Taking In Picture-Perfect Scenes in Irvine

Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County Edition.

Irvine's got California landscapes in two dimensions and three.

11 to 11:45 a.m.: The Tower 17 office building is white marble and glass; there's a giant U.S. flag on the roof. It exudes wealth and, in that respect, suits the Irvine Museum, housed on the 12th floor. The museum, which opened two years ago, is the brainchild of erstwhile Irvine Co. directors Joan Irvine Smith and her mother, the late Athalie Clarke.

The holdings focus on Impressionist California art from 1890 to 1930.

"It's a modified American Impressionism popular in California . . . kind of a variant of French Impressionism," said executive director Jean Stern.

A recent show offered landscapes from San Diego to the Sierra and beyond. Closer to home, "Irvine Cove '04," by Granville Redmond, shows a single ramshackle cottage and trees; even perusing the label for Benjamin Brown's "Poppies Near Pasadena" proved a pleasantly alliterative experience. Jesse Botke's "Toucans" didn't seem Californian at all.

Space is at a premium; art also hangs on the walls of the museum offices. If the doors to the offices are open, the public may wander in and out freely. I especially liked the cast-iron jack rabbits that adorned two of the desks.

"Reflections of California: The Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke Memorial Exhibition" opens today and runs through June 17; it's dedicated to Clarke (1903-1993) and consists of 58 paintings of special significance to her. The museum is the third stop on the show's tour, and according to Stern, it's already inadvertently been hugely viewed: It was at the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace when Nixon died.

"Athalie Clarke was a close friend of Richard Nixon," Stern explained, noting that Nixon wrote part of his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination in Clarke's living room. "Since then, ('Reflections') was at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. She also knew Mr. Carter. It will finish up in Palm Springs (at the Desert Museum)--she worked for Mr. Ford too."

Admission is free. Weekly docent tours take place every Thursday at 11:15 a.m., and no reservation is necessary. Irvine Museum postcards in the small gift shop are 50 cents. The fully illustrated book that accompanies the current exhibition is $40 and includes a biography of Clarke written by Smith.

11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m.: You can have your art and eat it too at Bistango, just opposite the museum.

Displays of contemporary art change every three months; newly installed is a 50-piece exhibition featuring a handful of artists but billed as "Stanley Moss' Techno-Art Happening." This stuff is really contemporary: Several paintings in the show had signs up that said, "ARTWORK STILL WET--PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH." Some paintings are food-and-drink oriented; one showed a pair of gin and Scotch bottles, another depicted a knife with tomatoes. Gaily colored chairs hang from the ceilings.

On your plate, possibilities range from pesto flatbread ($2.50) and sweet garlic soup ($4.75) on up to filet mignon with Gorgonzola fondue and Pinot noir reduction ($19.75). I took an upper middle road, after much deliberation passing on rosemary gnocchi with lamb tenderloin, tomato and scallions in favor of fusilli with butterflied shrimp, asparagus, lemon zest (rind slivers) and olive oil ($12.75), then lingered over vanilla creme brulee with raspberries and cookies ($5.50).

1 to 2: Paved and gravel walkways wend through UC Irvine's 12-acre arboretum. Originally a nursery meeting the landscape needs of the campus, the area was eventually designated an experimental garden, and today it boasts one of the finest collections of African bulbs and aloes anywhere.

I was tickled by all the aloes with double i's: aloe wickensii, aloe reitzii and aloe broomii . The bulb houses are technically off limits--except during Spring Open House, March 4 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.--but when the doors are left open, the public isn't shy.

Recent rains brought out fragrances both subtle and overwhelming. In some cases, the garden smelled just like the paintings at the museum had looked. Then in one case I wondered if there were a restaurant very near; the agreeable odors emanated from society garlic.

I can't imagine a more relaxing place to bring a book and sit under a tree. Pick a bench and choose your landscape, California or otherwise.

Near the white gazebo, for instance, there's a wrought-iron and wood bench beneath a Brazilian floss silk tree, so-called, according to arboretum assistant director Brad Carter, because when the fruit matures, it's filled with a cotton-like substance used to stuff mattresses. When in bloom, he said, the tree's fuchsia-hued hibiscus-like flowers "just sort of scream at you it's so colorful." That view takes in the gazebo and the San Joaquin Freshwater Marsh.

Late spring might be the best time to visit the South African flowering herbaceous perennials. But the Paulonia tree from South America is in bloom right now with subtle, pale purple flowers, and with no leaves at all to block the exquisite spectacle.



1. Irvine Museum

18881 Von Karman Ave.

12th Floor

(714) 476-2565

Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

2. Bistango

19100 Von Karman Ave.

(714) 752-5222

Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

3. UCI Arboretum

Campus Drive, one block south of Jamboree Road

Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

(714) 824-5833


Parking: There is validated parking in lots at the museum and restaurant. There is metered parking at the arboretum (four quarters per hour; two-quarter minimum).

Buses: OCTA Bus 76 runs east and west along Campus Drive with stops at Von Karman Avenue and Jamboree Road.

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