By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Illumination — curated by OCMA deputy director Karen Moss — does an excellent job of teasing out the uncanny parallels and telling differences between these women’s lives and oeuvres, roughly dividing the show between Pelton and O’Keeffe’s straddling of stylized pictorialism and formalist abstraction, and Martin and Pierce’s shared affinity for quasi-Minimalist geometry. As for the art itself, Pelton and Martin come out ahead. Pelton’s Transcendentalist abstractions live up to expectations. Their subtle light effects don’t lend themselves well to photographic reproduction, so this opportunity to see two dozen of them — augmented by her early “imaginary” work, her bread-and-butter landscapes, and other digressions — should not be missed.
Georgia O’Keeffe is a curiously underrated painter, considering her fame and iconic status. The selection of her work for Illumination seems designed as unspectacular support for the show’s historical thesis rather than to display her potentially overwhelming formal chops — there are a few gems, but it’s a mini-survey unlikely to convert skeptics. Agnes Martin’s rooms, on the other hand, are stellar, with large, important pieces like Falling Blue and Leaf in the Wind (both 1963) from her Manhattan period, several serenely radiant large-scale canvases from later decades, and a strong selection of works on paper.
Martin’s work is often lumped in with systems-based conceptualists and minimalism. Here, as in the 3X Abstraction show, it benefits by being surrounded by work with closer intentions to its own.
Florence Miller Pierce is the final piece of the puzzle, and the most peculiar fit. A member, with Pelton, of the Taos-based Transcendental Painting Group during the late 1930s, Pierce painted strong, biomorphic abstractions in the house style, moving between New York, D.C., and even L.A. (where she appeared as the mirror lady in Maya Deren’s landmark experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon) before settling in New Mexico with her sickly husband and abandoning art for several decades. It was the possibilities of new materials — particularly translucent resins on mirrored Plexiglas — to capture fugitive light phenomena, which rekindled her interest. Until her death in October 2007, she explored these possibilities in increasingly spare works that hover somewhere between ’70s corporate Op-art and religious icon painting.
Despite ongoing lip service to pluralism, the overarching narratives of art history and contemporary society continue to impose a tremendous influence in favor of linearity, rationality and social consensus in their evaluation of artists and their work. Illumination, apart from being a depth charge of Otherness in the heart of “the same ol, same ol” — and a damn fine looking one at that — is an object lesson in the once and future efficacy of turning one’s back on the dangled carrots and forced conviviality of the art world in order, as prophets have always been obliged, to seek truth in solitude in the wilderness. If you get bored, it’s usually just a few minutes’ drive to the nearest casino, fashion mall or museum.
Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach; through Sunday, Sept. 6.