LA Painting at MOAH
Museum of Art and History, Lancaster
through October 20
“I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.” ~Frida Kahlo
“Use your blood to paint. Keep painting until you faint. Keep painting until you die.” ~Yoko Ono
Written by Betty Ann Brown
Thirty-six thousand years ago–in the middle of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age– a group of women and men painted images of people and animals on the walls of a cave in France known as Grotte Chauvet. In spite of numerous declarations that “Painting is dead” (most vociferously after the nineteenth century invention of photography), humans have been painting ever since. As evidenced by the current exhibition at the Lancaster Museum of Art & History (MOAH), they not only continue to paint here and now, but they also continue to push the boundaries of the medium into new and exciting realms.
LA Painting is an extravagant spectacle presenting the wide range of painting practices in Southern California. The exhibition has several “chapters,” including a collaboration between performance artist Amy Kaps and painter Kaye Freeman; “Circle of Truth,” a complex interactive project involving 49 artists; and a brilliant survey of painting in the last five years curated by Cooper Johnson. MOAH is also presenting an installation by Erika Lizée, a solo show by David Allan Peters, and numerous examples from the museum’s permanent collection. Because of the diversity of subjects and techniques, as well as the large number of artists involved, any review must be selective rather than all-inclusive. This essay is no exception.
Performance artist Amy Kaps may seem an unlikely participant in a painting show, but she has collaborated with painter Kaye Freeman to “perform” a series of paintings by covering her nude body with pigment and pressing it onto draped canvases. (Think Yves Klein from a woman’s perspective.) Kaps’s body “prints” establish the structure for Freeman’s explosions of color, gesture, and texture in generous compositions that expand across the walls of the East Gallery in MOAH. One canvas is so wide it wraps around a corner of the gallery, like a cityscape unfolding into space. A white “body print” appears to be surfing a large lavender wave across a lush urban lake.
Shane Guffogg and Laura Hipke call their “Circle of Truth” project “A Visual Game of ‘Telephone’.” (You’re probably familiar with the game, also known as “Chinese Whispers” or “Gossip.” A group of people stands in a line or in a circle. One person whispers a phrase to his/her neighbor, who then turns to the next person and quietly repeats the phrase. By the time they get all the way around the circle, the phrase has morphed into something quite distinct.) Over the last nine years, Guffong and Hipke have invited a large number of artists–both prominent and less renowned practitioners–to create works on 20″ x 20″ canvases. The first artist (Guffogg) completed his painting, then sent it and a blank canvas to the second artist, who was instructed to create a work in response to the “truth” of the first canvas. When the second artist finished her canvas, she would send it, as well as another blank canvas, on to the third participant. The first painting of the series would be stored. In turn, the third collaborator painted something in response to the second image, sent her painting (i.e., the third in the series) on to the fourth artist and sent the second canvas to join the first in storage. And so on.
The “Circle of Truth” paintings ring the South Gallery. Viewers can trace the range of influence in palette, technique, and/or subject matter from one canvas to the next. Jim Morphesis contributed one of his expressionistic skulls. Ruth Weisberg composed an image of human hands holding the planet in caring embrace. Robert Williams did one of his pop surreal narratives: a strange blue being instructing a dubious female student about drawing guns. Kim Abeles placed a tiny hummingbird body into a cut-out of the painting surface, its pointed beak angled toward a pink flower. Lita Albuquerque created an abstract mixture of her signature colors: Lapis blue and vermillion red. Tracing the influences–the “truths”–in the circle is an engaging game of clues and sophisticated visuality.
“Five Year Survey,” curated by Cooper Johnson, is located in MOAH’s Main Gallery. It presents 15 painters who have done “significant” work, from figurative to purely abstract to fusions of the two. All of the artists chosen by Johnson have robust painterly practices, but this writer was particularly taken by the immense nude figure in Rebecca Campbell’s Miss April 1971. Art historian John Seed, writing in HuffPost, asserted that the 13-foot painting has “Picassian Power and Feminist Insight.” Campbell’s nude reclines like the woman in J.A.D. Ingres’s Grande Odalisque from 1814. But rather than serving the female nude up for the male gaze, Campbell deliberately deconstructs the consuming nature of that masculine way of seeing. (Nod to John Berger.) Miss April is violently fragmented, broken by bandage-like strips that cut through her body and the surrounding space. Campbell’s “fold-out” transforms the deliberately enticing objectification of a woman into an icon of disturbing resistance.
Also compelling is Ruth Pastine’s Inevitability of Truth 18-54848 (Square Diamond). A bright yellow square is tipped on its corner to form a diamond, its yolk-like core framed by glowing orange, red, magenta, and pink bars that seem to shimmer, as if fuzzy or slightly out of focus. The color is rich and engaging, its edges scintillating.
Erika Lizée’s Infinite Love/Flesh and Blood is a biomorphic painting that climbs up the tall wall to the left of the museum entrance. Its impressive scale–26′ x 26′ x 3′–amplifies the graphic power of Lizée’s elegant curves of light and shadow. Undulating silver and plum tentacles are woven into a dense tapestry of forms that seem both plant and animal–or alien species that transcends that dichotomy.
Lizée applies paint in the traditional manner: filling a brush with the viscous liquid and moving it slowly across a flat surface. (In this case, she used acrylic paint on Duralar.) In contrast, David Allan Peters applies multiple layers of acrylic paint on wood panels, then carves designs into the various layers, cutting through and thereby revealing the multiple colors below. Historic painters like Ingres (mentioned above) might not acknowledge Peters’ works as paintings. They would probably have trouble with Ruth Pastine’s geometric abstraction as well. Obviously, LA painters continue to expand the historic boundaries of the medium as they interrogate its ability to create and reinforce meaning. The several iterations of painting practices in the MOAH shows give “voice” to these artists’ pioneering powers.