“Millard Sheets? What can you say about Millard Sheets?” Rebecca Schoenkopf wondered recently; the “. . . that hasn't already been said about Thomas Kincaid” was understood. The latest in a long line of Sheets' hangings is on now at Laguna Art Museum and maybe she's right. What can be said about the late watercolorist—bulwark of the California School of painters who came of age in the 1930s—that hasn't been? Bulwark isn't strong enough; he's really more of a keel—but what's left to say about what Sheets said of a now-vanished California? Or what F. Scott Fitzgerald said of the Jazz Age, or what the late Dr. Jonas Salk said of public health, or what Gandhi said about whatever he was on about? Yeah sure, they're a great buncha dead guys; let's move on. Let's talk about Pinochet; he just died. (Let's not.)
Stick to Sheets—the Orange County artist we'd most like to miss, if he'd ever go away. He won't. Ever; he's the Ed Roth of the California School—Ed Roth, whom Juxtapoz named Artist of the [past] Century. Every coupla years, there's a Sheets show in Orange County; this one is “Millard Sheets in Mexico, 1932-1942,” exploring whatever we don't know of the artist's periodic painting expeditions to Guaymas, Sonora, on the coast. And, no, there's probably nothing left to reveal about Sheets. Still, this is a fine show.
It's probably best to see it this time of year, when the sun is farther from the earth, and Orange County's natural wonder—visible from the bluff just down the street from Laguna Art Museum—is not as meatheadedly on display. For what Sheets captured, in a few watery blobs of pigment on special white paper, was the way this part of the world—and parts of Mexico—looked when there were fewer people and Coca-Cola advertisements. That's hard to believe now, and difficult to see on a drive through Laguna in any but the most opportune, wintry conditions, but his paintings show the way parts of Mexico and Mexican California once really were: sunburned and empty.
His Untitled, two figures in a landscape, from 1939, was most likely painted in Mexico—but with its scrubby, shabby little trees, could almost be wild Laguna Canyon. People here are an afterthought, under a high sky and a brilliant corona sun; you can just see two shadowy women making their way through a landscape not unlike this one. The artist renders it in verdant, rich greens and yellows—the result, no doubt, of a good rainfall. In his country, as in our own, a little rain makes all the difference.
Weather, particularly clouds, figures predominantly in many of these works. In his 1932 Borderland, painted the year this show picks for its beginning—when Sheets was teaching in Claremont and just coming into his own style from Impressionism—he searches a muddy sky for the same unearthly light reflected from the ocean on a good day in Laguna. He finds it, barely. A storm seems imminent but somehow light shines through a burro's spiky mane. Sheets was still young when he made these paintings, but he tells just enough with his brush to make them come alive. You supply the rest, from your memories of the burros, the farmers, the women you've known.
Faces and personalities are few here, but somehow, as in 1937's Guaymas Bull,they come out of nowhere. Here, a blank slate of a woman—still partially rendered in sketching, under the watercolor—walks off the paper, over a broad muddy ground, while behind her the bull lumbers by. It'd be purely flat, but Sheets' brush somehow skips the color around to give it depth. It's beautiful.
And it gives this show a reason to be, beyond a mere showcase for Sheets' growing skill with form (as seen in his curvy Horses Running From Lightning). We need “Sheets in Mexico” because with every passing year—its demolitions and damage to our coastline—old Orange County is harder to recall. Sheets does that for us—and he makes us help. And it's more fun when you help.
“MILLARD SHEETS IN MEXICO, 1932-1942” AT LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 CLIFF DR., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 494-8971; WWW.LAGUNAARTMUSEUM.ORG. OPEN DAILY, 11 A.M.-5 P.M. THROUGH JAN. 21. $8-$10.