Being an artist in San Diego has its share of pitfalls. One of them is being called a San Diego artist. The term sparks instant offense among many, for whom the term smacks of provincialism and contradiction in the shackling together of an endeavor characterized by its freedom, and a place known for its conservatism.
San Diego may not embrace its artists with open arms and generous wallets, but nevertheless, plenty of artists call the city home. And, if I. Andrea and Robert Perine’s upcoming book has its intended effect, that connection will become a source of pride rather than one of disdain.
“San Diego Artists,” expected to be in local bookstores before Christmas, is like a “bound museum,” said Perine, an artist, designer and publisher of several books on California’s art history. Its 224 pages feature the words, work and portraits of 50 artists throughout the county, as well as the first published account of San Diego’s own art history, from the turn of the century to the present.
Andrea and Perine anticipate several uses for the book, from scholarly resource and curatorial aid to attractive gift and promotional tool.
“The significance is in getting the artists seen outside the city,” said Andrea, a sculptor and long-time writer on the local art scene. “That will generate more respect from within the city.”
Perine also hopes that local collectors will use the book as a directory, to look for art in their own back yard rather than scouting for work in Los Angeles and New York, as is typical now.
As a showcase for local talent, the book cannot help but impress. It includes nationally and internationally known figures as well as younger, emerging artists, working in a range of media and styles. “In our list, we tried to achieve the breadth of what’s going on in art today. I think we caught a cross-section of it,” said Andrea. But, she added knowingly, “We’re not going to please everyone.”
There have been already, and will continue to be detractors, as with every book or exhibition that purports to be a definitive survey of a given field. “Everyone will have their list of 10 people who weren’t in the book,” Andrea said, “but that testifies to the richness here.”
Although most of the 50 names will be familiar to followers of the local art scene, several will appear anomalous, and several others conspicuous by their absence. Several younger artists, for instance, were just establishing themselves when Andrea and Perine began work on the book 2 1/2 years ago, and were considered not proven enough to be included. Others, quite well established, were not deemed sufficiently involved in the local community to be considered “San Diego artists.”
The selection process was “a very difficult, sensitive thing,” said Andrea. In addition to stressing a breadth of media, “We were also hoping to create a stylistically, ethnically, gender- and age-balanced presentation insofar as possible without sacrificing quality,” she writes in her introduction. The resulting list ranges from sculptor Margaret Honda, in her 20s, to painter Ethel Greene, in her 70s.
For the 50 artists included, the numerous others mentioned in the historical sections, and for the city itself, the book will come in handy as a slick promotional tool, a beefed-up brochure to combat San Diego’s image as a cultural desert. But the book transcends mere publicity. It strives, like the artists within, to be taken seriously in the national and even international art arena.
Andrea’s interviews with the artists prove the most valuable and consistent facet of the book. They were conducted over a two-year period that coincided with her graduate studies in psychology. That, said Perine, enabled Andrea to bring “a lot of crazy, interesting, painful stuff out of these people.”
Finding that “artists are as different as their art forms,” Andrea focused in her interviews on the idiosyncratic ways in which the artists reconciled their creative pursuits with their other practical and personal needs.
“I see the book as of broader interest than just to the art community,” she said. “I hope people will get an insight into the creative process and how it relates to their own lives.”
Perine’s black-and-white photographs of the artists echo the mood established by the interviews. They, too, are interviews, visual interviews that never lapse into the deadened uniformity of mug shots, but instead remain as richly varied and often as penetrating as the artist’s verbal self-portraits.
The book’s history of art in San Diego up to 1950 was written by Bram Dijkstra, professor of comparative literature at UC San Diego and the author of several books on art and literature. Andrea continues the account to the present. With one eye on the turn of the century and the other on the present, Dijkstra points out a pathetic symmetry in San Diegans’ disdainful attitudes toward local artists. His text is rich in both information and description, but his treatment of the forum as a soapbox from which to wave his banner of aesthetic independence quickly gets tiring.
Dijkstra’s preachy critical history follows Perine’s personal, informal introduction and precedes Andrea’s even-tempered, astute summary of developments in local galleries, museums and press coverage of the arts in the last few decades. While this section of the book feels splintered and uneven, its discontinuity of tone mirrors the very scene that the book attempts to capture.
The art community in San Diego is a shifting, growing entity struggling to define itself, at times seeming unsure, at others too confident for its own good. The book, “San Diego Artists,” embodies both the present community’s promise and its undercurrent of bitterness, and in so doing, proves itself a valuable document of its time.