That modern flair

Five local teacher-painters are part of Neo Mod: Recent Northern California Abstraction, a new show at the Crocker

David Wetzl; “S.C.I.P. [Still Content and Image Provider]"; acrylic, graphite and collage on panel; 2000.

David Wetzl; “S.C.I.P. [Still Content and Image Provider]"; acrylic, graphite and collage on panel; 2000.

Artists Mark Emerson, Brenda Louie, Peter Stegall, Ellen Van Fleet and David Wetzl have a lot in common. They all teach drawing and painting at California State University, Sacramento. They all studied art in Northern California. Four of the five are represented locally by JayJay Gallery.

So, it makes perfect sense that paintings born under their hands have been plucked for presentation in an upcoming exhibition, Neo Mod: Recent Northern California Abstraction, at the Crocker Art Museum. Opening Saturday, November 20, the show spotlights 21st-century abstract creations that shine in Northern California’s art scene.

Abstract painting surfaced in the late 1950s, when artists were moving outside the umbrella of action painting that made Jackson Pollock famous. Such artists as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler and even Andy Warhol worked with a large color field, hard edges, shaped canvases, a monochrome focus, repetitive images or optical illusion that grew into a genre of painterly abstraction.

It was a marked move away from the tumultuous brushwork of action painting, with a renewed focus on intellectual control. Abstraction gave way to conceptual art, which paved the path for the computer-generated work of the 1980s and 1990s.

According to Diana Daniels, assistant curator at the Crocker, there’s been a return to abstract painting in recent years. “There’s a lot of this kind of painting going on, a resurgence of art that has some mod flair,” she observed.

Daniels, who’s been at the Crocker for the past four years, witnessed a generous donation of contemporary art in 2001. She also was getting postcard invitations from other abstract-based shows in Northern California.

“I was seeing some great things,” she said. So, she pitched the idea of highlighting those new acquisitions by coupling them with abstract works by other noted regional artists.

“We went for things that had a pattern of element and decoration, and even though there is so much computer generation now, this is all done by hand and is labor-intensive,” she explained. “It’s a big change from works from the ’80s. We’re really interested in the techniques and process, as well as the ideas.”

The exhibition offers works by 33 artists who call Northern California home, from as far south as Monterey and reaching up to Humboldt. And there are those local artists.

Ellen Van Fleet, “Real L.A.,” watercolor and collage on paper, 2004.

Emerson grew up in Sacramento and studied at Sacramento City College and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland before earning a master-of-fine-arts degree (MFA) from UC Davis. Since then, Emerson has kept busy, previously teaching classes at the Davis Art Center and now running his own art-installation business.

That’s in addition to pumping out those canvases and showing his work nationally. Besides local gallery representation, the Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco has carried his work for the past 10 years. Emerson is no stranger to the Crocker, since the museum hosted a solo show of his work in 2001.

In this exhibition, Emerson’s acrylic “Let Me Know” is a large canvas of small, multi-shaped and multicolored, hard-edged squares in six vertical bands. The effect is vibrant and rhythmic, musical and pulsing. It has the feel of op art—if you look too long, your eyes can feel possessed.

He credits his influences readily. “Piet Mondrian for aesthetics,” he noted, “Richard Diebenkorn for atmospherics, [Henri] Matisse for coloration and [Georges] Seurat for color relationships.

“I’m very much about the process, analyzing cool to warm colors to create a workable pattern and rhythm. A lot of my work is based on visual rhythm and improvisation.”

Emerson likes to work big.

“My work is about 70 inches by 70 inches—almost six feet. Any bigger, and they really can’t fit through the studio door,” he said, laughing.

Louie isn’t worrying about getting her works through the door of the Shanghai Art Museum, where she’s slated for a 2005 one-woman show. “I’ll just roll up the 9-foot-by-6-foot canvases,” she laughed. A Canton, China, native, Louie came to the United States in 1972 and earned an economics degree from CSUS 10 years later.

“But I didn’t like the 8-to-5 schedule.

“I always liked art when I was in [grade] school,” she added, “but when I came here, it was the classic story: ‘You cannot study art.’ I was lucky that my husband was very supportive. I studied art for three years, and I never went back [to economics]. My husband is OK with that, as long as he has food and has a car that runs.”

Peter Stegall, “Olive,” enamel on Masonite, 2004.

So, Louie got a master’s degree in painting from CSUS in 1991 and an MFA from Stanford in 1993. At Stanford, Louie worked with Nathan Oliveira and other conceptual artists. Since then, her work has been exhibited nationally.

