Millard Sheets' 60-year career as a watercolor painter, educator, architectural designer and muralist has made him a living legend in Southern California. He also has been quite a formidable collector, as demonstrated by the current exhibit at the Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art (at University Towne Centre) titled "Millard Sheets: Retrospective Paintings and Related Selections from His International Art Collection."

Connections are meant to be made between Sheets' own paintings and the pottery, wood carvings, bronzes and other objects he has collected. All show a dominant interest in natural imagery, especially animals and people, whose forms have been simplified and subtly abstracted. But the show also points out major differences in quality between the juxtaposed groups of work, ultimately leaving the impression that Sheets has more spirited, discerning vision as a collector than as a painter.

Born in then-rural Pomona in 1907, Sheets derived his early imagery from the horses and golden hills of the landscape around him. When his career blossomed he began traveling, and for the last 25 years he has led workshops internationally, painting genre scenes at every stop along the way. Since most of the paintings on view date from this late phase in Sheets' career, the exhibit proves inadequate as a thorough retrospective.

Only a glimpse is offered of his earlier, most provocative work, inspired by both his rural surroundings and his wartime experiences as an artist-correspondent for Life magazine. "Wheat Gatherers" (India, 1944) features an intimate view of harvesters, showing vividly the rhythms of their labor and its physical demands. The artist's view is slightly elevated, that of a person standing, looking across a jagged row of backs, stooped to collect the grain from its endless gray field. Sheets' bold, dark outlines accentuate the forms, reiterating their structure and impressing their contours upon the page.

Sheets' sensitivity to his subjects is also evident in "Hindu Woman" (India, 1944), a full-length portrait of a vessel-toting woman whose body and downcast face are encircled by robes. In the background, others draw water from a river and transport it back to an unseen village, their routine uninterrupted by the woman's pensive pause. Paintings such as these demonstrate that Sheets can have a penetrating eye and style to match. But these are in short supply in the exhibit, outweighed by scenes that are little more than postcards in paint.

Unlike the paintings of the '30s and '40s, which related both to the rural, muscular style of Thomas Hart Benton and the gritty urban views of George Bellows--artists admired by Sheets--the later work more closely resembles travelogue illustrations, made from the perspective of a sympathetic but not particularly insightful tourist.

"After the Rice Harvest" (Philippines) and "Before the Monsoon" (Nepal), both 1984, typify the distanced, generalized approach adopted by Sheets in his later years. Faceless figures engage in vague agricultural chores in the foregrounds of these works, against landscapes of hills and village houses. The palette Sheet uses to render this generic exotica is bright, and often garishly so, a disappointing shift from his earlier, earthier tones.

Sheets' watercolor technique bypasses the medium's potential for subtle, translucent washes in favor of heavier, nearly opaque forms with dark outlines. It's a style that worked powerfully for him in earlier years, when he painted with passion and insistence, but in this innocuous, decorative work, it simply looks overdone.

The expressive power, energy and imagination lacking in most of Sheets' paintings can be found in abundance in his collection. Displaying none of the paintings' tired formulas, the objects, whether ancient or modern, appear fresh, vibrant, timeless. The collection, containing works from China, Africa, India, Japan, Mexico, Greece, Egypt and the United States, embodies a refreshing vitality of spirit.

Sheets' love for animals is reflected in a variety of work that emphasizes form and essence over naturalistic representation. The makers of the contemporary Quadagoudou bronzes from Burkina Faso, as well as the pre-Columbian clay figures, reduce their animal subjects to basic, sometimes geometric shapes, often injecting their beautiful and functional forms with an element of humor. The painting on an 18th-Century Japanese folding screen departs from this reductive mode to depict a row of hawks, each perched in a different position. The painting's realism, clearly the result of acute, prolonged observation, testifies to the artist's insight into the birds' natural behavior.

Other works in the collection include optically tantalizing bamboo baskets from Japan, carved wooden masks from Africa, ancient pottery from Greece, miniature paintings from India, wooden reliquary figures from Egypt and much more. Both Sheets' own paintings and the works in his collection take the viewer on a visual journey through time and space, but only the collection promises an adventure.

The exhibit continues through Oct. 15.

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