OCC’s ‘Jim DeFrance: A Retrospective’ Is a Graceful Ode to Life’s Release

Dazzle. Image courtesy of Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion/Orange Coast College

The deep emotion in curator Tom Dowling’s voice is palpable as he slips on his glasses and leans in to examine his late friend Jim DeFrance’s work. As his hand runs over the graceful curves of the rippling carved-wood sculpture Rainbow, his fingers touch here, there and down under, highlighting the spots, scrapes and gouges that he and Orange Coast College professor Leland Paxton restored.

His voice again goes soft when he talks about the time he and co-curator Trevor Norris rescued other pieces from a storage shed, which had been subjected to leaks for several years without notice by the artist, when his failing health from cancer began to take precedence over any thoughts of artistic legacy.

Planned as an exhibition of DeFrance’s work during his lifetime—an attempt to correct his exclusion in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time in 2011—Norris and Dowling assumed the artist would want to include late-career work. They decided to let him decide, but his ill health postponed, then scuttled, their plans. The two reintroduced the idea of a show to DeFrance’s widow a few years after his death and now present “Jim DeFrance: A Retrospective” at OCC’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion.

Rainbow. Image courtesy of Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion/Orange Coast College

That Dowling and Norris took that commitment to their friend seriously speaks volumes about them as individuals, but it’s the care and insightful choices they’ve made whittling a 50-year career to a little more than 30 pieces, as well as the life narrative it provides, that’s the real achievement.

As much a sculptor as a painter, DeFrance’s 1960s and early ’70s work play on optical illusions: The assembled sharp triangles and rectangles of Dazzler, painted in red and cyan stripes that make it quiver with energy, feel three-dimensional, the two negative spaces in the center allowing your eyes a gentle place to focus. Just a few years later, Saint Cloud’s black canvas also plays with light, its rows of slots cut in a grid allowing the capture of a dim glow. The back, strategically painted to bounce color against the white gallery wall behind it, reads as a prime example of the Light and Space art movement’s influence on the painter.

There’s an obsessive quality to the almost Mondrian compartmentalization of color, but instead of the Dutch painter’s blocks of white breaking things up, DeFrance uses wide blocks of black, formally uniting the paintings Dancer (Tappers) and Dancer 6, as well as the similarly decorated credenza, Flywheel, all from 1984. This follows into the strips of vibrant color, black paint painstakingly combed within each one, creating waves that frame the three paintings in the Tros triptych, Ilion, Ilium and Ilios, all named after Greek cities. As the levels collapse in on themselves, we’re given Zeus’ eye-view, gazing into the cloudy black center of each frame.

That stare into oblivion, or walk through a dark doorway, seems a likely harbinger, though that depressive quality is briefly contradicted by the bright, cheerful zigzags of 1993’s Euphaedra Zampa, named after a type of butterfly. The intricate series of door frames appears in the late ’90s, with the dark doorway on the left having a similar black limbo inside as the Tros, the only exit because the one on the right is barred to entry.

Spiritual transition wraps up the end of DeFrance’s career, with more somber wood doorways, many using a fecund green and inspired by traditional Japanese Shinto shrine torii. The final images he painted are reconstituted abstractions of birds. The Corvus series are symbols of death, the large beaks of the crows resembling oversized shark fins. The idea of DeFrance surrounded by these in the last years of his life suggests an unsettling but acknowledged inevitability, but he’s also offering us reconciliation and, most important, a grace note about freedom and our eventual return to nature. 

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Image by Unicornkiller1

I’m thankful to curator Micol Hebron’s Unicornkiller1 Instagram account for alerting me to artist Alison Pirie’s installation on the front lawn at Chapman University. It no longer exists, but it begs mentioning as it was a striking, poetic distillation of grief for the lives of students lost by gunfire on college campuses. The 62 chairs and desks stacked haphazardly is immediately recognizable as a flawed barricade placed in front of a door to hinder the progress of a shooter. Bringing to mind the chaos that erupts, it also reminds us of historical and literary images of political resistance (think those impenetrable roadblocks of furniture during various French revolutions). Pirie’s stripped-down aesthetic here couldn’t be more effective, its pointed pathos a fitting memorial at a campus more famous for its undie runs and recent animal cruelty than for its moral stance. One hopes administrators would consider asking Pirie to re-construct her piece, keeping it in place for as long as the issue continues to plague the country.

Jim DeFrance: A Retrospective” at Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion Main Gallery, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa; www.orangecoastcollege.edu/academics/divisions/visual_arts/Arts_Pavilion/Pages/Current-Exhibits.aspx. Open Mon.-Wed. & Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; April 7, noon-4 p.m. Through April 7. Free.

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