Louie’s piece in this exhibit, “The Book of Zero Series,” is a mixed-media triptych, with each Masonite panel measuring 15 inches by 12 inches. Louie collaged 18 figurative photo images per panel and embellished them with encaustic oil paint.

The artist controls the viewer, allowing a circular glimpse that bursts through blackness—a vision of ghostlike figures veiled in layers of rich red and gold patina—and then guiding the audience to the next section as energy swirls and moves to the last piece overlaid with red strokes akin to Chinese calligraphy.

“I’m really a perceptional painter,” Louie explained. “My perception comes from my experience, imagination, understanding and training.”

Louie is the only one of the five who isn’t connected to a gallery. “Selling my art isn’t a priority,” she said.

She is very focused on her one-woman show abroad. “People there are so hungry for art,” she said. “I really want to be involved in an exchange program—to take artists there and bring others here.” For now, Louie juggles painting and remodeling her house with teaching at CSUS, UC Davis and the San Francisco Art Institute.

Like Louie, Stegall loved art as a child.

“I started cartooning, then copying album covers,” he recalled. In the early 1960s, Stegall studied art with a Fresno artist who introduced him to Pablo Picasso and Matisse. Stegall was entranced with the use of pure color.

He also was heavily influenced by Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, who brought their “Chicago school” of style to Sacramento in the late 1960s. As a result, Stegall reduced his scale dramatically. After earning a master’s degree from CSUS, he taught art at the University of Nevada, Reno, and then moved to New York, where he was the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner grant.

Stegall is still entranced by small works, evidenced by “Olive,” his 15-inch-by-18-inch painting of pale yellow, olive, gray and green bands on Masonite board that is included in the Crocker exhibition. Now, as Stegall teaches color theory at CSUS, he focuses on the physical properties of color and how it can create its own illusion. “Olive” is reflective of Stegall’s concepts.

Mark Emerson, “Let Me Know,” polymer on panel, 2003.

“I am a painter of pictures that are about color. But I’m not a process painter and would never tape anything,” he noted. “I use small paintbrushes. That’s a part of what defines my work.” Stegall works with potent, high-gloss sign paint enamel.

“The lead makes for flow—and a one-stroke effect.”

Van Fleet prefers working in watercolor.

“I can’t really control it, so it takes me in a different direction that I can’t predict. It leads me, drops me off and leaves, so I have to figure out what to do from there.”

Her 22-inch-by-30-inch “Real L.A.” is vibrant with intense color—hot pink, sunny yellow and teal blue, with parallel stokes of color that mimic the undulating life under the sea and clusters of dots that add texture.

“I don’t usually work with those colors,” she said. “It all just happened. It’s the color that made it L.A. The pink, the yellow are like neon. What is in ‘Real L.A.’ is following dots. I’ve been visiting ancient cave paintings all over the world: Algeria, Namibia, Baja [California] and in Utah. There are a lot of dots and counting things in those paintings.”

The Marin County-born Van Fleet earned an MFA at UC Davis, working in sculpture with Bill Wiley, Manuel Neri and Roy De Forrest. A Van Fleet installation graced the 1972 Whitney Biennial in New York.

As a “military brat,” Wetzl lived on the East Coast, in Japan and in Illinois until he moved to California in 1976, collecting bachelor’s and master’s degrees in arts at CSUS before earning an MFA in 1991 at the San Francisco Art Institute. He now teaches art at Sierra College in Rocklin.

Wetzl helped found the local 750 Gallery and contributed art criticism to Sacramento before he landed in Oakland, where he painted “S.C.I.P. [Still Content and Image Provider],” his contribution to the Crocker exhibit. It was the artist’s response to the technological wave in the Bay Area.

The painting has a graphic, cartoonish ambience and rhythm, with 96 repetitive images that could be fingernails adorned with targets. Then there’s an abstract landscape of dinosaur bones plopped off center to disrupt that rhythm. It’s a curious piece, rendered in acrylic and graphite with collage.

“It was before the dot-com bust, when it wasn’t in vogue to be an artist. It was better to be a computer nerd,” he remembered. “If you were an artist, you kept it quiet.”

Being an artist was not a plus in meeting women. It’s ironic and quirky then that soon after, “S.C.I.P.” so intrigued a viewer that she wanted to meet him. The painting is now part of the Crocker’s permanent collection, a great commentary on the power of abstraction in the new millennium.