Art review: Unearthing a rare treasure at Huntington Library

The San Gabriel Mountains rise to imposing heights behind a tiny rural outpost. An alpine lake in the Sierra lies still in a frame of snowdrifts, rocky peaks and moss-covered stones. A narrow path disappears into a field of yellow flowers stretching toward blue sky.

These three landscapes are part of a rare retrospective of work by one of American Regionalism's lesser-known artists at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens through Sept. 17.

"Roger Medearis: His Regionalism," in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, spotlights nearly three dozen paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints by the Missouri-born artist who would connect so profoundly with the varied landscapes of California and the West in the latter half of his artistic life.

Spanning 60 years, from 1938 to 1998, the exhibition takes its subtitle from Medearis' unpublished book, "My Regionalism," and from the curators' intent to separate Medearis from his early teacher and mentor, famed American Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton.

"Roger framed himself as a Regionalist and a student of Benton," said James Glisson, assistant curator of American art. "But if you listened only to what he said about himself, you would get just a small portion of the story. He identified with Regionalism, but he remade Regionalism into something that was his own."

Medearis, who died in 2001, was inspired by Norman Rockwell's populist magazine illustrations to enroll in the Kansas City Art Institute in 1938 as an 18-year-old, a bold move for the son of a Southern Baptist minister.

Medearis' early scenes of everyday rural life reflected his Midwestern roots, and his heritage and quiet sense of humor are evident in such paintings as "Church Meeting 1939," in which idiosyncratic characters inside a country church are observed from above in a carousel of witty vignettes.

A close look at Medearis' 1940 oil painting, "Breaking Ground in Bethel," depicting a peaceful and colorful group of men, women and children in a bucolic setting, reveals subtle social commentary: a partially obscured newspaper headline on a picnic table reads "French Accept Nazi Terms."

After serving in the Army during World War II, Medearis took a dramatically different creative path with small, stark still-life paintings that were unlike anything he had done before. Juxtaposed in the gallery against the vibrant color, liveliness and movement of his early work and the expansiveness of the work he would do later, they appear to have been done by a different artist entirely.

In the minds of critics, however, Medearis remained a Bentonesque Regionalist, and the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s was heralding the decline of that wide-audience, rural-life-based realist movement.

"Regionalists were not getting a lot of love from the critics then," said Chief Curator of American Art Jessica Todd Smith.

With his professional and his personal life, too, in disarray, Medearis left the art world for more than a decade, establishing a successful business career that eventually took him to California in 1958.

He began painting again in 1961. Seven years later, Medearis was once again a full-time artist, inspired by California's beaches, fields and foothills, the alpine heights of the Sierra and the sprawl of the San Gabriel Valley. He had also become an avid hiker and camper, thanks to his wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Medearis, on hand for a preview showing of the retrospective.

"Until he met me, he was sort of an indoor disciplined fellow," she said, smiling.

What never changed was Medearis' intense focus and the precision that belied a sensual softness and rippling, kinetic line characteristic of much of this artist's work.

His labor-intensive drawings — "Native Oak" (1979), a graphite rendering of an oak tree from the roots up, took 125 hours to complete — attest to Medearis' self-discipline. "Each day starts," he wrote, "with the long sharpened leads in their holders, lined up on the table like hypodermic needles."

"When we got married," Betty Medearis said, "we built a studio by the garage, and he'd leave at 8 in the morning, come in for lunch and go back to work until 4 o'clock. It was a very disciplined approach."

The Huntington's impressive, still-growing collection of works from the country's colonial period to the mid-20th century, Smith explained, began with the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation's gift of a core group of 50 paintings, primarily by such East Coast-centric artists as John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, the Hudson River School of American Impressionists and Edward Hopper.

"It didn't delve too extensively into Regionalism," Smith said, "and it's a wonderfully fun project to fill in and address the many gaps that are still to be filled in."

Betty Medearis and private collectors lent many of the works in the retrospective. "Godly Susan," a vibrant 1941 egg tempera portrait inspired by Medearis' grandmother, is on loan from the Smithsonian.

"Together, they help us see the pieces that are in our permanent collection in the fuller context of Roger Medearis' career," Smith observed, adding that the exhibition also reflects the Huntington's sense of place as an institution.

"I foresee that we'll be doing more of this type of work in the future," she said. "There's a particular resonance with the collection of materials in the library that relate to the history of California and the West, and that's something that we haven't historically done in the art collections."

For Betty Medearis, who worked closely with Glisson in the research and mounting of the exhibition, seeing her late husband's work in the Huntington gallery is an emotional experience.

"I'm about to break into tears, I am so thrilled," she said. "He was such a fantastic artist, and that he emerged later in life and fulfilled his love of painting was very exciting. I had always hoped that somehow there would be recognition beyond the commercial galleries."


"Roger Medearis: His Regionalism"

Where: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino.

When: Summer hours: 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays-Sundays. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Exhibition ends Sept. 17.

Cost: Adults, $15 (weekends, $20), seniors $12 (weekends, $15), students (ages 12 to 18, or with full-time student I.D.), $10; youth (ages 5 to 11), $6. Free for ages 4 and under.