“Representing L.A.: Pictorial Currents in Southern Californian Art,” organized by the Frye Art Museum in Seattle and now enjoying an extended run at the Laguna Art Museum, is a sprawling polemic of an exhibition that gives much reason to appreciate the Southland’s thriving but undervalued (some might say scorned) representational traditions. As many of the show‘s hundred-plus works demonstrate, an articulate human hand still brings a special resonance to plainly identifiable images (faces, bodies, landscapes, fruit bowls) that is rarely replicated in the hipper contemporary modes.
But as another fraction of the assembled work demonstrates, there are also serious disadvantages to the representational approach — most notably the fact that mediocrity is so much more obvious in a figural work than an abstract or conceptual one. The latter always creates its own terms, to an extent; there are guidelines, but they’re often obscure and esoteric. The terms of representational art, however, have been public knowledge for hundreds of years; even the least discriminating among us can tell when a figure is out of proportion or a flesh tone is wrong. What‘s more, the legacy of work that’s come to define these terms — by da Vinci, Durer, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Ingres, Manet and Eakins, to name only a very few — tends to dwarf nearly everything in its wake. When a contemporary work holds itself up to history — as many of the works in this show do — it‘s bound to fare poorly.
To be sure, all of the work included here is formally competent and admirably genuine. But the pitfalls are prominent: nostalgia, mimicry, sentimentality, cliche, conceptual vacuity and so on. The exhibition might have made a stronger statement for the resurgence of realism with half the work it now contains, and a stronger statement yet if it had ventured more boldly outside the realm of the pleasant and into the hinterlands of lowbrow, illustration, comics and political graphics, where the function of representation is constantly expanding. One wonders how differently it might have come together had it been organized by the Laguna Art Museum itself, which has become something of a pioneer in the charting of these waters. As it is, the show does include a number of artists who are important for crossing boundaries — Robert Williams, Llyn Foulkes, Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon and Judith Baca, in particular — but, due to its thematic structure, has no means of distinguishing the nature of their innovation from the slew of more traditional work.
That said, the presence of mediocrity is actually, on the whole, very instructive and renders the show’s stronger works — which do point toward a representational revival — all the more notable. Two general trends emerge with particular vitality. The first of these involves artists who approach representation as a political tool for grappling with notions of social and cultural identity. These include Salomon Huerta‘s rear-view portraits, which pointedly deny the viewer easy access into his young Latino subjects; Cynthia Osborne’s Megalith Envy (1998), a lighthearted commentary on the gender dynamics of the art world (it depicts a woman‘s hand sketching a blatantly phallic rock formation); and, most humorous, Margaret Morgan’s self-explanatory Portrait of Sigmund Freud as Feminine Sexuality (1993), a portrait composed of clipped pubic hair. While the initial buzz of “identity politics” may have faded a decade or so ago, the inclusion of these works reminds us that the legacy of Western realism — defined largely by the efforts of white men — is still filled with one-sided viewpoints and unchallenged assumptions.
The second trend pulls representational techniques in the opposite direction: not into the social realm but out of it. These paintings (I have seen no print or sculptural equivalent) incorporate elements of narrative and allegory to convey reality as it might be experienced in a dream — almost mythologically. Playing heavily on Baroque and Classical traditions, they fuse intense, melancholic emotion with an otherworldly sense of detachment. Particularly outstanding among these are Aaron Smith‘s The Little Glutton (1998), a haunting image of indulgence that emerges from the canvas like a vision in a sorcerer’s pool; Enjeong Noh‘s Doppelganger (1999), a double self-portrait that draws the viewer into an exquisitely quiet sort of reverie; and Anita Janosova’s Coming of Age (1993), a large, powerful allegory of female adolescence.
A plethora of individual works also challenge the bounds of representation. The surprising number of outstanding landscapes — particularly those by James Doolin, Lauren Richardson, Peter Alexander, David Hines, John Register and Todd Brainard — demonstrates that there are as many ways to render place as there are individual viewpoints, and a few exceptional still lifes — most notably those of Ruprecht von Kaufmann and Enjeong Noh — prove that fruit will never be boring as long as it is painted with grace. Tanja Rector‘s wax-covered paintings of women’s bodies — clasped hands in one series of works and a life-size pregnant figure in another — are simply exquisite. Jacquelyn McBain‘s classically rendered flower paintings — symbolic portraits of the saints — are profoundly stirring. And Darlene Campbell’s lovely Renaissance-style paintings of Orange County landscapes prove that it‘s possible to incorporate art-historical techniques without smothering a work’s contemporary relevance.
If these works exemplify the range of possibilities available to the artist who chooses to work in a representational mode, Kim Dingle‘s My Struggles With Jesus (1995) comes the closest to delineating the purpose behind such a choice. One of the exhibition’s few notable three-dimensional works, this installation features six handmade Jesus dolls lined up on a small couch as though for a child‘s tea party — each with a different color of skin or hair — with the pieces of an uncompleted seventh lying on the rug at their feet, as though abandoned in haste.
The remarkable thing about this work is its simple, heartbreaking earnestness. This is how we move through the world, it suggests: sorting through a paltry assortment of materials, images, words and notions, trying to piece together some object that resembles a reliable truth. Each work in this show is, in a sense, one such object.