96) portray the transcendent as existing to suffuse matter with light and energy. She represents this drama on an altar where, beneath a unitary radiance, the complex structure of a glowing sea lion's skull stands for the mystery of life and death.

If the Roman Catholic Church in the twenty-first century rediscovers a mission to proclaim the faith via an art that bespeaks the best of its past, as well as articulating a compelling form for the present, it will be through artists like Laura Lasworth. An adult convert, she created a diptych in the early 1990s that stylishly connected the philosophical legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas with the contemporary scholarship of Umberto Eco. More recently, she developed a series of paintings based on her reading of the letters, short stories, and novels of the twentieth-century American Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor. The River, based on O'Connor's short story of the same name, is Lasworth's evocation of the "baptismal death" of the story's protagonist, Ashfield. Superficially a still life, the painting is the artist's quiet memorial to a life purified in rebirth. The candy cane in the center of the vase between the branches of pomegranate and wheat shoots is in reality a monastic invention: traditionally hooked (for a catch), the swirling red and white bands represent the blood and purity of Christ.


Related articles in this magazine include:

rev. 11/28/00

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Frye Art Museum.

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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