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Heath Bars, Lapin and Mash 

Fusion Cuisine in Pasadena

Wednesday, Aug 19 2009

Swinging by the Pasadena Museum of California Art is often like grazing some kind of far-fetched fusion buffet — blithely mixing collectible vinyl action figures with early California Impressionist landscape painting, wrapped in a custom rainbow fumigation tent with a side order of spray-painted Kenny Scharf legume entities. The gestalt isn’t always successful, but the unexpected shifts can deliver the effect of cleansing the mental palate, piquing your appetite for the next new sensation.

The current menu is particularly appetizing, sandwiching a combination of smooth midcentury modernist design and funky, quirky postmodernisms between two slices of contemporary landscape experiments. And, appropriately enough, the largest of these shows is devoted to dinnerware. Edith Heath (1911-2005) was a Danish farm girl from Iowa, who reinvented herself as one of the central figures of midcentury West Coast Modernist design, founding Heath Ceramics in 1947 with a mission to produce sturdy, functional and affordable ceramic products — primarily dishware and tiles — in a cool, Bauhaus-derived vocabulary of clear, simplified geometry and cool, subtle colors. The company still manufactures out of Sausalito and maintains a store on Beverly Boulevard.

The subtlety of Heath’s ceramics, as well as their enormous influence on subsequent generations of patently unsubtle commercial dinnerware, might make you overlook them at the swap meet, but assembled en masse, it’s easy to see why Heath’s contemporaries — including Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames — incorporated her ceramic designs in their own projects. Less well-known advocates included Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey, who covered the Pasadena Museum of Art — now the Norton Simon — with 115,000 handmade, exquisitely variegated, chocolate-colored Heath (bar) tiles. It’s worth an extra 10-minute trek to the end of Colorado for dessert.

click to enlarge Benny Chan, Tr11_15 (2008)
  • Benny Chan, Tr11_15 (2008)

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But to return to our PMCA entrées: The remainder of the large main gallery is taken up by a small survey of work from a peculiar California art-historical moment — when the hippest campus in the state wasn’t CalArts or UCLA or SFAI or CCAC but UC Davis, located just west of Sacramento in the Culture-forsaken Central Valley, and known primarily as an agriculture and veterinary university. Somehow, Davis wound up home to five of the more idiosyncratic representational American artists of the 1960s. Probably the most famous of these is Wayne Thiebaud — still a Davis faculty member, and subject of a traveling retrospective that will itself visit PMCA in October — whose small, thickly impastoed paintings of heavily frosted cakes (as well as other mundane food items, like the 1961 Cup of Coffee included here) added an unlikely note of structuralist mimeticism to the early-’60s Pop scene with which he was associated.

Second-generation Bay Area Figurationist Manuel Neri was at Davis for more than three decades, and the show — titled “You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Studio Art Faculty” (and assembled from work in the permanent collection of Davis’ Nelson Gallery) — includes several of his singular nude studies painted in luminous tempera or cast in bronze. But it’s the three remaining artists whose work is most persuasive regarding the existence of a coherent art movement emanating from this unlikely place and time.

Robert Arneson, Roy DeForest and William Wiley are three of the central figures in one of the most awkwardly defined and frequently overlooked movements in the movement-rich art world of the ’60s and ’70s. “Funk Art” was said to include all manner of hip Bay Area figures, including Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick, Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo (as well as Angelenos like Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, Peter Voulkos and Ken Price), and said to combine found or unlikely materials, garish and exaggerated formal elements, ridiculous humor, taboo subjects, wordplay and sociopolitical awareness. That’s a pretty wide net, and essentially boiled down to a West Coast oppositional umbrella for artists pursuing the handmade, heterogeneous, content-driven, visually Maximalist work of the California Assemblage artists.

But Davis was identified as the movement’s ground zero, and “You See” provides a solid glimpse into the basis of this conjecture, particularly with the inclusion of two of the antifunctional, antidecorative ceramicist Arneson’s important works: a 70-square-foot depiction in clay of his sprawling tract home, called The Palace at 9 a.m., and a massive bronze headstone depicting, in darkly irreverent words and imagery, Jackson Pollock’s fatal drunken car crash. DeForest’s scratchy, cluttered faux-primitive scenes — often featuring dogs and other spirit animals in jaunty, fragmented post-Cubist landscapes — were essentially nonverbal but connected with the similarly outsider-appreciative Hairy Who group out of Chicago, as well as the semiotically informed new image painting of Basquiat and others who emerged in the ’70s and ’80s.

