Light, Color and Darker Meanings Artist D.J. Hall's works reflect the pain beneath bright surfaces

Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for Westside/Valley Calendar.

In most of D.J. Hall's brightly colored, extraordinarily realistic paintings, two attractive blond women wearing sunglasses, either in a swimming pool or by the water's edge, confront onlookers with the biggest of smiles. Some viewers might assume Hall's paintings are merely homages to lives of leisure in sunny Southern California.

On one level, they are exactly that. After all, Hall has fond memories of her childhood birthday parties at her grandmother's swimming pool in Orange County despite the difficulties and loneliness of being the only child of divorced parents.

But there's more going on in the Venice artist's work than appears to the casual observer. For all the lightness and cheer they exude, there is a corresponding sense of unease in the "models," as Hall refers to her subjects. If the sunglasses aren't hiding something, the smiles surely are.

"People have said, and I would agree, the smiles are definitely masks for pain, my own pain. That's really the underlying thing in the work," Hall said. "They are all like a camouflage, and a facade. My guess is I am painting myself, like any artist does, and I am painting my experience, which is a blonde experience.

"Through the years, there were people who were more aware than I was of the pain and sadness that's masked in my work. I realized it must be they were coming from a similar kind of experience."

Powered by gut instincts combined with a meticulously detailed painting technique, Hall has created a continually evolving body of work over the past 20 years.

"If you take one painting from 20 years ago, and one from 10 years ago, and one from today, and you put them together, you're going to see broad leaps," Hall said. "The early work has blander colors, more minimal backgrounds; there were no flowers, and the women were painted with all their wrinkles and cellulite. It was biting and satirical.

"Then I went through my period of the mother-daughter and the autobiographical work, and I think that's when the softening began for me as a person. With my own understanding, my outlook on these women became softer."

Moving her models out of the pool to seats behind nicely set tables, she got into birthday imagery. "That led into the still lifes that were becoming really important to me in the work," she said. "Then the still life came into being as its own entity."

Among Hall's most recent work is also a series of travel studies, joyous drawings of vacation spots from Palm Springs and Santa Fe to Jamaica to Maine. Thirty-eight of these sketches are on view for the first time, accompanying the survey exhibition of the last 10 years of her paintings, drawings and photographic studies, titled "It's not as easy as it looks," at the Santa Monica Heritage Museum.

"Artists that grow up in our community are our future heritage," said museum director Tobi Smith. "D. J. hasn't shown in Los Angeles in a long time, and we thought it would be a treat for the community to see a large body of her work in one place. It's very accessible to people on all kinds of levels.

"I'm a California native, and I love the feel of it," Smith said. "On one level it's non-threatening, and yet there are things I find difficult about it. There are often a lot of subtle things going on that don't strike you right away, such as the underlying issues of aging, and women dealing with that."

The title of the exhibit refers to the painstaking process Hall goes through before she ever puts oil paints to canvas. "For the first time, we're showing how I create a composition," Hall said. "Some people say, 'Why do you bother to do it? It looks just like a photograph.' I wanted to make a stab at them.

"A painting isn't just like a snapshot that I took. There are months of planning where I'm developing some ideas running through my brain. Then I go and meet with the models, go through their wardrobes and select their clothing and sunglasses. I'll go through their cupboards looking for props. I go and find the location."

Hall photographs her subjects at her chosen location, then evaluates the slides, making notes. She may rearrange a background, or compose a painting based on the hand from one slide, the head from another and the body from yet another. The notes and these original photographs, as well as her initial sketches, are displayed here with some of the paintings.

"Then I start developing a composition," she continued. "I look at the steps until I find the basic structure of the background and foreground. I'll try out different colors, change minute details. That way I get to really visualize it for myself."

Hall goes through this process because "I'm an obsessive, compulsive perfectionist. Nothing can be right from the outset. It has to be reworked intensely," she said with a laugh. "On a serious note, I really believe in strong composition. It's important in being able to engage yourself with that image over and over. If it's a bad composition, you get sick of it. So that's why I go through this struggle."

