'Masterpieces of San Diego Painting: Fifty Works From Fifty Years, 1900-1950'

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OCEANSIDE, Calif. -- The exhibition celebrating a building expansion at Oceanside Museum of Art is titled "Masterpieces of San Diego Painting: Fifty Works From Fifty Years, 1900-1950." If that doesn't stop you dead in your tracks, nothing will.

Masterpieces? Of San Diego painting? From before World War II?

Surely the museum jests. Or, more likely, it's making provincial boasts.

A visit to the show reveals that a third explanation for the claim is closer to the truth. Guest curator Bram Dijkstra pretty much means what the cheeky title says. Surely he knows that it will be received with skeptical regard, but Dijkstra wants to provoke a conversation about a specific history of art where virtually none has existed before. Jump-starting the dialogue requires some head-snapping.

And "Masterpieces of San Diego Painting" delivers -- no, not 50 pictures I'd trade for a mess of Matisses and Picassos from the same era, or even O'Keeffes, Hartleys and Doves. But it does tell a compelling story of regional aesthetics with cosmopolitan ambitions, which more museums ought to do.

Museum's celebration

The exhibition has been organized to celebrate completion of a handsome if modest Oceanside Museum addition, designed by Los Angeles architect Frederick Fisher, to the original handsome-if-modest 1934 building (a former City Hall) by the incomparable proto-Modernist architect Irving Gill. But forget navel-gazing. These are not expert paintings made to look at life in early 20th century San Diego, where Gill first made his mark. Rather, from the vantage of that singular time and place, they skillfully look at life.

The distinction makes all the difference.

Take the flower paintings that open the show. Yes, flower paintings, a genre revered in 17th century Holland and downgraded (along with painting in general) by Americans to feminine hobby craft by the start of the 20th century. A hundred years ago in San Diego, where getting plants not to grow required labor, the subject was -- well, a natural.

Roses are vehicles for a philosophical manifesto in the talented hands of Edith White (1855-1946), who arrived in San Diego around 1900 to join a theosophical community at Point Loma. Purple blossoms spill out of a wicker basket set on a modest wood table in the foreground of one large work, while a lush, even gross bounty of yellow, peach and white roses in a Rookwood-style green vase dominates the picture.

The compositional maelstrom of bright, luscious blooms is dramatically set against a portentous, dark-russet background. The flowers emerge from the murky gloom in a spatially complex, figure-eight pattern, suggesting eternal profusion in a cosmic stew.

It's like a floral big bang, at once enlivened and exhausted by its own fulsome flowering. At 3 feet by 4 feet, White's untitled still life is unusually large, but monumentality certainly befits the evocation of a complete spiritual universe.

This remarkable variation on late 19th century Symbolist art is juxtaposed with a startlingly modern floral painting from 1903 by Albert Valentien (1862-1925). He had been a Rookwood vase painter in Cincinnati before he moved to California. Valentien's gouache showing "Matilija Poppies" likewise suggests a life cycle, incorporating buds, blossoms and fading petals.

Naturalism, however, is being overtaken by abstraction. Valentien's exquisitely designed flowers are pressed into a shallow foreground space to coincide with the picture plane, while the background is reduced to a flat field of mottled color. Neither vase nor soil anchors the upright stems. Botanical accuracy merges with aestheticized linear harmonies, forging a path that will eventually lead to the work of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Grouped by theme

Landscapes predominate in the exhibition, which is installed thematically, not chronologically. Charles Fries (1854-1940) could render palpably atmospheric desert light in paint, but he also drew sharp social satire. "The Spirit of Competition," dating from around 1902, shows a speeding, careening stagecoach trampling a baby and leaving the poor in the dust. Well-dressed burghers raise a glass to toast the fun.

Art Deco design was influential in the late 1920s and 1930s, most powerfully in the machine-inspired, 1939 composition of pistons, drive shafts, a stylized furnace and a gigantic key -- all anointed by heavenly rays of light -- by the largely self-taught French expatriate Marius Rocle (1897-1967). "The Yellow Robe" by Belle Baranceanu (1902-1988), more widely celebrated as a Works Progress Administration muralist, melds a woman's profile and a fabric design, weaving both into the forms of a domestic environment.

Of 50 paintings, 11 are genre or American scene subjects, five are figure paintings and one is a pure abstraction. (Fred Hock's sluggish 1936 organic abstraction derives from Picasso.) The rest -- 33 canvases -- are landscape related. This abundance more than anything else has likely held back deeper consideration of any of these artists.

Landscape is generally regarded as the great subject of 19th century art, while abstraction defines the new century.

But change is underway. The rise of abstract art was tethered to modern ideas of progress. Now that progress in art is no longer a persuasive notion, historical revision is inevitable.

Representative artists

Fifteen of the 25 artists are represented by a single canvas, such as the prosaic scene of boys fishing that Jean Swigget (1910-1990) elevates to grand heroic ritual. The curator, however, has singled out one artist for special recognition, with seven paintings in a separate gallery at the show's center.

Although Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Guy Rose (1867-1925) and others are unusually adept at naturalistic painting, it's easy to understand Dijkstra's enthusiasm for the landscape work of Charles Reiffel (1862-1942). Brushwork is less a descriptor of trees and sky in Reiffel's richly worked landscapes than an Expressionist sign of vital forces. Paint that is blended (if at all) on the canvas rather than the palette yields rough chromatic density across the pictures' surfaces.

Six of the seven pictures repeat a compositional scheme. A house, farm or other human presence is at the center of a sheltering valley or placid field, hugged by hills and mountains like an infant in a strong, potentially turbulent embrace. Nature is both comfort and threat, and civilization is precarious.

Reiffel is impressive. But are these truly masterpieces of early 20th century San Diego painting? Are White's, Valentien's, Baranceanu's or Rocle's?

Along with ideas of progress, contemporary art culture has pretty much retired the term "masterpiece" from usage. Its archaic meaning -- a test-piece demonstrating mastery for admission into a craftsman's guild -- hasn't applied since the collapse of the academies. Then, Modern artists from Monet to Warhol conceived of art as something that exists in series, meaning that any single work is intrinsically incomplete.

Still, I'm inclined to embrace it anyhow for this exhibition. "Masterpiece" forces the issue of what gets included -- and, more to the point, excluded -- from art history's canon. There are works in this exhibition that are every bit as good as anything by any number of widely acknowledged, eagerly embraced American artists from the period.

There might not be 50. But you can make your own accounting.

christopher.knight @latimes.com

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