Why They Hate Us

The American Scenesters bubbleheaded Californians

Photo by Keith MayI've never held truck with those who declared in the 1970s that painting was dead. Of course, until now, I'd never seen "California Holiday: E. Gene Crain Collection."

Taken separately, almost every one of the 85 or so American Scene works collected by attorney Crain is exquisitely painted and lovely. But together, those 85 or so paintings create a whole that is myopic, self-centered, shallow and absolutely detached from the world outside Gidget's beach party. It's everything people hate about California: the bubbleheaded navel-gazing, the entitlement of the sun-kissed, the blithe disassociation from anything that might have portent or meaning. It's as happy as a Massengill ad. And those are its good points.

Joan Didion wrote that during the Summer of Love, she was constantly jotting down license-plate numbers of suspicious folks she was convinced were going to break down, Manson-style. You don't hear a lot about the quiet paranoia in sunny Southern California at the time. Everything was free love and good times. And in this exhibition, too, California is all Disney, all the time, minus Bambi's mom getting whacked.

Here is some of what you will see.

•Rex Brandt's beautiful Newport Beach from 1976. Blues and taupes fade together.

•His Surfriders, their bodies silhouetted beneath a beating orange sky.

•Lots and lots of Millard Sheets, whose fame I don't really get, including, for some reason—Equus?—a naked man with a horse.

•Joan Irving's Dancing Rags, in which sea-green hills beneath tender blue skies fade in the background while torn white rags flutter from barbed wire. It's gorgeous.

•Charles Payzant's On Leave, in which sailors and their honeys cavort by a lake in a manner extremely similar to Paul Cadmus' good and scandalous (and gender-bending) sailor orgies.

•Dan Lutz's Fauvist Roofs of the Village, with red and purple shadows that are thick but not choppy, scuffed but not scraggly.

So what the hell's my problem? Why am I getting such a bug up my ass over truly beautiful paintings by artists Californians can be proud of? I think it's the homogeneity, like a Republican Women's Guild luncheon. All are happy, happy watercolors of beach scenes with umbrellas, or oils of the lovely, golden California hills, or hibiscus flowers, or something else equally insipid. While American Scene painting was divided between Social Realists showing grit and grime and Regionalists showing pretty-pretty self-congratulations on having the good taste to live somewhere with a nice landscape, the Crain collection (at least as it's curated here) gives short shrift to the dark side of the soul. The Social Realists get a small room filled with relatively tame figures. The exceptions are Brandt's Brakeman at Colton, the painting he produced for a magazine series—the worker silhouetted, grand but somber, against a white sky—and the more famous but less effective Rain at Box Springs Camp. Everything else is Sandra Dee.

Downstairs, longtime Laguna Canyon artist Andy Wing does what artists in the 1960s and '70s did: he reviles the traditional figure in favor of far-out cosmic grooviness. Normally, Color Field painting brings out in me an insane desire to bitch-slap the perpetrators, with a few exceptions (like the peaceful but weighty dappled oceans of Joe Goode). But after slogging through the upstairs galleries' traditionalism and sameness, I was ready to put the pistol to "Painting" myself.

See, the problems with Color Field in general are its laziness (see John McCracken), its cynical slickness (see John McCracken), and its smugness: it thinks it's so damn cool and subversive. Oh, and also, they're usually just plain ugly.

But with Wing's work, each of those elements is absent. Lazy? Wing adds to his thick pools of paint for sometimes upward of 10 years. They are not dashed off or churned out; they are perfect harmonies of sculpted color. Unlike works by other nonrepresentational painters, they are not interchangeable squiggles and drips in series of 20 or more. Wing's pools of paint become isthmuses and peninsulas; tendrils of color shine like abalone. And they are not finished until they're finished.

Slick? Smug? I don't think that's what Wing—an old, gentle giant of a man—is aiming for; he's more Zen than that, but without the usual New Age annoyances. He works in happy hues that the cynical and slick would mock. Symposium features delicate mergings of aqua and lime, sepia and magenta, gray to lavender, feathered together in spills and washes with crusts like dried, cracked Play-Doh and strings like stepped-on gum. He even uses a pink that's like melted strawberry ice cream.

And ugly? Wing actually employs beautiful colors and finds harmony in them. One-Two holds every green imaginable, shimmering together and pulling back apart. Abstract Expressionists are supposed to use color to evoke emotion, but the only emotion I usually feel looking at them is one of horror. Looking at Wing, it's one of peace.

"California Holiday: E. Gene Crain Collection" and "The Chances of Andy Wing: A Mini-Retrospective" at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Open Thurs.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through July 7. $5; seniors/students, $4; kids 12 and under, free.
 
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