ON JUNE 1, A NEW MUSEUM OPENED ITS DOORS around the corner from the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. Founded by collector and self-storage magnate Robert Oltman and his wife, Arlene (who live on the roof!), the Pasadena Museum of California Art is dedicated to filling the gap created by East Coast and internationalist pandering by other local institutions. For its inaugural show, PMCA invited four different curators to contribute their visions to “On-Ramps: Transitional Moments in California Art.” The result is a series of freeze-frames that take us from 1903 to 1978 in a careening, white-knuckle voyage worthy of its namesake.

The initial gallery houses “Impressionism to Post-Impressionism: Style Beyond Subject,” which will draw in and put off about equal numbers of art lovers. As much as California landscape art has been disdained, it must be remembered that this was the avant-garde of its time, and ambitious artists would be drawn to this style to prove their chops. This is evident in curator Nancy Moure's selection of masterfully painted works, which, in addition to the genres mentioned in the title, embraces proto-Cubist and unclassifiable works. Especially impressive are Clayton Price's 1924 Coastline, which caught my eye in LACMA's “Made in California” show, and Howard Arden Edwards' shiny, fractured Shadows (Antelope Valley), both of which push the landscape in the direction of the Bay Area slatherings of Diebenkorn and David Parks.

Certainly the most revelatory of the shows is “Post-Surrealism: Genesis and Equilibrium/Pictures From the Cerebral World,” curated by Art in America's man in Los Angeles, Michael Duncan. One of Duncan's proclivities is for the unearthing of previously little-known byways of regional California Modernism, as exemplified by his Sister Corita exhibition at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery in 2000. “Post-Surrealism” is, if anything, an even more impressive exercise in archaeology and rehabilitation.

The movement itself, originally called New or Subjective Classicism, was co-founded by L.A. artists Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg in 1934 — a point at which knowledge of Surrealism hadn't penetrated very deeply into American popular consciousness. Nevertheless, Post-Surrealism was posited as a corrective to the “unorganized psychic meanderings” of its still-flourishing European forebear. While the exhibition catalog reprints a variety of earnest manifestoes and other texts attempting to explicate the precise difference between the two movements, it seems unavoidable that the Post-Surrealists were laboring under both a narrow misapprehension of Surrealism's scope and an overabundance of confidence in the rational intelligibility of its own work. Not that Andre Breton was particularly coherent.

Post-Surrealism managed to survive for six years, gaining adherents, mounting exhibitions and garnering positive reviews, until the double whammy of WWII and lucrative mural commissions from the WPA finally dissolved it. Judging by this sampling, it was a good six years. Many of the paintings are merely on par with second-generation Surrealist works, but a number of them veer off into strange territories that defy categorization.

Untitled (Dr. Entozoak) by Reuben Kadish combines a masterfully cluttered de Chirico­esque composition — cryptic, ominous and very funny — with seemingly arbitrary surface areas filled in with what appears to be volcanic gravel. All of Kadish's works here are exceptional, as are those of the young Philip Guston, who went on to enormous art-world fame in New York first as an Abstract Expressionist, then for his cartoonish tableaux of Klansmen, giant eyeballs, cigarettes, bottles and shoes — which take on an entirely new dimension in light of his Post-Surrealist roots.

Feitelson himself is interesting mostly as a case study in how a proficient classically trained artist behaves when limited by a crackpot aesthetic formula, although when he misses his mark — as in the truly odd Narcissus, where a small realistic patch depicting a peach/butt gazing at its reflection in a mirror sends off billowing clouds of vaguely erotic thought-form abstractions — the results are powerfully disconcerting. Particularly impressive is the work of Knud Merrild, an already established Modernist recruited into the movement, and whose biomorphic collages, while bearing only occasional resemblance to the skewed linearity of the Post-Surrealist mandate, are among its most convincing and formally accomplished representatives. Lundeberg, like her co-founder, suffers somewhat from toeing the hard line, though her gifts as a draftsman and colorist shine through, and are stripped bare in the single work in On-Ramps linking the pre- and postwar L.A. art scenes.

MARINA, LUNDEBERG'S COOL, REDUCTIVE GEOmetric landscape from 1961, is one of the earliest works included in the third installment of “On-Ramps,” “Hard-Edge Abstraction to Finish Fetish.” Curated by the Weekly's own Peter Frank, it's a sumptuous dose of eye candy that traces the development, over a 10-year period, of the style that afforded L.A. its first breakthrough into international art-world prominence, and that much of today's gallery fodder mimics.

The thesis here goes as follows: As new materials became available to painters, the geometric purism of the Hard-Edge school mutated into the 3-D luster of Finish Fetish. This is something of a simplification — the term “Hard-Edge” was coined to describe the work of none other than Lorser Feitelson and his fellow “Abstract Classicists” in a benchmark LACMA show in 1959, and its legacy actually oscillates pretty evenly between the Finish Fetish of Craig Kauffman and DeWain Valentine and the Light and Space of Robert Irwin and James Turrell.

But this show doesn't claim to be comprehensive, just a tasty sampler; and with gleaming, elegant entries from Kauffman and Valentine, as well as Ron Davis, Tony DeLap, Larry Bell, Peter Alexander and a host of others, it functions as a toothsome primer to the era. Ironically, one of the most compelling aspects of the show is the work's failure to live up to its implied imperishability. Close inspection of many pieces reveals peeling laminates, feathery networks of surface abrasions, discoloration, even large dings — all of which condense into a slight, unintended patina of pathos and vanitas that actually makes the work seem less glib.

THE FINAL INSTALLMENT IN “ON-RAMPS” SUFFERS the most from the absence of explanatory text panels. Curated by the widely esteemed ex-gallerist Thomas Solomon, “Bay Area Conceptualism of the 1970s” is bound to wrinkle brows and rankle sensibilities. Which is business as usual for conceptual art, but it would be sad if the public were to come away with the impression that this is conceptualism's raison d'être.

Some of the work provides its own context — Lynn Hershman's persona-blurring body of work as/about her fictional alter-ego, Roberta Breitmore, is fairly self-explanatory, and if you're willing to sit through a half-hour of other videos, David Ireland's objects are correctly located as fragments of an ever-evolving house-filling installation work. Other works, like Paul Kos' succinct video and film works, are droll enough to carry themselves. Others, like Tom Marioni's From China to Czechoslovakia, consisting of a few dozen different imported beer bottles arranged in a straight line along a shelf, were clearly plagiarized from a house painter named Dave I used to drink with. Terry Fox's delicate deconstructions of the Chartres Labyrinth are surprisingly lovely, but don't even hint at the breadth and confrontational power of this artist's oeuvre. Still, if viewers can overcome the initial sense of hermeticism, they will surely come away wanting to learn more about this period, if only to find out what the hell the concept behind a two-ton pile of white sand might be.

While one could argue that the sketchiness of the four small exhibitions that make up “On-Ramps” is a serious flaw, I applaud the brevity and concision of these shows. Each amounts to a thoughtfully assembled précis of a much larger exhibit that might never make it through the labyrinths of museum-establishment hierarchies. It would be exciting to see a permanent program of this type of modest, idiosyncratic historical essay supplant the vanilla committee-curated bloat-fests and flavor-of-the-month project rooms that clog the arteries of so many of our larger cultural institutions. While the PMCA's directors have no immediate plans to extend this model, they should consider it, because it's unlikely to happen anyplace else.

ON-RAMPS: Transitional Moments in California Art | At the PASADENA MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA ART, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 568-3665 | Closed Mondays and Tuesdays Through September 1

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