Frederick Wight at Louis Stern Fine Arts: A radiant state of mind in orbit

Special to The Times

Ah, paintings of the 1980s -- so soulful, so intimate and beautifully philosophical.

Actually . . . not.

What dominated gallery walls a generation ago were the bombastic antics of Julian Schnabel, the authorial gamesmanship of Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman's filmic masquerade of paintings and any number of artists' tough-minded forays into the intersecting universes of race, politics and identity.

And yet.

Art wasn't any more uniform in the '80s than it is today. Artists committed to the soulful, intimate and beautifully philosophical have always persisted, even in the least receptive times, under the least likely conditions.

The luminous landscapes of Frederick Wight, on view at Louis Stern Fine Arts, are a winning example. They seem out of place and out of time -- early 20th century, vaguely spiritual abstractions from nature painted in the materialistic heyday of the late 20th century. Wight's work was certainly out of sync, but that doesn't make it irrelevant. Paintings like his, painted in times like those, are all the more refreshing and necessary.

Wight's name is familiar to Southern Californians primarily because UCLA's art gallery was named after him. He directed the gallery from its start in 1953 until his retirement in 1973, curating highly influential exhibitions of Modern art and teaching as well.

Born in New York in 1902, Wight studied art as a young man, made the requisite educational pilgrimage to Paris in the early '20s, then settled on Cape Cod. Through the '30s, he painted portraits and landscapes and published three novels. After serving in the Navy during the war, he enrolled in Harvard's legendary museum training program, graduating with a master's degree in 1946. He worked at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art for six years before being hired by UCLA.

After retiring, Wight redirected his energies full time to painting. A previous show at Stern, in 2005, focused on his palm-punctuated landscapes of California. The current show, "Seeing the Light: Postmodern Luminous Landscapes by Frederick S. Wight," concentrates on images (made mostly between 1981 and his death in 1986) that don't have much to do with place but are profoundly concerned with time. Multiple moons and suns arc across the canvases, rising into the sky or dropping into the horizon -- in either case marking, in the most elemental way, time's passage.

In spite of the show's subtitle, the paintings feel more early Modern than Postmodern. They have kinship with a century of mystical, deeply emotional, finely tuned perceptual takes on the natural world, all as internally grounded as they are externally directed.

There are suggestions of tonalist landscapes; the charged, Symbolist nightscapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder; the chromatic richness of Stanton MacDonald-Wright; perhaps even the luminous purity of the Southern California Light and Space artists to whom Wight devoted a show in 1971.

Radiant light and color permeate the space in these paintings; their motion stems from the Earth's rotation and gravitational pull. In "Foreign Bodies," two luminous orbs dance in a tight elliptical orbit over a gently curved horizon. "Fading Moon, Coming Day" traces the moon's slow, stuttering descent like a stop-action photograph, retaining a record of each stage in a continuous movement. Wight's paint appears thin in places, atmospheric or aqueous. It stains the surface lime and gold, jade and mauve, peach and sapphire, violet and slate gray, persimmon and hot white.

Not every painting in the group is brilliant, but most are stupendously rich in color, light and feeling. Wight's unencumbered self poured out in these works, after decades spent nurturing, facilitating and showcasing the careers of others.

The show (accompanied by a well-illustrated catalog with a tight, smart tribute by critic and independent curator Michael Duncan) offers both visual tonic and art historical lesson. Art eras are never as homogenous as they're made out to be. Artists will always keep painting, whatever other media own the limelight, and art that is soulful, intimate and beautifully philosophical will always resonate beyond its place and time.

Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through June 7. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Truth speaks through Witkin

R.B. Kitaj greatly admired the art of Jerome Witkin, and it is easy to understand why. Witkin shared with the late L.A. painter a predilection for subjects psychologically dense and gritty, a fascination with, among other themes, Jewish identity and history, the ability to pack a canvas with indelible character and tragic narrative.

