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ART REVIEW : Three Southern California Artists at Muni

Times Staff Writer

Half-hidden on a far wall of the cavernous Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park hangs the erotic drawing that caused the Los Angeles Police Department’s vice squad to close down an exhibit at the Ferus Gallery in 1957.

By today’s standards, the febrile, supernatural image of a copulating couple is only mildly titillating. (As a matter of fact, the original citizen’s complaint actually was directed toward another work in the show.) At least the circumstances of the drawing’s creation offer a nostalgic frisson: The artist--a poet and psychic known only as Cameron--wielded her pen under the influence of a mammoth dose of peyote, a drug that captured the fancy of artists and writers of the era who were reading Aldous Huxley’s new book, “The Doors of Perception.”

Works on paper by Cameron compose one of a trio of concurrent exhibits at the Muni (to April 30). Devoted to lesser-known but long-established Southern California artists--the others are James Strombotne and Vicci Sperry--the shows otherwise have little in common. Only “Cameron: The Pearl of Reprisal"--curated by gallery director Edward Leffingwell--begins to offer a glimpse of the rich, quirky artistic life of the Southland in the years before the rest of the world began to pay serious attention to it.

Born in Iowa in 1922, Cameron in the late ‘40s lived in Pasadena, where she married Jet Propulsion Laboratory founder John Parsons, who introduced her to occult studies and to a group of jazz aficionados who were also involved in assemblage art and experimental film. One of these good friends was artist Wallace Berman, who published her work in his magazine, Semina, and included it (as part of an assemblage) in the short-lived Ferus exhibit closed by the police.

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In “Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House,” a series of drawings Cameron made between 1978 and 1986, a relentless track of light, loopy but regular pen strokes travels across the white of the paper to create now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t images--faces, bodies, landscapes and animals--that hover like smoke wisps on the white of the paper.

The drawings are so ghostly, so transparently open to interpretation (I’d swear I saw a dwarfish hunchback, a figure on horseback, a mountainside, birds and two twined bodies) that they seem to have been whisked from the artist’s unconscious by the sheer propulsive action of her hand.

Strombotne, who came to Southern California from South Dakota as a child of 6 in 1940, has worked in a bold, simplified figurative style nearly all his adult life. A generous sampling of his paintings from the past 30 years, organized by curator Marie de Alcuaz, shows him to be at his best when raging vividly against the follies of mankind.

In “Pro Patria,” from 1958, he painted three dark figures--the central one wearing a bird’s head (possibly an American eagle, adding ammunition to the title)--who stand against a bright yellow window as they hold the hairless white body of a dead man. “Hanged Man” (1966) displays the varied reactions of a middle-class white crowd--sneers, smiles, distress--to a black body hanging from a tree. By sketching each onlooker on a monochromatic, thinly painted background under a relentless black sky, the artist achieves a harshly dramatic effect.

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Other paintings from the ‘60s, heyday of Pop Art, introduce a cast of cool nudes and a parade of Americana that sometimes seems shallow and forced. (“Hard Riding Cowboys,” in particular, marks an unfortunate excursion into poster-art cliche.) But in the following decade, the work begins to contain a greater number of visual events and a welcome element of ambiguity.

Strombotne’s recent paintings--the aftermath of a six-year excursion into abstraction--are diverse in theme and approach: “Dancer I,” with its blissfully interlocked couple, is frankly romantic; “Moon Maidens and Goblins,” in which a row of athletic nudes run above a patch of irregularly drawn jack-o'-lantern heads, is simply goofy. But other works investigate the pricklier sides of the human condition.

Sperry’s paintings, which span six decades (she was born in 1900), could easily illustrate a textbook history of 20th-Century regionalist painting. Working in Chicago and New York--she didn’t move to California until 1961--the artist tried her hand at a Fauvist watercolor, moved on to a curvy Thomas Hart Benton-style realism, tangoed with a distant relative of Cubism and--in the early ‘50s, after studies with Hans Hofmann--launched herself into painterly abstraction. A colorist at heart, she had found her true calling.

Keeping tabs on the breezy ebb and flow of bright colors, Sperry began turning out pleasingly activated big-scale canvases. In recent years, hints of the figure emerge here and there in work undimmed by advanced age. “Two Heads Bowing,” from 1987, incorporates a darting black line that spits out the barest trace of a pair of heads on top of a vivacious yellow-and-white field.

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