Scenes From a Marriage

At home with the Strombotnes

"The Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives," the new art show at Santa Ana's SpaceOnSpurgeon gallery, features the husband-and-wife artist team of James and Tere Strombotne. The show does, indeed, say a lot about the special mysteries of marriage . . . more, perhaps, than the artists themselves intended.

I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of him until now, but James Strombotne has had a very long, respectable career. He had his first solo show in 1956 at the Studio 44 gallery in San Francisco, and in the years since, he's piled up the accolades. His work has been showcased in 75 solo shows and 12 retrospectives and been featured in two Whitney Biennials. His art is now in the permanent collection of big-deal museums such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Jack Nicholson is a big fan, and you can't beat that.

Tere Strombotne, on the other hand, is a comparatively new and unknown artist, with a sideline as a Realtor. She has a website set up, theartofcoastalliving.com, and the ad copy pledges that in the coming months, the site will "showcase the best homes and investments in Orange County and the visionary paintings of world-class artist, James Strombotne."

Floating Girl. Image courtesy of SpaceOnSpurgeon.
Floating Girl. Image courtesy of SpaceOnSpurgeon.

Now, you read something like that, and it's tempting to imagine Tere riding on her husband's coattails, using his name to get her own work into a gallery show. You can picture her as a kind of art-world Lucy Ricardo, scheming to get into Ricky's act at MOMA. But that's just the most cynical interpretation—and probably not the most accurate one. For one thing, Tere's work is worthy in its own right. For another, anybody who's been married knows that these sorts of situations can get very complicated, that they have nuances not always appreciated by outsiders.

Say you're good at doing something—you've become famous for it, even—and your spouse has ambitions in your field. Perhaps, on some level, you worry they're not quite ready to step up into your league. But you see their potential, you see they have underappreciated talent, and you love them, so you help them. Is it a terrible thing to use your fame to get the world to pay a little attention to this person you think is so amazing? Well, no, it's not. It's kind of adorable, really. (And besides, did you ever notice how whenever Lucy did finally manage to sneak herself into Ricky's act, she almost invariably killed?)

Having never met James and Tere Strombotne, it's not my place to guess if they make for a compatible couple in real life. But their paintings do play off one another in a highly appealing way: James' paintings are rougher, edgier, a mix of painterly color and sketchy, almost cartoonish linework. There's a mildly satirical element to his work: The man and wife of Cool Couple are anything but (the husband is wearing an oversize suit that makes him look like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense), and his Smokers are a quiet trio, two men and a woman all puffing away on their coffin nails and nursing their drinks in some dive bar, caught in one of those directionless moments when the conversation has wound down. James' men and women are rather ambivalent-looking creatures—not so much with one another, but with life in general (they seem relieved to have found each other).

Tere's work is flatter, sweeter, more glamorous and genteel. Women are front and center in her paintings, and what serene, sleepy-looking figures they are, with old-timey swimsuits and wan little smiles. Her Floating Girl is lost in private reveries, prettily bobbing along in a pool, a giant, goofy flower atop her bathing cap—she could be the pampered-but-sweet-tempered daughter of the Smokers.

The Strombotnes have two very distinct styles, and both play into our preconceptions about gender to some degree—across a room, you could probably guess which work is by the husband and which is by the wife. But put them side by side, and they look like they belong together.

"James and Tere Strombotne: The Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives" at SpaceOnSpurgeon, 210 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (949) 464-0105; www.spaceonspurgeon.com. Call for hours. Through Aug. 31. Free.

 
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