Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi California Dreamin'?

By Jeffrey Lee

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  It's probably fair to say that there is no California art. Not, at least, in the sense of an art with a unified identity. Why not? The curators of California Art: North and South, at the University Art Museum, try hard to extrapolate a pair of definable California sensibilities: shiny, hard-edged L.A. art and earthier, mellower Bay Area art. But their geographic argument, provocative as it may be, is not very persuasive. A wonderful sampling of West Coast work from the Museum's permanent collection, California Art succeeds more as an attractive miscellany than as a show that makes thematic sense.

California artists--painters in particular--have always taken a back seat to their New York counterparts. In many of these pieces, it's interesting to see the way ideas associated with the New York School drifted West, and how artists in California transformed them. Hassel Smith's bracing ra, ra, Ra, and works by Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis are superb Abstract Expressionist efforts from the early 1960s. It's possible to read into them something of an airy, free-breathing feeling--the feeling of art made in a place that has plenty of elbow room. Clyfford Still was New York's primary exporter of Ab Ex to the Bay Area, and his influence is especially visible in Frank Lobdell's big, dark untitled abstraction from 1960, with its gloomy reds and heavily worked, tarry blacks.

Clean, shiny geometric abstractions like John McLaughlin's #1, a black rectangle on a white field, and Larry Bell's mirror construction seem more at home with their L.A. designation. I can imagine Bell's piece hung in some spacious Hollywood rec room. Several Pop-influenced pieces, too, breathe a West Coast air. The early-'60s junk sculptures of Richard Shaw and Robert Hudson suggest San Francisco's soon-to-be hippie culture, using their bright-painted coffee cans, etc., in a sunnier, smilier way than a New York artist would.

Jo Ann Callis' Salt, Pepper and Fire and Jack Mendenhall's Divorcée's Apartment are elaborate jokes, as good superrealism is usually meant to be. Mendenhall's painting has an overall out-of-focus look that comments wittily on its own status as a work of photorealism. And the furniture-store still-life that hangs over the (absent) divorcée's immaculately casual sectional couch is hilarious--a good painting of a bad painting.

If the paintings, prints, photographs and objects of California Art: North and South don't quite congeal into an essay on what makes California Californian, they still pack a collective punch. The show is well worth seeing for the fineness of individual pieces and for its generally bright, bouncy--yes, sunny--disposition.


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