THE '30-SOMETHING YEARS : Capturing What Was Hardly America's Finest Hour, Works Had Their Moments

Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Southern California artists of the 1930s envisioned the world as an improbably cheerful and insular little place. Regardless of the Great Depression, artists were enjoying the still-unspoiled coastline and gracious tenor of small-town life, and quite a few made a living turning out peppy animation cells for Walt Disney.

Europe was a far-away place full of people who didn't speak English or appreciate a good homemade apple pie, and European innovations in art were so much useless folderol. But America was the finest place on Earth, yessiree Bob. And if some pipsqueak artist voiced a dissenting opinion, a God-fearing committee of red-blooded patriots (like the Society for Sanity in Art Inc.) would quickly show him who was boss.

This period, which gave rise to so-called "American Scene" painting, was hardly the finest hour of American, or California, art. But, judging from the brochure essay, "Dream and Perspective: The American Scene in Southern California, 1930 to 1945"--opening at the Laguna Art Museum on Aug. 23--sounds as though it will be primarily concerned with placing the art in an insightful sociological context rather than making exaggerated aesthetic claims for it.

Exhibition curator Susan M. Anderson underlines the links between the art of several Mexican artists who worked in Southern California during the '30s (including muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros) and the political awareness of a few of the California painters. Among them were the young Philip Guston (later a leading painter of the New York School) and lesser known artists Edward Biberman and Fletcher Martin.

Several California artists who worked with Siqueiros on his Los Angeles murals "Street Meeting" and "Tropical America" learned a thing or two about the effectiveness of stylized form. A few painters also took up his crusade against social injustice, but this show offers only a few works in that vein: George Samerjan's "Japanese Evacuation (Terminal Island)," Paul Sample's "Speech Near Brewery" (a labor agitator addressing a crowd) and Martin's labor-themed "Trouble in Frisco."

When the various federal art programs commissioned murals for public buildings in Southern California, social realities could be handily sacrificed on the altar of the Big Lie. In Paul Julian's "Orange Picking" mural for the Fullerton Post Office (a tempera copy is in the exhibit) the workers are a perky white family, not the Mexican or Japanese-American migrant workers who actually harvested the crop.

Influences on Southern California art of the '30s also included the simplified, action-oriented style of Disney cartoons, visible in watercolors of the period by Phil Dike, a color coordinator and story designer on "Fantasia" and "Snow White."

Other artists represented in the exhibit include Rex Brandt, Jean Charlot, Dan Lutz, Ben Messick, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, Millard Sheets and Milford Zornes.

Sheets, whose "Angel's Flight" of 1931 is reproduced here, was a big deal in his day. A respected watercolor instructor at Chouinard School of Art, he was indebted to the folksy Midwestern realist painter Thomas Hart Benton and the New York painters of urban, everyday scenes who were members of the early 20th-Century "Ashcan School."

In "Angel's Flight," which was about as gritty as mainstream painting got in the land of sunshine, a couple of vaguely disconsolate-looking women observe anonymous figures toiling up the steep stairway of a placid urban apartment complex. The most arresting feature of the scene is probably its cinema-like perspective.

Jean Charlot was a devote of Mexican culture who went on archeological expeditions in the Yucatan Peninsula, admired the work of the famous muralists and wrote a book with the memorable title, "Art From the Mayans to Disney." In his painting, "El Primer Diente" (The First Tooth) of 1936, a peasant mother and child mark the great event with a sort of catatonic awe.

Artists who did attempt something more than hymns to everyday life were often slapped for their pains. When Barse Miller exhibited "Apparition Over Los Angeles"--a prize-winning 1932 satire of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson--in what was then the Los Angeles Museum, the director found it too controversial, and had it removed. Guston's portion of a mural in Los Angeles--a segment showing a black man being whipped by members of the Ku Klux Klan--was actually shot at and destroyed by the Los Angeles Police Red Squad.

Although the '30s were a troubled time for art in several respects, that may be all the more reason why we--caught in another period of conservative backlash--may find it worthwhile to pay them a visit.

What: "Dream and Perspective: The American Scene in Southern California, 1930 to 1945"--approximately 70 paintings and works on paper.

When: Friday, Aug. 23, to Nov. 3. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: The museum is at the corner of Cliff Drive and north Coast Highway, just up the coast from the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway with Laguna Canyon Road.

Wherewithal: $2 general, $1 students and seniors, free for children under 12.

Where to call: (714) 494-6531.

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