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Serious art not just found in N.Y.

Having grown up wandering around art museums on the East Coast, I now enjoy being able to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes while working in Laguna Beach — freeform art appreciation.

If you’re weaned on the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum in New York — not counting all the lesser museums and galleries that revolve like asteroids around that constellation — Southern California can seem like a cultural desert. (Note, I didn’t say wasteland.)

Here, artists are like miners. They’re here all right, but they have to stake their claim and defend it. Galleries and museums are like territorial outposts.

  More about money

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Those big, eastern museums have the collective weight of time and history.

Of course, Los Angeles has the Getty — which has, unfortunately, been more about money than art.

I recall when the J. Paul Getty Museum was new, the fear in the art world was that its bazillions of dollars would wipe out MOMA, The Met and the eastern art establishment. That didn’t happen, of course, but as a result the Getty has politely focused on some of the fringe aspects of art, such as illustrated manuscripts, and all but ignored modern art.

In the late 1980s, I happened to be a local reporter when the Getty bought Van Gogh’s “Irises” for an undisclosed sum, after the painting had been purchased by an investor for the then-staggering price of $53.9 million.

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Again, the story was the money. The thousands who lined up to see this seminal work behind its bulletproof glass were mostly thinking about how a simple picture of flowers could be worth that much.

Now the Getty is having to give up many of its artifacts to resolve an international art-buying scandal that probably could have been predicted. The Getty is only one of my L.A. art disappointments.

I remember my first visit to the brand-new Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A. After little more than an hour of circulating, I found myself at the door. This is it, I thought? No more art? Are they serious?

  Serious about art

I realized Laguna Beach was serious about art when, as a photography student, I wandered into the Laguna Art Museum in the mid-1980s and found a treasure trove of exquisite egg albumen prints by one of the great early photographers.

Finally, real art, I thought.

But let’s face it, this town was built on pretty plein air landscapes that serve as high-end picture postcards for the tourist trade.

  ‘Nola,’ ‘Sola,’ ‘Dola’

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When I need a “real art” fix, I usually stroll over to the North Laguna gallery district — let’s call it “Nola” after New York’s Soho art district — a cluster of intimate galleries that together are like an outdoor art museum.

(Of course, there’s also South Laguna, “Sola,” and Downtown Laguna, “Dola,” where you can also find excellent galleries for freeform browsing.)

A while ago, I wandered into Rohrer gallery (the one with the Craftsman architecture and the outdoor fireplace).

Rohrer is quite new on the Laguna scene, but in it you can find the “weight” and breadth of a major metropolitan museum.

Here you can be mesmerized by a 5,000-year-old temple monument sitting next to contemporary Japanese basket art. That’s breadth.

It was a warm, slow beach day, and I was welcomed in by Carey Conklin, an expert in Asian art who delights in telling stories about each piece.

It happened to be the final few days of Peter Halley’s sell-out exhibit of contemporary paintings — which I would call neon minimalism but Conklin meticulously described as well-thought-out commentary on our high-tech lives.

  An attic at The Met

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The irrepressible Conklin just had to show me the rest of the gallery, and we tripped upstairs into a behind-the-scenes world of artifacts and artwork that felt like an attic at The Met.

Here was Picasso’s homage to Mattise; Modigliani’s haunting portrait of his pregnant partner just before he died of tuberculosis; Japanese bronze art; African masks; Indonesian suits of armor; Depression-era American art; and on and on.

As we were taking in the totality of these marvelous roomfuls, Conklin began making associations. He pointed out the similarity of the African masks and the Modiglianis, and noted that the Botero painting was actually based on Matisse’s famous picnic scene.

These are the type of “aha!” moments that can make the top of your head fly off.

It’s the connections between art that span continents and centuries that gives Rohrer its breadth and heft, and makes a visit with Conklin so much fun.

More than Art Appreciation 101, before our eyes is the sweep of history and the way humans have inspired each other over generations.

That’s art with weight — right here in Laguna.

  The people’s art

Speaking of art, I’ve been noticing the public’s reaction to The People’s Council sculpture in front of City Hall. For some reason this piece, just a little more than a year old, is reviled by some and just plain not liked by many in Laguna.

Oddly enough, the public — the People — seem to have more appreciation for these three enigmatic figures sitting around an obelisk than this art-crazy community does.

I’ve seen groups of youngsters draping themselves over the granite figures, giggling and posing for pictures. It’s served as the site of a lone protester. Tourists use it as a stopping-place to catch their bearings. It has a “public square” quality that offers the chance to make a statement to the world — or take a moment to breathe in the surroundings.

Once, an older man was standing with eyes closed, palms pressed into the top of the obelisk, having a quiet prayer. He seemed to be drawing some strength or healing power from the stone, or communicating through it.

Another time, a man — apparently sober — was pacing around inside it as if dancing.

Much of the city’s public art is exquisite and inspiring, but rarely do we see art the public actually wants to hold hands with.


CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. Her e-mail address is cindy.frazier@latmes.com


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