ART / Cathy Curtis : Laguna Museum Exhibit Is Not Quite 'Full Spectrum'

Last weekend, at the College Art Assn. conference in San Francisco, I ran into an old friend from graduate school who said wearily, "I never send my students to museums anymore. You can learn everything you want to know about art from slides."

It isn't likely that many people would agree with him. Looking at the actual object created by an artist gives you a tangible appreciation of the way the artist handles materials, not to speak of a true sense of scale and depth and color.

But in an era of soaring art prices, museums are increasingly hard put to acquire the works they need to fill the historical gaps in their collections.

That dilemma is apparent at the Laguna Art Museum, which is displaying selected works from its collection through March 5. There, museum officials have never had a big money tree to shake for acquisitions. A glance at the labels on the art tells the story: Take away all the donations and the walls would be almost bare.

The museum's "war chest," as director Charles Demarais calls it, now totals $73,976--about enough to buy, say, a single Edward Ruscha painting. The Contemporary Collectors Council has put together another $8,000. And these days the Historical Collectors Council is using its funds to conserve the paintings already in the collection rather than buying more.

Money is a sticking point, and potential donors are not necessarily likely to give the museum what its heart desires. So Bolton Colburn, the curator of collections, has had to do some fancy dancing to try to come up with a show that sketches in the history of Southern California art. (Despite occasional detours to the Bay Area, the show utterly fails even as a "skeletal" view--in Colburn's words--of California art history.)

"The Full Spectrum" begins on the lower level of the museum, with 19th-Century landscapes by newcomers to California who were awed by purple-mountain majesties and other natural wonders great and small. Many of these paintings are part of a single 1974 gift from the Carl S. Dentzel estate.

The self-taught painters of the early days are represented by Mary Bailey's simple, matter-of-fact view of a wooded campsite from 1840. (Someday, it might be appropriate to acquire at least one painting that memorializes the Spanish heritage of California's other early settlers.) Then come the academy-trained East Coast visitors. In his dryly descriptive style, Thomas Hill picks out a bear motionless on a log amid fallen timbers in Yosemite. Three nondescript William Keiths are lined up on one wall like the Three Bears--tiny, bigger, biggest.

After this, the deluge: canvas after canvas by the so-called California Impressionists and their somewhat bolder followers, the plein air painters. The usual suspects are here--Guy Rose, William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Franz Bischoff, Elmer Wachtel, George Gardner Symons, Jean Mannheim, Hanson Puthuff--doing their thing with bright color and bouncy brush strokes in honor of spring and sunlight and flowers and hills and trees.

However derivative and bland most of these works are, the group as a whole illustrates the values held dear by painters in a particular time and place. History is not only made of great moments. But the offerings get stingier just at the point when California art really began to give the rest of the world a run for its money.

During the 1930s and '40s, Lorser Feitelson, his wife Helen Lundeberg, Karl Benjamin and the Dynaton group (Lee Mullican, Gordon Onslow Ford and others) were key figures in progressive Southern California painting.

But the museum's holdings either skip over these artists entirely (no Dynaton folks at all) or consist of their work from later years, albeit in such fine examples as Feitelson's "Magical Space Forms" from 1953 (in which oddly shaped, brightly colored flat forms poke toward the center of the painting) and Lundeberg's "Sundown Shadow" from 1983, which literally pauses at the threshold separating realism from abstraction.

The collection is also deficient in strong work from the '50s and '60s, when Southern California art really started on its roll. From these years, the most significant (albeit wildly different) pieces are "No. 4," a sober canvas by the Los Angeles master of geometric abstraction, John McLaughlin, and DeWain Valentine's 1964 insouciant "Pink Top."

That piece is one of very few sculptures on view, and one suspects the problem is lack of inventory rather than lack of space. (The importance of video, "light and space" and installation art in Southern California is also impossible to discern from this show.) But the absence of photographs comes as a surprise, given the museum's ownership of vintage images by Paul Outerbridge and a number of good contemporary examples in this medium.

Smart picks from the past two decades include pieces by John McCracken, Ed Ruscha, Jay Phillips, Allan McCollum and Jud Fine, but the show reflects virtually no consciousness of the steeper slopes of conceptual or postmodern art. Not a single recent work on view could seriously be called adventurous or difficult--including the latest acquisition, Roland Reiss' "Thrower" from 1987, a mockingly Brancusi-style sculpture of a beefy arm grasping a football.

Overall, the modern and contemporary works include some valid curiosities, like a painting of three violinists by David Park (later to become one of the Bay Area's foremost artists). But considering the wonderful things that were happening in Southern California art, too much wall space has been given over to indifferent work, mostly by artists who happen to have lived in Laguna Beach.

Judged by its collection, the curse of provincialism still haunts the Laguna Art Museum. Figuring out how to charm important works out of the hands of private collectors is sure to be a major task in the years ahead.

"The Full Spectrum" remains on view through March 5 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $2 general, $1 for students and seniors. Information: (714) 494-6531.

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