She photographs her women when and where the light is most intense. "For my very first paintings, I went to Palm Springs, because the real subject of my work is light and color. There's lots of light there, and intense saturated color. The subject matter became incidental," she said.

"It took me maybe 10 years before I realized Palm Springs is a place I used to visit in my adolescence. It was good memories."

For her 1988 painting "Lucky Star," showing for the first time in Los Angeles, Hall and her models drove to Palm Springs. Her series of travel sketches also began there. "Palm Springs has been a real inspirational place for me, emotionally and visually," she said.

Among the works of women in swimming pools in this show is a drawing of Hall with her mother, which she did in 1983, at the tail end of a series of mother-daughter images. It was only then that she recognized why she was so taken by swimming pools.

"I put it together that the swimming pool is the only place that my divorced family came together for a number of years, and it was like all my dreams came true at the swimming pool," she said.

After that realization, Hall did several autobiographical pieces of herself and her family at the pool, based on old family photographs. A few of them hang in this show, accompanied by stories that add insight into her life at the time.

Hall suspects that she is painting an imaginary sister in her works depicting two women. "As a child, I did all these drawings of imaginary sisters and brothers. I think I'm still doing that. My imaginary sister would most likely be blond," she said.

"Most of these women are career women, and some of them have become real special in my life, as spiritual guides or women that are successful and have a very special intelligent quality. It's testing our notion of dumb blonde. People look at my work and they take it on that superficial level of happy, pretty, when it's not about that at all.

"Women are taught early on not to show anger. You just have to smile. I've done it all my life, just to cover up for everything. What a burden that is. My work is not about these individual women. I'm not doing portraits. I'm working through them to present this dilemma."

As Hall is represented by a New York gallery, and she has not had a comprehensive show of her work in Los Angeles since 1986, many of her recent paintings have not been seen here until now. "My Father's Smile" (1990-91) includes a self-portrait, something she does every four or five years, in a way documenting her own aging process, she said.

Actually, her father does not appear in the picture. "Visually, men are not interesting for me to paint," she said.

Three 1991 still lifes--"The Cherry Tart," "Just a Bowl of Cherries,"' and the lush, radiant "Juicyfruit"--incorporate her favorite colors. "Obviously, I'm very drawn to orange and blue. You see them throughout my work. And red, aqua, sea-foam green, lavender. Those have always been colors that have meant a lot to me. I don't like earth tones."

"A Few of My Favorite Things," a still life in a limited edition print that is selling for $500--to raise money for the museum--presents her sunglasses, a colorful array of crayons, a cobalt blue drinking glass and a bowl containing nectarines, orange poppies--the ultimate flower for her--in what was her grandmother's refrigerator water bottle, a pitcher with a broken handle that her grandmother used in making pancake batter, a cheerful print tablecloth belonging to her mother, and her sketchbook, open to an image of herself and a friend, artist Candice Gawne.

Hall has not been able to paint since November because of what her doctor called overuse repetitive motion syndrome, which has resulted in injuries to arm muscles and tendons. Her physical therapist has assured her that she will be able to return to painting. Since January she has been teaching design classes at UCLA.

Her last concept for a painting, photographed before her injury but waiting to be painted, depicts three women at a table. One of them has her back to the camera. A drawing already in New York is similar.

"So that was happening in the work, where the models were maybe turning away from you altogether. I have no idea why," she said. "I just go with my guts when I'm doing this. It's an unconscious thing that I'm drawing these scenes, and usually it's a number of years later when I understand why I was doing that.

"I've had this very strong image in mind for years, which I haven't done yet, and maybe I never will, of me with a sunset, no sunglasses. We'll see what that turns into. I don't know what it is yet. I see it as being very revealing. I don't know where it's coming from. I had wanted to shoot the sunset last summer at the beach, but we never had a sunset at the beach last summer. It didn't get shot, and maybe that's just as well. Something I'll do later on."

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