‘California Scene Paintings from 1930 to 1960’ on exhibit at PMCA


Drug store lunch counters, electric streetcars, grazing goats, five-cent shoe shines, Bunker Hill tenements, ranches not yet doomed by Dodger Stadium; farm fields destined for burial under looping freeways....

“California Scene Paintings from 1930 to 1960,” a new exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA), traces the state’s physical, social and cultural evolution — from the Great Depression and World War II to the dramatic demolish-and-build post-War era — through more than 75 oil paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings.

These visual records of what once was, set in locales up and down California, are the work of artists representing a West Coast-centric brand of American Regionalism, the early 20th-century realist modern art movement. The works depict everyday life from San Diego to Sacramento over three decades, ending on the eve of an accelerated pace of development that would soon level entire hills in Los Angeles, bury farmland under concrete, and solidify the state as a mecca for the car culture.

(Overheard at the show’s opening weekend, a teenager to her older companion on viewing an image of a street with a rather Old World look: “That’s not Hollywood.” Her companion: “Yes, it is. That’s how it used to look.”)

Gordon McClelland, the exhibition’s curator and a California art specialist, whose extensive research is reflected in the show’s engaging labeling, calls the paintings “visual narratives.” It’s easy to see why. Desperation infuses Phil Dike’s 1938 oil painting, “Smudging,” in which citrus farmers in Redlands race to save their crops from freezing, lighting up the night sky with torch-like smudge pots. The weariness of women living in dark Bunker Hill tenements festooned with drying laundry is palpable in Millard Sheets’ 1934 lithograph, “Family Flats.” Bowed heads and slumping shoulders in Ben Norris’ “Discouraged Workers” (1936) trudging past a Los Angeles gas works attest to Depression-Era devastation.

Several pieces in the PMCA exhibition were created directly under the auspices of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), the New Deal federal agency established by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration to give economic relief to masses of Depression-Era unemployed, including struggling artists. The subject matter of WPA art reflected the theme of Roosevelt’s 1932 “forgotten man” campaign speech, McClelland observed. The intent was that “this very American art would make average, working-class people feel that they were important in American society and culture.”

McClelland, who has written biographies of many of the artists in the exhibition, in addition to co-authoring with Austin D. McClelland “California Scene Painting,” a lavish history spanning the years 1850 to 2012, said he “selected every piece in the show first and foremost for its artistic value. Then I was interested in making the link between social history and general California history with the paintings. That was a focus of the book I wrote, and of the show, too.”

Besides serving as a fascinating glimpse into the locales of the past and the artifacts and fashions of yesteryear — ladies and men in hats, hump-backed automobiles — the paintings reflect various ways in which the artists were inspired by the California climate. The natural light of the state’s varied terrains and the artificial lights of its cities inform canvases filled with sharp contrasts of sun and shadow, glistening streets and the diffuse or garish glow of street lamps and neon signs.

The soft warmth infusing Emil Kosa Jr.’s 1949 oil painting “Newport Beach” — jutting rocks, calm blue sea, sailboats and bathers — becomes dusty heat in his circus-themed “Big Top,” from 1951. Sun-drenched hills deepening into shadow signal the end of day for hard-working ranchers in Phil Paradise’s “Ranch Near San Luis Obispo” (1935). A haze of neon glamorizes a nightclubbing crowd in Jack Laycox’s 1960 watercolor, “8th Street Oakland.”

On locations up and down the state, the artists “would block in the watercolor or oils, wait till the lighting was perfect and then do a value study at that moment to show where the darks and lights were strongest,” McClelland said. California’s strong light and dark values were particularly inspiring for such artists as Kosa and Paradise, he said, who were admirers of Rembrandt and of chiaroscuro technique.

“Underneath every one of these paintings is a strong value study,” McClelland said, proof that the artists on display (many of whom were employed in the film and animation industry) “could draw beautifully and that their paintings were an extension of that tradition.”

McClelland hopes that even those who aren’t regular gallery or museum-goers will be drawn to an exhibition that offers a vivid and surprising glimpse into the state’s past.

“This is what California looked like and how it evolved,” he said. “I hope that people will take the time to see the show — and bring their kids, too.”

Also at PMCA: Running concurrently in the museum’s smaller galleries are two very different exhibitions: “Christopher Miles: Bloom,” a series of three-dimensional abstract works; and John O’Brien’s cartographic installation, the Arroyo Seco Parkway-inspired “Meander.”

What: “California Scene Painting 1930 to 1960”

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena.

When: Runs through July 28. Regular hours: noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Admission: $7 for adults; $5 for seniors and students; free for children under 12. Free the first Friday of the month; free the third Thursday of the month from 5 to 8 p.m.

More info: (626) 568-3665,


LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.