When he’s on the job, Irvine attorney Thomas Peckenpaugh had better know exactly what he’s after.
Such certainty doesn’t always figure into the picture when he and his wife, Barbara, are collecting art.
“The story Barb and I always tell about ourselves,” Tom Peckenpaugh says, “is that we have no preconceived notion of what we want. When we go into a gallery, we almost always go in separate directions, then we compare notes. We usually end up liking the same works.”
A 37-piece sampling of those works is on display at the Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum, the recent recipient of 266 photographs, most of them contemporary, collected over two decades by the Peckenpaughs.
The couple have lived in Orange County for 27 years, and Tom Peckenpaugh has served as a trustee of South Coast Repertory and Newport Harbor Art Museum. They made the donation to the university museum--its largest gift ever--because they are alumni.
Constance W. Glenn, director of the university’s art museum, said the Peckenpaughs, longtime friends, wanted to become more involved with their alma mater. After amassing prints and photographs for so many years, they didn’t have to look far for a way to do so.
“They had run out of room [in their home] for their photography and asked if we would like to have a collection of works,” she recalled in a recent phone interview. “I said yes, of course. Photography is one of our primary focuses of collection and exhibition.”
Images by such well-known artists as Bernard Plossu, Sebastiao Salgado and Paul Caponigro are among highlights of the gift. Other pictures come from American social-documentary photographers Ken Light and Marion Post Wolcott.
Working for the Depression-era Farm Security Administration, Wolcott poignantly documented this nation’s destitute rural poor. The government wanted to bring home the need for federal aid.
The collection also contains Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of the 1984 Olympics and works by Laguna Beach’s Laurie Brown, whose lyrical photos address damage to the global environment.
Rural landscape photographs constitute much of the Peckenpaughs’ collection. (They favor works on paper for affordability.) Glenn describes these tableaux as having “a sense of an awe of the land and a sense of the quietude of the landscape. These photographs are not busy, not frenetic, not urban.”
Within this gestalt, however, emerge two divergent views, a dichotomy at the heart of “Selective Evidence: Photographs From the Peckenpaugh Gift.” The show, containing mostly black-and-whites, was curated by Glenn and Marina Freeman, a graduate student in art history.
“The exhibit is a series of comparisons between the earth as a worked, tilled, challenging environment for human beings,” Glenn said, “and a view of the land, in the tradition of Ansel Adams, that’s full of majesty, full of the things we sing, like ‘America the Beautiful.’ ”
Belonging in the latter camp are the cavernous gulch and soaring mountain range in Jim Stimson’s “Fissures, Mono Lake” (1983) and the pristinely mowed hayfield of Ronald Wohlauer’s “Hay Rolls” (1983). Conversely, “Woman, Hands Clasped” (1979), by Ken Light, depicts an older woman, her wizened face more like driftwood than skin, resting in the dirt near a pile of onions she’s been pulling from the soil. She wears a burlap bag for a shawl.
Photographs containing similar shapes--such as long, narrow fence poles and an endless road--were hung side by side, Glenn said, to create a flowing, “rhythmic installation” and prompt viewers, especially university students, to scrutinize photographic composition and formal concerns. That reflects the Peckenpaughs’ wish that their gift benefit students.
“This is a rare luxury for us,” Glenn said. “We don’t get to do a lot of exhibits that we design from the beginning as teaching devices.”
Students, Glenn hopes, will also learn about something more abstract: A “pure kind of collecting” that characterizes the Peckenpaughs’ practice.
“This collection is not built on self-aggrandizement or a desire for stature in the community or on photographers with household names,” she said. “It is very clearly to me built on the love of particular images and the joy Tom and Barb get through the interchange with artists they meet.”
* “ Selective Evidence: Photographs From the Peckenpaugh Gift” runs through Oct. 1 at the Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Ave. Tuesday through Thursday, noon-8 p.m. and Friday through Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Free. (310) 985-5761.