Kitaj sat for Witkin a few years ago, and the charcoal portrait hangs among 40 other drawings in a hodgepodge but consistently interesting show at Jack Rutberg. Witkin is unfailingly honest in his depiction, drawing not the Kitaj of his own self-aggrandizing rhetoric, but the physical man -- his features a bit wobbly, his form slightly sunken.

Witkin draws himself with the same candor. There are several incisive self-portraits in the show and portraits of others with tremendous, particularized presence. The drawings span more than 25 years and a wide range of subjects, from urban landscapes to nudes. Many served as studies for complex, multi-panel paintings.

Even a casual drawing from 1982 of a woman posed in a supine twist carries unusual charge. Witkin draws the figure from behind, rendering her body as a sequence of sturdy triangles, then outlines the monumental shape and posing platform in thick black ink, setting it apart, visually and metaphorically, from the slighter, less consequential lines describing the objects in the rest of the studio.

Drawing, for Witkin, is clearly not just an exercise in manual fluency, but a mode of witness, a process of discovery and interpretation, a tool of blunt and subtle force.

Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 357 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 938-5222, through July 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Raw confidence painted on canvas

Clarity might be a difficult state of mind to achieve, but it's far easier to visualize than doubt, which eludes concrete form. In her new paintings at Angles, Annie Lapin manages to exude a good deal of confidence while expressing uncertainty. That's saying a lot for an artist just one year out of grad school.

Lapin's paintings aren't easily read, but they are slowly, cumulatively felt. They have the tremendous tactile energy of ideas and forms being worked out on the surface, through the scraping and rubbing and smearing of paint. Only a few lapse into unintentional muddle. The rest sustain a fruitful tension between resolution and chaos, articulation and ambiguity.

Figures appear in small groups, but their actions or reasons for gathering remain vague. The bodies are generalized, emblematic, primitive. Their ancestry traces back to Bay Area Figurative painting of the 1950s and Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s. In one scene, a group appears to engage in play but with an air of sobriety and perhaps even a hint of the sacred.

Lapin lays down paint with gymnastic range -- aggressively in places, lyrically in others, but with a convincing sense of urgency throughout. The emotional and chromatic intensity of the Symbolists comes to mind, especially in works like "Perceived Marriage Tripartite Leave," a tableau of union with all the heaviness of a parting. The figures, defined by sweeping strokes of purple, brown and aqua, stand beneath a searing red shelter.

An aqueous gush swirls at their feet and the sky hums with the wonderfully dissonant pairing of cool lilac and burnished brick. The scene is raw, uneasy, typical of Lapin's intriguing, complicated work, her balancing act of fear and fearlessness.

Angles Gallery, 2230 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through June 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A scientific lens on shrubbery

Astrid Preston's new paintings at Craig Krull are beautiful as ever -- but largely bland. Edge-to-edge studies of dense shrubbery in bright sunlight, they aim a macro lens onto plants typically consigned to the background: oleander, ficus, morning glory and the like. Preston paints each leaf with equal deliberation in most of the canvases. Her technique is impressive, but the overall effect verges on numbing uniformity.

There are a few notable exceptions: some playfully abbreviated colored pencil drawings on black rice paper and, most refreshingly, two large works in which Preston interjects lively tension by varying her approach. Both of the large pieces are composites, multiple canvases aligned to present as a continuous whole.

In "Eugenia's Dance," Preston joins six panels in a grid roughly eight feet by five feet. While the other paintings are attractive, if staid, this one is a dazzler, reveling in discontinuities of scale and style. Huge sprigs overlay smaller ones. Leaves take on multiple personalities: as butter yellow silhouettes; as cooler, disparate droplets; and as fully described entities in jade, emerald, lime, burnt orange and gold.

"Moment to Moment," four canvases arranged as a horizontal panorama, has a similar dynamic, with loose and tight modes of rendering set off one another. Without that contrast between ways of seeing, the paintings look workmanlike -- careful, moderate, well-executed exercises in observation, all reason and no spirit.

Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through July 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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