Where Is the Disease?

Artists at Continents End is old Californiabefore overdevelopment

Laguna Beach kinda sucks. In the winter, people's houses fall down the hills. And in summer, when the heat is just rippling off the asphalt—'cause that's what heat does to asphalt (though, strangely, not to trees)—Coast Highway backs up at 2 o'clock on Wednesday afternoons all the way through town. Like a parking lot—pretty much the only parking lot in town, which is another problem. Especially near the art museum, which of all places, needs its own lot: the better for us to admire ourselves.

'Cause that's what we do now—check ourselves out—and in places like Laguna, which were something to see before concrete was invented, we love to look at how cool we were, back when Laguna was still God's country. It's like in They Live, where you could put on a pair of black Ray-Bans (terrible color—you look really washed out—but that was the '80s) and see who the real aliens were. In Laguna, every art gallery you go to, and every studio—which is almost every other address on Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon Road—has the landscapes you need, of pristine, untouched vistas with yellow flowers and tall grasses and wide, empty beaches where a barefoot boy with a tan could go swimming if his mom would throw down $40 for some new boardshorts.

They can remember it for you wholesale. That's why Laguna still works and why we're not out buying a gun (we still are): because when you're inside the galleries and museums, it's still this gorgeous, hot little artists' colony on a pristine, sunburnt little piece of coastline. Then you walk outside and it's $5 for a cup of coffee and $12 for a sandwich and rent is two weeks of your paychecks. If anybody—like, maybe, you?—really took a good hard look at all that, you'd be gone tomorrow. But Laguna has the panacea that keeps us all in line: the galleries and the museums, bringing us, finally, to Laguna Art Museum's current "Artists at Continent's End: The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907," a traveling exhibition from Sacramento's Crocker Museum of Art. It's perfectly Laguna, even though it's all "One Hundred Artists See Monterey," because Monterey looked like Carmel/Big Sur/Laguna Beach once—like so much of rural, unspoiled California—all gnarly trees silhouetted against cliff-framed sunsets/adobes with lamps burning in the windows.

It's Laguna-esque, and it starts with a Frenchman loving us: Jules Tavernier, whose awesome oil Artists' Reverie, Dreams at Twilight, of an old prospector dude getting baked in front of a campfire, was one of the first canvases to show Northern Californians how cool Monterey was. (He also invented irony.) Old people love it.

"It's not as straightforward as it appears," one told another as they admired the smoke making shadows above Tavernier's campfire and below his sunset. "Wonder what he was smoking that night." It's fun watching people understand art. After which comes more beautifulness—Julian Rix's sun-washed butte in La Barranca Honda, Carmel Valley—but already (1877), development looms, in the accompanying text stuck to the wall: "The inland landscape depicted in this painting is visible today from Carmel Valley Road, about three miles east of Highway 1." Creeping suburbia, which you're here to avoid.

It can be done, if you avoid Leon Trousset's Father Serra Celebrates Mass at Monterey from the same year—all happy soldiers and Native Americans getting down under a sky of uniform clouds. Where is the disease? Try instead Meyer Strauss's California Pack Train, his aerial view of men and beasts making their way through the hills. Strauss knows how to paint light, and his sky is high and indistinct—slightly overcast—the way it would be. Also? Charles Rollo Peters' Untitled (Peters's Home and Studio) of Monterey from 1897 is nice—his clapboard-siding home in near-dark, a lamp burning bright in a window. And don't miss the monotone offerings of Arthur Matthews et al. (Xavier Martinez also) in the big room. Once you get used to it—some of the works nearby look like paint-by-number paintings done with mud—you realize this is the opposite end of the spectrum from the brash beauty Tavernier was painting just a few years earlier. This is Monterey in a muddy half-light—with naked bathers!—just before night. It's perfectly hazy, with just the barest hint of color—and kinda like much of Laguna now: one big blur of boutiques, spas, cafes and adorable but overpriced bungalows.

Only, you know, pretty. The way it used to be.

"ARTISTS AT CONTINENT'S END: THE MONTEREY PENINSULA ART COLONY, 1875-1907" AT LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 CLIFF DR., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 494-8971. OPEN MON.-FRI., 11 A.M.-6 P.M.; SAT., 10 A.M.-8 P.M.; SUN., 10 A.M.-6 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 1. $8-$10.

 
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