The current main stage attraction at the Palm Springs Desert Museum invites us to return to those thrilling days of '60s yesteryear, when art was hot in Northern California. Three masters of the era are updated in "Collaborations: William Allan, Robert Hudson, William Wiley."
All came to public attention as innovative participants in a movement called "Funk"--an against-the-grain, bumptiously regional style associated with UC Davis. The term--borrowed from African American jazz--designates compositional stews concocted of contradictory ingredients intended to fuse into new brews. One wag tagged the visual version "Dude Ranch Dada."
All three artists take issue with the idea that making art is a quintessentially urban activity. All live in rural areas and love to go fishing. They even argue against the notion that art activity is best done by the lone individual.
Each member of the trio is now about 60. They attended high school together in Richland, Wash. Back then, it was a booming, trailer-park company town fueled by an early plutonium production plant--Hanford Atomic Works. No wonder they think the world is crazy.
This shared view kept them good friends. Periodically they get together and actually make the ensemble works that are the focus--if not the most interesting part--of this traveling exhibition. Yet otherwise informative and earnest catalog texts by Rosetta Brooks and the museum's co-curators Christine Giles and Katherine Plake Hough don't say exactly how the collaborative work is accomplished.
If that's a shortcoming, it would have been a real error to show the collaborations without giving viewers a good sense of what the artists contribute individually. That's done in what amounts to three solid solo surveys of recent work.
All of them are, by turns, predictably complex, eccentric, wise, foolish, garrulous, annoying and funny. How could it be otherwise with artists that want to simultaneously demonstrate that they're just earthy, straight-shooting, plain-talking cowboys and hip academics with more book-learning than the city slickers? It's very difficult to consistently bring off an aesthetic that embraces and rejects everything at the same time. That said, at its best the work puts forth ever-pertinent questions about the mixture of comedy and tragedy in this vacuum called life.
All three work large, but Wiley opens the widest world in paintings that muse on his relationship to the past. "Modern Ark--After Brueghel" borrows figures from a painting by the 16th century Flemish master. The juxtaposition evokes the old polarity between indulgence and restraint. To defuse the idea that he might be taking this all too seriously, Wiley introduces such burlesque texts as "How do you want your eggs / I want them left alone." Those winceable puns would be unbearable if Wiley weren't such a superb satirical draftsman.
Hudson's painted-metal assemblage-style sculpture alludes to everything from Picasso to Kachina dolls. Taken together they evoke one of those seriously overweight guys who's real light on his feet. "Blue Antler, Red Wrench, Radiator" makes all that hardware seem to float. "Blue Redtail Hawk" centers on a painted canvas resting on an easel. Festooned with palette, cowboy hat, painted bunny and broken wagon wheel, it appears to ruminate on what it means to be at once an artist and a real man, whatever that is.
The art of Hudson and Wiley has a certain entertaining, extroverted swagger. Allan's painting, by contrast, seems authentically inner-directed and lonely. While his friends' intransigence speaks of rebellion, Allan is troubled and withdrawn into odd corners.
"Transient Poet Leaving Home" is staged against a realistic backdrop of suburban dwellings in twilight silhouette. The protagonist is actually a metal coffee-table stick-figure designed to hold a pack of smokes and book matches. In the painting they become luggage as he marches off to an uncharted future. In this anti-smoking era, it's poignant.
Sometimes Allan looks like a Photorealist, at others like an Abstract Expressionist. That's quite a stretch. "Update for the Model of Rome" warps space in weird, queasy ways.
The collaborative works are smaller and--truth to tell--less than the sum of talent that went into them. "Conduct Unbecoming an Orifice Sir" obliquely depicts an artist urinating on an icon. It just joins Hudson's color with Wiley's drawing. "Summer Eye" is so understated it goes almost unnoticed until it grabs you with Allan's knack for spatial displacement.
To allow viewers in on the act, the artists set up an interactive space where everybody can contribute to a sculpture of multicolored pipe cleaners. It's grown into a species of Pop Art-Jackson Pollock that's rather amusing. It offsets a certain nostalgic melancholy that attaches itself to this work.
* "Collaborations: William Allan, Robert Hudson, William Wiley," Palm Springs Desert Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs; through July 6, closed Mondays and major holidays, (760) 325-0189.