Wiley — one of the criminally under-recognized living masters of American art — often borders on a genuine outsider sensibility, with a fractally curdled pictorial draftsmanship and seething stream of verbal invention (as well as an exquisite stained glass–cum–coloring book palette and an intricate and arcane symbolic vocabulary) informing a restless array of multimedia work ranging from painting, drawing and printmaking to mixed-media sculpture, installation, film and performance. “You See” contains some strong Wiley lithographs, but only one major work — 1971’s Sea Marks Man’s Ship; a typically obscure but compelling meditation on the futility of art-making (or something) in the form of a trompe l’oeil painting of what appears to be a quilted blackboard, with assorted accoutrements. Wiley’s own retrospective also opens in October, at the Smithsonian, after which it will travel to Berkeley — L.A. fans will have to travel up the I-5 to see it.

Of the two landscape projects bracketing the Heath and “You See” exhibits, architectural photographer Benny Chan’s is the more formally elegant and serene — surprising, considering that “TRAFFIC!” consists of huge, incredibly detailed aerial depictions of gridlocked L.A. freeways shot with a purpose-built 8-by-10 camera while dangling from the side of a helicopter. I’m not convinced of the ostensible consciousness-raising purpose of the work (“Heavens, you mean rush-hour traffic in L.A. sucks?”) but the built-in compositional framework and undeniable curvilinear beauty of the interchanges paired with Chan’s technical prowess make a persuasive argument for getting your own helicopter.

PMCA’s front project room is given over to the latest version of “a never-ending painting in three dimensions” by young landscape artist (and L.A. Weekly Annual Biennial alumnus) Annie Lapin. Over the past few years, Lapin’s lushly painted montage vistas have been subjected to increasing amounts of stress, from barely discernible discontinuities in slightly quirky pastoral scenes to furious torrents of barely cohesive planar fragments rendered in garishly saturated colors. With a relatively conventional solo show at Angles under her belt, and recent paintings included in Emma Gray’s “Bitch Is the New Black” all-girl show at Honor Fraser (which also has a piece by Manuel Neri’s daughter Rudy, and a spectacular new Mindy Shapero sculpture — through August 29) and L.A. Louver’s Biannual “Rogue Wave” (also including L.A. Weekly Biennial alums Kaz Oshiro and Dianna Molzan, through September 19), Lapin takes risks on several levels with Parallel Deliria Iteration.

Reconfigured from an earlier version shown at Grand Arts in Kansas City, PDI is a site-specific, immersive representation of a landscape in a constant flux of disintegration and reassembly. Created partially from studio debris, partly in a ritualish collaborative happening, it not only abdicates the autonomy and controllability of easel painting for a process more akin to the chaotic agenda of nature but also wreaks considerable havoc on Lapin’s barely launched brand identity. Plus much of the strength of Lapin’s canvases hinges on the containment and amplification of their shredded operatic clichés — the flickering quotations from Caspar David Friedrich and Gustave Courbet, like so much debris from a turn-of-the-20th-century panorama after meeting a twister from Oz — Pandora-boxing their disintegrative forces within the confines of a rectangular, two-dimensional picture plane. And there is a degree to which the energy is dissipated in its translation into three dimensions. But Lapin is on to something. In destabilizing the pictorial coherence and amplifying the immersive theatricality of illusionistic painting, Parallel Deliria Iteration gropes for a painting practice that simultaneously exploits and undermines our culture’s deepest expectations about picture-making. Painting as arena of overacting; enter the document-shredding lion. It may not be deep-fried rock shrimp and sweet-potato dumplings with nopales salsa yet, but it’s definitely scenery worth chewing.

Edith Heath, “Tabletop Modernist”

“You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Studio Art Faculty”

Benny Chan, “TRAFFIC!”

Annie Lapin, Parallel Deliria Iteration

At Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena; through September 20.

  • Fusion Cuisine in Pasadena

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