Entertainment & Arts

Artist D.J. Hall’s pool of paintings

D.J. Hall: sunny views, deeper shades
Looking not unlike one of the ladies of leisure in her trademark, sun-soaked paintings, D.J. Hall relaxes at her Palm Desert home. Her work is the subject of a 35-year retrospective at the Palm Springs Art Museum -- an exhibition of about 100 works -- as well as a show at Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Culver City.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

“THIS IS when I started leaving the smile behind. I felt calmer and I didn’t feel the need to have all my models looking at me and blasting you with a histrionic expression.”

D.J. Hall is talking about “Reflection,” her 2001 painting of fellow artist Candice Gawne. Neither blond nor giddy, like Hall’s signature subjects, Gawne is seen in profile as if lost in thought over an afternoon cocktail. An equally reflective woman in the background turns out to be Hall, sitting on the far side of a swimming pool and casting visible reflections in rippling water.

The introspective painting is among the surprises in “D.J. Hall: Thirty-Five Year Retrospective,” an exhibition of about 100 works at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Along with the artist’s trademark, sun-soaked world of swimming pools, bright blue skies and ladies of leisure who flaunt big sunglasses and dazzling smiles, there are night scenes, still lifes, academic figure drawings and travel sketches. Perhaps most tellingly, there are also images of Hall -- as a child, a birthday girl, a working artist and an observer of what she has created.

Like all retrospectives, this one (up through Sept. 14) is a walk through a career. A complementary show, “Full Circle” at Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Culver City (through July 12), features the Southern California painter’s new work. But the Palm Springs exhibition is also a biography of an artist who has come to terms with herself through her metier.

“I don’t look like an artist and I don’t talk like an artist,” says Hall, who considers herself something of an outsider. Although never in the mainstream, she won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1977 and established herself in New York in 1981 with the first of several solo shows at OK Harris Works of Art. In California, she has compiled a substantial résumé of exhibitions, publications, teaching positions and works in public and private collections.

When people ask why she paints so many women -- and they often do -- she has lots of answers. She may say matter-of-factly that “women are more interesting visually” or note that men have painted women for centuries without having their motives questioned. “I have always said that men were not part of my life when I was growing up,” says the slim, intensely engaged artist who describes herself as “hyper” and obsessively concerned with every last aspect of her paintings.

Born in Los Angeles in 1951, she began life as Debra Jane Hall and spent her early years in Santa Ana. Her parents divorced when she was 3, leaving her with a mother who suffered from mental illness and needed a lot of help from her daughter. The divorce and her mother’s instability were taboo subjects, so the little girl created what she calls “an illusion of reality” and looked forward to her birthday parties at her grandmother’s house, where everyone gathered at the pool and posed for happy pictures.

“Now I think I’m painting from my experience,” Hall says. “My longings, my fantasies of what the world should or shouldn’t be. That’s from my perspective. Why would it be otherwise? I’m definitely creating characters to fill in for lonely spots, lost people or past people.”

She started young

HALL developed a talent for drawing figures in her youth. But when she studied art at USC, she shifted to illusion- istic abstractions made of airbrush-painted, intricately cut wood. “They were really pretty,” she says, “but not interesting to my mentality.” In frustration, she bought traditional oil paints and linen at the end of her senior year, in 1973, and painted the earliest works in the show. “Bit-O-Honey” depicts Hall and two female friends showing off their bare midriffs and sexually suggestive foodstuffs. “WMD 166" is a portrait of the artist dressed to match her sports car.

Adapted from photographs and executed in a soft, creamy style, they may put viewers in mind of more sharply focused Photo-Realist images of the same period. But Hall’s paintings are the work of a timid 21-year-old who didn’t know what she was doing, she says, someone who “was just picking up on the same stuff” as many other artists and taking Pop art as “a point of departure.”

She found her subject matter in December 1973, when she and her husband, architect Toby Watson, drove to Palm Springs in search of a location for a photo shoot. They settled on the Spa Hotel, Hall says, “because it was where I could get the maximum amount of bodies and they had several swimming pools.” Young, pretty and innocent-looking in a resort that mainly attracted older people, Hall told potential subjects she was taking “hobby pictures.” They probably would have been horrified at the paintings, which exaggerate the lumps, bumps, veins and wrinkles of aging bodies.

Hall’s telephoto lens “emphasized that information,” she says. “I loved to see how outrageous it was, but when I was translating the photographs, I was just painting the shapes close up, as abstractions.”

Progressing with pools

AFTER a few return trips to Palm Springs, she moved on to Las Vegas and took more poolside pictures. Back in her studio, she used the photos as ideas -- not blueprints -- for paintings. When the road trips got old, Hall began to ask friends to pose for her. She shot pictures at her home on the Venice canals and, later, around the pool at a small house that she and Watson bought in Palm Desert.

As her paintings progressed, Hall became a sort of director and set designer as well as a painter. She dressed models, invented backgrounds and made up details, including what’s reflected in sunglasses. A bulletin board in the exhibition, loaded with sketches and notes, provides some insight into her complex process.

Another section of the show outlines her role in shaping the “look” of James L. Brooks’ 2004 film, “Spanglish.” One scene replicates Hall’s 1995 painting, “Summer Past-time,” depicting a woman perusing an art book under a poolside umbrella.

The splashy palette may mask the woman’s pensive mood, but most of Hall’s later works are contemplative. Many grapple with her past in images borrowed from family photographs -- and bring up the subject of Palm Springs.

“In the mid-1980s, we started coming out here for my birthday,” she says. “I had come here as a child because my grandparents had a house here. I thought it was really magical and it was pulling me back.” Around the same time, “I started to understand what my pools were about,” she says, “why I had to have pools because of birthday parties at my grandma’s.”

In 1997, Hall and Watson bought their weekend place, three blocks from the former family residence. “I love the night light in the desert,” she says, and the attraction shows. In a tiny painting, “Spellbound,” she sits on the edge of her pool, back to the viewer, gazing at twinkling lights on a palm and a pinkish purple glow over distant hills.

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