‘Art Colony: The Laguna Beach Art Association, 1918-1935’ at Laguna Art Museum Revisits Another Time of Upheaval

The Pier at Laguna, Pier Evening by Clarence Hinkle

A great art upheaval hit the United States in 1913, as the first abstract paintings arrived from Europe in such great numbers that an armory was needed to display them all. Horror and outrage was the response, not unlike European audiences’ near riots at The Rite of Spring, a ballet with dissonance in Stravinsky’s score and staccato and jerky, even violent choreography.

Marcel Duchamp’s fascinating, fractured Nude Descending a Staircase was just too much, even for New York City, what with women taking to the streets to demand the right to vote and other effronteries. One critic declared it “an explosion in a shingle factory.” The cry “Where is the nude!?” echoed well beyond the Cubist room; despite the lack of naked ladies, lines to get into the show were lengthy.

Around this time, another phenomenon sprang up: for-profit art associations formed by artists to exhibit and sell their own works in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Woodstock, New York; and Old Lyme, Connecticut. Deep rifts opened in these groups as members began to incorporate modernist ideas onto their canvases. To this day, the controversy echoes in the Lyme Art Association’s adamant slogan: “Continuing 100 years of representational art.”

But 3,000 miles away, the Laguna Beach Art Association’s (LBAA) modernists weren’t quite as radical, staying more in the realm of semi-abstract, says Deborah Solon, co-curator of “Art Colony: The Laguna Beach Art Association, 1918-1935.” The exhibition is the centerpiece of Laguna Art Museum’s (LAM) celebration of its roots, as well as the century mark of LBAA’s prolific and talented membership. Though focusing on its first 28 years, the association persevered through the Great Depression and World War II, not morphing into the museum until 1972.

Gone are LAM’s white walls. Solon and co-curator Janet Blake cover the galleries in maroon, green and goldenrod, paying homage to the association’s early exhibition spaces while showcasing the paintings to perfection. A two-color wainscoting effect transforms the museum’s big Steele gallery, which, starting in 1929, was LBAA’s first permanent home, thanks to founder Anna Hills’ fundraising prowess. The curators’ light touch provides biography, history and context without eclipsing the power of the paintings, which go way beyond seascapes.

While an entire room is devoted to Laguna-based modernists, their works appear throughout. Standouts include Mabel Alvarez, one of the youngest founders; Clarence Hinkle, who gets my imaginary awards for most abstract and thickest paint application; Millard Sheets, whose undulating landscapes hint at American art’s future; and Joseph Kleitsch, an early artivist whose paintings convey what it was like to be a local.

Alvarez was born in Hawaii, where her physician father studied leprosy at an altogether different kind of colony. In the maroon gallery, In the Garden (circa 1922) draws a crowd in 2018. Attracted first by the subject’s face, which glows like a plumeria backlit by the sun, the stylish woman with blunt-cut hair in the scooped neck of a flapper’s corset-free shift dress has a floral pattern behind her that registers as wallpaper. Rising up and over her head is a strong branch festooned with blossoms in fuchsia, violet, white and yellow that just couldn’t be blooming there. The flowers continue underneath the frame, leaving abstract shapes behind.

What at first appeared flat becomes lush and dense; interior and exterior mesh, then switch places. Alvarez plays with dimension via masterful subtlety. Even before showing in LBAA’s first exhibit in July 1918, the Los Angeles Museum (now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) exhibited her work, 24 years later giving her a solo show. Alvarez lived to age 93, painting well into her 80s.

Hinkle gets miles of shoreline, with cottages, coves, sand, cliffs, boats and beachgoers on his small paintings that are the most abstract of the show. The heavy paint and blurry edges somehow evoke great detail, while pointy applications jut toward you like a lunar surface. The Pier at Laguna, Pier Evening (circa 1924) takes advantage of dusk to eschew representation even further, yet it still captures water’s movement and uncanny light.

Sheets, Hinkle’s student, brings mostly darkness to the astounding Abandoned (1933). The bendings and twistings of land, burnt trees and a tilting windmill hint at Abstract Expressionism still-to-come. Gray sky and three white horses startle against the shadowy blacks and browns of a Chino Hills farm, deserted to make way for the Prado Dam.

“In 1924,” the curators note about Hungarian-born Kleitsch, who got to town in 1920, “he told a newspaper reporter that developers would soon change the fabric of the town and that he had therefore made a conscious decision to document the community in his work.” Quite the soothsayer, he’d be gob-smacked to see all the landslide-causing McMansions everywhere. His Laguna Road, now owned by the city, and The Old Post Office capture a slice of Laguna when it was both country and beachy.

Arthur Rider’s House In Laguna Beach (circa 1934) haunts me. Ramshackle even when it was painted, with laundry hanging on its lived-in porch, the scene reminds me of an old, witchy client from when I was a packer for a moving company, back before Patti Smith’s Horses was released. The crone had probably lived in that Laguna treehouse of hers for 50 years; maybe she had even known LBAA’s founding members. As the last of her things was loaded into the van, she approached me—the only female, but still a snotty teen—and said she wanted to see her belongings get weighed because she knew they’d walk horses onto those trucks to cheat the total. Horses? In a Laguna Niguel warehouse?

Now I’m the crone, wandering the exhibit and marveling that nothing looks old to me, neither the representational gems nor the ones championing modern art’s first shockwaves. I wonder where the next great upheaval will occur. My gut tells me it won’t manifest in the art world, though artists are already at work to bring it on.

Art Colony: Laguna Beach Art Association: 1918-1935” at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach; lagunaartmuseum.org. Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Jan. 13, 2019. $5-$7.

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