Why are permanent collection shows usually so dull? Because we've seen the work over and over already, or the stuff isn't that wonderful to begin with--or both. Add lazy or uninspired curatorial guidance, and an exhibition becomes little more than a means of filling up gallery space.
Case in point: "Beyond the Bay: The Figure," at Newport Harbor Art Museum through June 27. The exhibition showcases works from the permanent collection, including a few new, or newish, acquisitions. Nearly all the better Bay Area Figurative pieces were on view two summers ago, in "Different Stories: Five Views of the Collection."
There were problems with that show, too, but at least then-assistant curator Marilu Knode made a valiant effort to group similar work in fresh ways and to provide extended commentaries.
For the current exhibition, chief curator Bruce Guenther offers only a brief and bland summary of the achievements of Northern California artists in his gallery text. The actual works are grouped in a perfunctory fashion that doesn't always permit works by the same artist to be seen near one another.
It would be one thing if Newport Harbor had a big stash of paintings by David Park, Elmer Bischoff, John Altoon, Joan Brown, and the few others who made the short-lived reign of Bay Area Figurative painting memorable.
But the museum's holdings in this area are modest. In fact, even with the lesser stuff tossed in, Guenther also found room to include work that isn't figurative and artists whose careers have nothing to do with the Bay Area. Eventually, any pretense of a theme breaks down completely.
The Laguna Art Museum faced problems similar to Newport Harbor's in mounting its current 75th anniversary show ("75 Works, 75 Years: Collecting the Art of California"), drawn from the permanent collection.
The Laguna Beach exhibition is disappointing: It's limited to painting and sculpture, contains big historical gaps and (by the museum's own admission) is not necessarily limited to the museum's best works.
Yet the show is redeemed by the energy the museum put into assigning and editing 75 brief essays (including one by this writer). Proof that even a show with a lot of indifferent work and a wobbly premise could be salvaged to some extent by soliciting a range of viewpoints on the art.
"Beyond the Bay," according to the press release, is intended to examine "the influence of (Bay Area Figurative Artists) on subsequent generations of California artists, both north and south, who are exploring the integration of the figure and abstraction . . . . "
Influence is a loaded word, however, and the show provides no concrete analysis of ways the younger generation may have taken its cue from the previous one.
In any case, the high points of this show can be ticked off on two hands with fingers to spare.
All the figures in Bischoff's lush, painterly "Two Figures at the Seashore" and Park's "Bather With Knee Up" and "The Balcony"--all from 1957--are children or adolescents. Whereas Bischoff uses his figures mostly as moody anchors for a glowing scene of late-afternoon light splaying over spits of land, Park deals with them as private young people.
The pale light playing over the back of the bather's neck emphasizes the gawky vulnerability underneath his tanned, long-limbed grace, powerful stance and casual nakedness. A swipe of orange isolates the youthful curve of his buttocks and sets up a visual echo with the shape of his ear and the bend of his elbow.
In the other painting, Park emphasizes the deep concentration of a young girl reading on the balcony with hanging comma-shapes of vegetation over her head and by lingering on the effect of sunlight outlining her upper body.
Other memorable canvases include: Altoon's "Untitled (Ocean Park Series)," from 1962--a free-floating universe of abstracted beach objects, including a lifeguard's chair; Paul Wonner's sun-dazzled image of a Southern California patio ("Chair," from 1960); a slyly macho abstraction Brown painted in her early 20s ("Trying to Spear Things," from 1960); Hassel Smith's untitled 1958 work, a witty medley of small brushy events, large, slow color fields and elegant linear effects.
Donald Karwelis's "Seated Figure With Object" from 1966 (the figure's blind, inert body--and the object, which looks like a steering wheel--suggests that he has barely survived an auto crash) also retains its curious appeal.
If I weren't getting so weary of Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park No. 36," I'd add it to the list, too. (The museum recently trotted out the 1970 canvas once again to mark the artist's death in March.) Too bad the museum doesn't own some of Diebenkorn's Bay Area work--the high-keyed abstractions or the light-struck paintings of figures in outdoor settings. Throughout his career, he experimented with different ways of using geometry to convey the facts of the real world.
On the other hand, some of the slighter pieces by other artists don't indicate what they could do at full throttle. Although any piece by a worthy artist has at least historical interest, it's too bad when major figures are represented only by work that predates (or postdates) the periods of their greatest achievement.
For example, Jay De Feo's small gouache from her "Florence Series" of 1952--when she was 23--offers just a hint of the passionately focused intensity she would lavish on later drawings and paintings. Conversely, Manuel Neri's enameled bronze figures from the 1970s--the one on view was cast in 1990--have always struck me as overly mannered and "gallery conscious" compared with his plaster figures from the late '50s and early '60s.
Brown's painting, "The Journey No. 5," from 1975, comes from the "awkward" period of her autobiographical figurative work.
In this canvas, the well-traveled artist portrays herself in an Egyptian tomb, standing next to the yellow-outlined transparent figure of a man. Perhaps the hieroglyphics painted on the walls serve as a coded reference to her thoughts. (Is the man present only in her imagination? Is he lacking in personality? Or is Brown indicating the way travel partners sometimes have to ignore each other to fully absorb the sights around them?)
The general rule of thumb about the sculpture in this show is: the larger, the more forgettable. (Thank goodness the utterly vacuous, nearly 15-foot-tall John Buck piece, "The Translation," is merely on extended loan.)
Only two pieces have much to recommend them: Robert Cremean's ironically titled "Running Torso," from 1961 (a one-legged interpretation of the fragmentary condition of some ancient Greek sculptures, made with such Bay Area Funk objects as rags, a rusted can lid, stones and a leather pommel) and Robert Arneson's "Ol' Bob With Itch" (a brashly deprecatory self-portrait in which the artist's head is attached to the body of a scratching dog).
And what about those new acquisitions? Well, they aren't terribly thrilling. The Arneson, a 1991 gift from Neri, and an untitled 1984 painting by William Brice--one of his big-scale abstractions based on Greek culture and landscape--are probably the best of the lot.
The labels of the most memorable pieces acquired in the '70s and '80s indicate the important role of matching grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the generosity of a core group of Newport Harbor donors (in 1984, three of them jointly gave the museum the Karwelis; the following year, 14 supporters helped purchase the Altoon).
It may just be chance that none of these people are credited for the more recent acquisitions on view in this exhibition. But it's hard not to feel that a certain energy has been lost here, too--as well as in the curatorial effort involved in mounting the show.
It's hard not to feel that the pursuit of excellence has been scuttled in favor of bland expediency.
* "Beyond the Bay: The Figure" remains through June 27 at Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission: $4 adults, $2 students and senior citizens; free for children under 12; free for everyone on Tuesdays. (714) 759-1122.