June Wayne: The printmaker who started a renaissance

The great 2011 historical survey of printmaking in Los Angeles art at the Norton Simon had the germs of several deeper exhibitions; they seemed to hang over the installation like unspoken promises. One of those directives has been partially fulfilled in the Pasadena Museum of California Art's new June Wayne retrospective. A restless maverick in her own work, she was an important enabler whose value to Los Angeles art can scarcely be overestimated. Though not as comprehensive as it might be, this lengthy suite is a good representation of an artist with a far-ranging vision.

Wayne (1918-2011) founded the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1960, which resulted in a SoCal print renaissance. Its operation ultimately revived the art of lithography in America. Though Tamarind only lasted a decade as a local studio (it later transmogrified into the Tamarind Institute of the University of New Mexico), it ultimately drew artists from all over the country to Los Angeles to try their hands at printmaking. The Gemini G.E.L. studio succeeded Tamarind in this continuum. Together they helped to move L.A. art onto the international stage.

A self-starter and a do-it-yourselfer, Wayne was first and foremost an explorer. The Chicago native didn't finish high school but she first exhibited her work at 17. The early paintings at the PMCA show a young artist working her way through various 'isms' on the way to an identity. A rough-hewn1936 street scene is charged with Ben Shahn-like social realism, while "The Cavern" (1948) is awash in surrealism and symbolic figure abstractions. The 1947 oil self-portrait shows two faces joined by a melded middle area, rendered fine by her pointillist brushwork.

Those symbolized figures are important early footprints for Wayne, and they denote a strong connection with the surrealists. Her long, horizontal oil "The Chase" ('49) deftly short hands many of life's challenges through dancing, pulled, vaulting, colliding, and even dismembered abstracted figures. "Cryptic Creatures" ('49), from the larger "Kafka Series," is a psychoanalyst's buffet, with suspended, stretched and clutching figures and symbols. Central to the canvas is a spotlighted female symbol with a male arrow pointing downward. Hmm…

She'd made prints as early as 1949 and Wayne the printmaker was, like Wayne the painter, largely self-taught. (Lynton Kistler, the L.A. master printer had executed her early efforts.) Frustrated at a general American ignorance of printmaking techniques, she had to use a Parisian lithographer for Wayne's "Valediction of Weeping" ('58) portfolio. Appealing to the Ford Foundation with a print wish list, they underwrote the Tamarind opening with a grant. By the mid-1950s, Wayne left painting behind.

Figures — symbolic, lyrical, and expressive — were a recurring theme from the '40s through the '50s. Two figures ingeniously intertwine on a long, painted panel made of small triangle modules in "The Witnesses" ('52). Carnal litho pas de deux like "The Anniversarie" ('58), "She Is All States, and All Princess" ('57), and "Love Bed" ('58) sweetly celebrate love, though "Two Graves" ('57) and "We…Must Leave at Last in Death" ('57) grapple with mortality. She appears to have been happy in marriage yet, like most artists, concerned with the big questions of life.

Taken with social activism early on, Wayne created a series of print homages to her mother that made reference to a pacifist woman's organization. In the early '70s, Wayne opened her home to women artists for a series of strategy sessions to address the state of women in the art world.

Sometime in the '60s Wayne discovered the potential for abstract imagery in celestial and microbiological forms. She closely monitored advancements in space technology and genetic research, which would inform her work. Wayne juxtaposed textural and color-laden areas that didn't quite make a clean break with the representational. Giant thumbprints hover over celestial seascapes or dominate a color field in the '70s work.

In the '80s and '90s, Wayne pushed ahead, moving her imagery onto tapestries and using materials like acrylic and styrene on panels. Actual objects were part of the picture plane, as well as organic textures. A large silver-colored panel with a rippling surface changes light and perspective with every move by the viewer. In that, Wayne checkmated every artist who ever tried to depict an aquatic surface. She had quite a lot of ideas up her sleeve and this show gives a good accounting of that multiplicity.

What: "June Wayne: Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries"

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art

When: Through Aug. 31. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Contact: (626) 568-3665, http://www.pmca.org


KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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