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19 May 2014

California Works: The Palm Springs Art Museum Shows Off Art Influenced by the Golden State

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"Exploded Crystal Chandelier Headache," by Ed Ruscha. 1987, oil on canvas. "Exploded Crystal Chandelier Headache," by Ed Ruscha. 1987, oil on canvas. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Contemporary Art Council and the Selma Pearl Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Art in honor of Katherine Hough; additional support provided by Leisa and David Austin.

“California Dreamin’,” the iconic song of the 1960s, conjures up images of the peace and love movement for many. Today, however, the Palm Springs Art Museum is offering its own take on the phrase.

The exhibit California Dreamin’: Thirty Years of Collecting shows off the works of artists who worked in or were influenced by California over the last three decades.

California Dreamin’ marks the first time these pieces, all museum-owned, have been exhibited at the same time. Movements represented include Bay Area Figurative Art; Funk Art; Assemblage; Light and Space; Hard Edge and Geometric Abstraction; and Latino.

Christopher Brown’s painting “800 Hours” (bottom) evokes the same sense of loneliness and isolation created by Edward Hopper a century before. In contrast to Hopper and his recognizable figures, Brown paints forms that are concurrently figurative and abstract; he enhances the sense of anomie by creating humanoid forms devoid of facial features. The artist’s figures appear in a shadowy black, with the exception of one painted in a yellowish green, and another painted in both yellow-green and black.

The entire top third of the canvas is in shades of deep aqua. Angled across the middle section of the wide image, Brown paints a bright, broad swath of yellowish-green, which serves as a harsh counterpoint to the softer aqua. The dark left foreground is painted in deep aqua muddied by the yellow-green. In addition to being a path along which these ambiguous figures move, the wide yellow-green strip creates dimensionality and forces the viewer’s eyes to travel across the entire painting.

Brown’s choice of materials softens the harshness. By employing oil on silk, a soft sheen infuses a humanity into what could otherwise be an overly strident composition.

Rooted in commercial art, Ed Ruscha grew his portfolio thanks to his interest in words and typography. His work bridges the pop and conceptual art movements. The artist deftly creates paintings that have an intellectual element and provoke an emotional response, as can be seen in “Exploded Crystal Chandelier Headache.”

In a soft white, Ruscha paints each word vertically from the top to the bottom of the large canvas. The background begins in a dark charcoal black and transitions first to mauve and then finally to a light yellow-white. “Exploded” appears sits stark against the dark charcoal.  Paired with mauve, “Crystal” seems relaxed. With a backdrop of yellow, the word “Chandelier” comes across like a soft light.

Ruscha’s presentation of the word “Headache” is contradictory: The word representing a painful condition becomes peaceful, calm and nearly invisible juxtaposed against the faint yellow-white backdrop.

A recognized leader of the Light and Space movement, Helen Pashgian produced “Untitled (Acrylic, Copper, Epoxy).” The artist’s positioning of these three complementary materials creates a powerful piece that plays with the viewer’s visual experience and center of gravity. Behind what seems like a scrim, the artist fabricates what looks like a vertical sheet of metal leading to the first of three horizontal bands. Below the third band hangs a dark circular disk. The translucent scrim blurs all objects; they appear to float in space.

Copper strips appear laminated into each horizontal band. She creates the appearance of a concave half of a thick, blurred white tube. However, upon blinking, there is a change: What was the interior becomes the exterior—the copper stripe appears laminated to the outer shell.

Positioned behind the blurred dark circular object, a strategically placed copper disk reinforces the sense of dimensionality, and produces the illusion of movement. While none exists, Pashgian fabricates the illusion of a floodlight shining on the entire piece.

Robert Therrien’s “No Title (stacked plates, butter)” (right) can be summarized in two words: whimsical and fun! The cream-colored plates are reminiscent of Melmac, the kitschy dinnerware popular between the 1940s and 1960s. The plates are positioned so that they appear to be teetering, creating what is experienced as an unstable, tottering 10-to-12-foot tower.

“The Big 4,” painted by Robert Motherwell, is wide and expansive; it consumes the exhibit’s entranceway. Using his signature colors, the artist produced a powerful, inspiring work that deserves to be exhibited as frequently as possible. However, including “The Big 4” in a show titled California Dreamin’ at first blush seems problematic. Motherwell’s ties to the California art scene seem dubious; he is the youngest member of the globally recognized New York Abstract Expressionist Movement.

However, his ties to the Golden State are there. Motherwell lived in both the north and south parts of the state, and he graduated from Stanford University.

The exhibit contains many excellent examples of California schools, including Nathan Oliveira’s oil and vine charcoal on campus “Untitled Standing Figure 1,” William Allan’s oil on canvas “Wyoming Pond,” and An-My Le’s gelatin silver print “29 Palms: Night Operations IV.” However, one of the works in particular does not fit.

Rupert Garcia’s pastel “Un Ramo de Flores para Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (A Bouquet of Flowers for Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz)” seems more like three independent illustrations; it is not a cohesive triptych.

The artist demonstrates his expertise as a fine draughtsman. In addition to creating an attractive, mysterious Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, he skillfully draws flowers. However, no bouquets exist: To the right and left of the sister, Garcia draws stems with either a single flower or two flowers and buds. Even symbolically, these straggly, unappealing flowers do not constitute a “bouquet.”

California Dreamin’: Thirty Years of Collecting is on display through Thursday, July 31, at the Annenberg Wing of the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Regular museum admission fees apply. For more information, call 760-322-4800, or visit www.psmuseum.org.

Expanded credits: Christopher Brown, "800 Hours," 1992, oil on linen, museum purchase with funds provided by the Contemporary Art Council, 1993; Robert Therrien, "No Title (stacked plates, butter)," 2007, plastic, museum purchase with funds provided by the Contemporary Art Council, Donna and Cargill MacMillan, Jr., and funds derived from a previous gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel H. Maslon. Photograph by Sherrill and Associates, Inc.

Editor's Note: This version of the story has been corrected with proper information on Robert Motherwell's California ties.

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