The Figure of Expressionism

Photo by Jack GouldWant to feel really sophisticated? Urbane, even? Then by all means go to a show of Abstract Expressionism—the blotches and squiggles perpetrated by all manner of avant-garde '50s types, particularly those in more-chic-than-you San Francisco and New York—and muse (to yourself—nobody likes a loud muser) that the early squiggles and blotches didn't have the refinement of color and line that the later squiggles and blotches conveyed. Pretentious? You bet! Self-congratulatory? Always.

Addictive? Uh-huh.

While Abstract Expressionism usually gives me a roiling case of scabies, a posthumous exhibit of the work of Tom Field (1930-1995) at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art didn't make me itch at all.

"Pausing to See" is hung sparingly at OCCCA's largish Santa Ana gallery, and it has to be. With the saturation of pigment zigzagging across Field's canvases, any more than one—two, max—works per wall would cause the kind of sensory overload that gives Japanese schoolchildren epilepsy.

The first thing you're faced with in the gallery is Deep Blues, a work from the 1950s that's all wide, straight strokes with just a few brown curves suggesting people standing in a line. I'm not sure if it makes sense to try to discern figures in a genre that calls itself abstract. But Field seemed to be trying quietly to resist the move toward pure abstraction and the subsequent denigration of the figure—or at least to sneak the figure in, unfashionable though it was. Even when a Field painting is almost entirely blue blocks—like a patchwork quilt—there still seem to be people trying to fight their way off the canvas.

It helps that later works become more blatantly figurative until, at the end of Field's life, they culminate in paintings that are entirely representational. If he ever was married to the idea of abstraction, he sure didn't stick with it—unlike such folks as John McCracken, who are still churning out $30,000 slabs of red.

In the early 1970s, Field was still heavily abstracted but now with a point and a message. There are very few Untitleds in the show. Even when something is a bloody mess—like Kent State, from 1970—you can tell from the title what you're supposed to be seeing. Kent State? Oh, yes. There are the bloody corpses. There is a storm trooper. Even without the title, you'd know it was a massacre—the lines themselves are violent—but you wouldn't know which massacre. Field didn't seem to like making people guess. God bless him.

It's fascinating to note Field's evolution—though some black-clad types might sneer it was merely a dumbing down for commercial purposes. His paintings over the decades became less rash and more minimalist, with an economy of color and line better suited to an older man. But while his later paintings were less jarring and more pleasing to look at—and defter than his earlier ones—it wasn't necessarily for the good.

For instance, his Gulf War from 1991 echoes 1970's Kent State: there is the same high horizon, with a washed-out sky above. There is the same use of color, though in Gulf War, it's more evenly applied. It's a lovely painting, but—unlike the earlier work—unless you were looking at the title on the wall text, you wouldn't know it was supposed to be violent. The tracer missiles in the sky could just as well be seagulls in flight. With his broad, frenetic brush strokes transforming themselves over the years into strokes that are delicate and almost calligraphic, the picture becomes soothing, like a beach scene. It's beautiful—and about as warlike as a strawberry gelato. Rage is for the young. And Barbara Coe.

Maybe it's the sparseness of the desert that's so conducive to Abstract Expressionism. But Jean Fitch Jones' works across the street from OCCCA in the Santora Building consist of scenes made from her second home in Palm Springs. And unlike earlier works, they don't seem to be slashes of blue Abstract Expression for Abstract Expression's sake. Instead, they're actual scenes; though you don't necessarily know what you're looking at, you know it springs from some well other than "This is a pretty shade of blue and would look good slathered on top of itself." There's now a connection to something in the world—something that moves her canvases beyond mere decorations to explorations of life and God, much more so than her earlier canvases, which, if I recall, dealt with issues of her spirituality . . . somehow . . . by being blue. It becomes her.

"Tom Field: Pausing to See" at Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore, Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517. Through June 30. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Jean Fitch Jones shows at Pece-Jones Gallery, 207 N. Broadway, Ste. K, Santa Ana, (714) 545-ARTS. Through June 30. Call for hours.


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