A sense of place
It’s summer vacation time—where do you want your art to take you?
With summer’s arrival, we imagine departures. It has always been so. Or at least it has been so since we were all so rudely misinformed by our derelict education system that the month of June always brings the end of responsibility. So, in adulthood, we plan escapes. If we have the means, we make them. Otherwise, we live vicariously. And how convenient that the galleries begin fillingup with art about voyaging and wayfaring and vacationing—works in various media and varying degrees of representational specificity but all infused with what seems like a general seasonal sensitivity to place. The regular demands we make of artists—that they move us, or transport us—become bluntly literal. The art becomes our surrogate for getting away from it all.
And so, whether it’s the Journeys at Chroma Gallery (see Route of the Month, page 5), the Faraway Places at Midtown Framing, the Mostly Paris photographs by Annie Seasons at the CalSTRS office, or even the “photography showcasing images captured in California and the Southwest” by Zelda Casparis at Body and Soul Women’s Fitness, June looks like a month for taking creative jaunts. As landscape photographer John Lane, whose Moving Waters fill the Appel Gallery this month, puts it: “Without perspective, who will know what can be lost?”
That’s especially true for Californians, not because we tend typically to lack perspective (although it’s probably best not to take a poll on that in just about any other state), but because we already live in a place that’s special enough to be considered a destination. If you do enough gallery hopping this month, you’ll probably notice that an awful lot of this place-sensitive, perspective-lending art actually is about California.
For example, at Sac State’s University Library Gallery, you’ll find some reassuringly familiar, yet unexpectedly exotic imagery in Teacher and Student: Paintings by Kevin McGovern and artworks by his students at Christian Brothers High School. Exotic, yes, because it shows that what really qualifies a work of art as “transporting” is its ability to induce states of mind that too often elude us in daily life. McGovern’s specialty here, as explored in his 10-strong series of acrylic-on- canvas works, is the swimming pool.
“I love to dive into a pool during a hot summer day,” McGovern says in an exhibition statement. “To me, the paintings represent that sense of joy and exhilaration as you stand in front of that pool, as you are about to dive in, and the feeling of refreshment as you actually hit the water.” He says he figures each painting for a sort of California postcard, “letting the rest of the world know what a wonderful place this is to live.” So much of what gives these images their life is that evocation of place, and the pleasures of place-specific memory and anticipation. Now, of course, you can’t actually dive into a painting. (At least not in this situation.) But to say place-specific art substitutes for experience can be devaluing, to both the experience and the art. Art like this can also be an experience. There’s pleasure to be had, too, from contemplating these pictures as artworks. It’s satisfying, somehow, to recognize and tease out the debt McGovern owes to other artists—the famously NorCal color palette of Richard Diebenkorn, the famous pool pictures David Hockney, and so on.
That’s probably in part because it’s satisfying to know how many artists have taken California seriously as a subject. It affirms our good taste in being here. Good taste—and maybe a little self-congratulation—is easy to come by in Davis’ John Natsoulas Gallery, which this month reexamines the Sacramento Valley School of landscape painting. This show reaches back over eight decades and brings together several significant artists—all of whom, bless them, have learned to encode in their work a palpable and lasting regional specificity. With their downplayed grandeur, their constitutional worship of light and color, these paintings might well be seen as beacons of California-ism for all those wanderlusting wayfarers in other parts of the world; they’re pitched as works for the ages.
Telling, too—in the plates of color and the broad, swift, self-evident brushstrokes—how close these images come to pure abstraction. They seem as gestural as they are representative, the gestures both romantic and inquiring. There’s a contagious fascination with geometry of landscape, the compression of visual perspective and fond obedience to our inescapable Central Valley flatness. Is that what it is about Deladier Almeida’s “Rhombuses,” which depicts a certain familiar river winding its way through a heartland cut up into colored tiles, that makes it so worth looking at? Helpfully, it’s a view from the air, like one you might see upon departure for your summer vacation, or upon your return. You knew what you had here, of course; you just needed to be reminded, to see it anew.
Travel can promise adventure and new perspective, but it’s fair enough, in the spirit of yearned-for summer leisure, to want to avoid challenge altogether for once, to seek only comfort. Consider the artist called Patris (nee Patti Miller), a former language-development specialist who taught English to Southeast Asian refugee children, and now lives and paints in Oak Park. Self described as a disciple of the California Impressionists and of California landscape maestro Greg Kondos (whose work the Natsoulas Gallery show includes), Patris has her own new gallery and studio on the corner of S and 12th Streets. Her highly bucolic “Oak Park Treasures” collection has been exhibited at the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital and the St. Hope Development Corporation Headquarters, and has been featured in the Oak Park Business Association’s 2003 and 2004 calendars. “My work celebrates a community rediscovering itself,” Patris’ Web site announces, in business-association-friendly rhetoric, “depicting images of the past, highlighting transformations of today, embracing optimism for tomorrow.” The art is accordingly benign, all full of soft-filtered charm. It taps right in to the Golden State tradition of self-mythologizing.
This all goes to show that the best, most lasting art of place is that which stays attuned to all the many minute geographical attachments we make—even the ones we deny. It can be sentimental, like a summer-vacation slide show, or uprooting and disorienting. In any case, it should remind us that the most important thing about getting away once in a while is not losing sight of where we come from.