Artist June Wayne (1918-2011) started to make tapestries in 1971, following a decade running her Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Hollywood and then overseeing its relocation to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The new medium was unusual.
Like lithography, which was disappearing before Tamarind launched a studio in 1960 to train master printers, tapestry recalled the waning art of an earlier era. It wasn’t exactly an ancien regime – Picasso, Leger, Miro and others made them in the 1930s – but a mostly forgotten past.
To learn its capacities Wayne worked with the Gobelins factory in Paris. The large wall-hangings that resulted are the most impressive works in “June Wayne: Paintings, Prints and Tapestries,” a broad but modest survey at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. It was assembled by independent curators Betty Ann Brown and Jay Belloli, longtime friends of the late, charismatic artist.
“La Journee des Lemmings,” more than 10 feet wide, is a sumptuously textured abstraction in intricately woven wool. Its fractured, black and white storm clouds visually coalesce into layers of geological strata, like an X-ray of underground sedimentary rock.
Across a dark, compressed band in the lower right quadrant, tiny naked figures swarm. Humanity’s chaos evokes the social turmoil of the day – Vietnam horrors, the fallout of stalled Paris peace talks, the senseless bombing of Cambodia, the slaughter of students at Kent State and more.
Like “Guernica,” the black and white palette has the look of newsprint. Writers were a frequent inspiration for Wayne’s art (shortly before her death she told me she often fantasized about being a journalist), and the savagery of Nathaniel West’s “The Day of the Locust” comes to mind. So does the Holocaust (Wayne’s mother was a Russian Jewish immigrant.) The apocalyptic myth of lemmings driven to mass suicide is conjured as both a cautionary tale and a reported fact of cyclical history.
“La Journee des Lemmings” reconfigures into a modern idiom the historical epics woven centuries ago by Karel van Mander or Charles Le Brun. Other tapestries (the show includes six) are based on Wayne’s lithographs.
“La Cible” reproduces “The Target,” a 1951 lithograph that was her initial step away from painting. “At Last a Thousand,” which was the 1,000th Tamarind print, merges cosmos and human hand into a galactic fingerprint.
Wayne wasn’t much of a painter. Early Social Realist and Surrealist efforts are conventional. When she returned to painting in the 1980s and 1990s, her use of styrene packing “peanuts” as a textured surface for often dark or metallic paint seems an unsatisfactory effort to suggest (in abstract, exploded form) porous limestone or zinc printing plates from the lithography studio.
Prints, most technically adept, form the bulk of the show. Among them are nine from the “Dorothy Series” (1960-79), a well-known chronicle of her mother’s life. Wayne collaged together images from old photographs, often printed in gradations of pale pastel colors; they yield a poetic sense of fading memories.
Overall, the survey is a bit disappointing. All but 15 of 79 works come from the artist’s estate. (Partly that’s simply because prints, the largest group with 55 examples, exist in editions.) And Tamarind's story is familiar.
Instead, a sharply detailed look at the far less well-known tapestries could have been a marvelous surprise. (The Art Institute of Chicago attempted it in 2010 – the show closed just three months before Wayne died – but she was unhappy with the way the museum handled it.) And the PMCA show’s catalog is unfortunately pitched toward biography, with the art presented as a way “to get to know June Wayne.”
For an art public, the reverse would be more useful. Her biography is a way to get to know her art.
Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., (626) 568-3665, through Aug. 31. Closed Mon. and Tue. www.pmcaonline.org