Ariver of discontent roils beneath the surface of “Everydayland: Imagined Genre Scene Painting in Southern California,” at the Laguna Art Museum. Disturbing emotions bubble up quite subtly in Barbara Thomason’s transformations of glitzy shopping centers into stained-glass temples of commerce and nearly disappear in Jonathan Swihart’s sparkling visions of modern saints in antique settings. But the dark mood gathers force in Bobby Ross’ obsessively complex portrayals of pervasive decay and self-destruction, then erupts as Douglas Bond paints a smirking man holding a gun to the head of a cowering woman who wears a halo in a painting called “Das Kirschbild.”
“It’s hard to pretend that nothing ain’t wrong” is lettered across the top of Bond’s creepy painting. Discounting the double negative, the sentence could be the exhibition’s title. There is so much wrong with contemporary society, in the eyes of the eight Southern California artists, that their technical finesse does little to mask the message.
But, according to a catalogue essay by curator Elaine Dines-Cox, social criticism was not intended to be the premise of the exhibition. The theme is just “a common denominator that surfaced during the selection process” and contributes to the work’s “underlying power,” she wrote in the catalogue introduction.
Approaching her work with scholarly diligence, Dines-Cox had in mind a regional survey of art that uses invented imagery to distill ordinary experiences. The result doesn’t ring quite true to her intention for two reasons: The sweep of invention ranges from relatively small alterations of reality to wildly imaginative changes, and the social commentary is so blatant in the majority of pieces that quieter ones seem out of place here. The show never quite coalesces as a unit; it is more a collection of solos.
That said, “Everydayland” (continuing through Oct. 23) is at least a plausible excuse to display superior examples of contemporary genre painting. Viewers who follow the local gallery scene will find that about half the works are familiar from previous exhibitions, but an illustrated catalogue with thoughtful essays on each of the artists is a fresh contribution.
Frank E. Dixon’s lurid expressionistic paintings of such subjects as a surgical operation and a woman’s traumatic experience as queen for a day represent the explosive end of the emotional scale. He rages against moral decay in fractured images that tend to fly off in all directions and leave an impression of unfocused frustration. His relatively loose, gestural brush work and murky imagery also separate Dixon from the other artists whose crisply defined subjects are rendered in styles rooted in Magic Realism or photographic likenesses.
Swihart, for example, works from clay maquettes, photographs and drawings. D. J. Hall uses photos to produce her meticulous paintings of blond, affluent Southern California women whose glittering facades castigate a value system based on appearances. But as Hall’s work has matured, she has taken ever greater liberties with photographs and solidified a personal statement that has none of the objectivity of casual snapshots.
Bond established himself as a Photo-Realist, painting clinically cold interiors that suggested a contemporary fixation with antiseptic perfection. His current work has the precisely drawn, washed-out look of images from old newspapers and magazines, but it has moved into a conceptual arena. “Das Kirschbild” (named for an image of cherries borrowed from German artist Kurt Schwitters’ painting “Merzbild 32A, Das Kirschbild”) transforms a news photo of a publicity-seeker who had called the press to photograph him during a parole violation. Bond builds in multiple layers of meaning, but viewers are likely to read the dumb, gripping image as a straightforward commentary on domestic violence.
F. Scott Hess’ big narrative canvases (recently seen at Ovsey Gallery and USC) suggest the aftermath of a disaster or an impending apocalypse in bird’s-eye views of ominous social gatherings. The overheated tone and turbulent forms echo the judgmental work of such American Scene painters as Thomas Hart Benton.
Gretchen Lanes’ weird, psychologically charged portraits portray bloodless people with mask-like faces who are often bald or have peculiar, wig-like hairlines. Lanes is quoted in the catalogue as saying that omitting hair is a way of getting at “naked truth.” This “truth” has a diabolical edge, turning children into conniving monsters and adults into near-demons. Collectively, Lanes’ small paintings have a clammy feel to them, rather like the dead fish that lie on plates in front of one pictured couple and the cold spaghetti set before a particularly nasty twosome.
“These are not idealizations, but scenes drawn from confused states of life that reflect aspects of the joy, isolation and terror of the human condition,” Dines-Cox concluded in the catalogue. Joy is in notably short supply; isolation and terror are the themes that stimulate most of these artists’ creative juices.
“Everydayland” continues through Oct. 23 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $1 to $2. Information: (714) 494-6531.