Rediscovering Realism in California

Carolyn Meyer, Napa Valley & Mayacmas, oil, 11 x 14. ,painting, southwest art.
Carolyn Meyer, Napa Valley & Mayacmas, oil, 11 x 14.

By Barbara Klein

In the small town of Novato, CA, artist Carolyn Meyer rises early to paint the lush green hills and vineyards of nearby Napa Valley an area she considers one of the most beautiful in the world. Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, artist Thomas Van Stein is just returning home after a night on the town; while the city slept he was out painting urban scenes deserted railroad stations, bridges, and oil tanks bathed in moonlight.

Meyer and Van Stein are part of a quiet revolution that is currently taking place in California and across the country: the renaissance of realism. At any given time in California one can tour an exhibition featuring representational art.

Stock Schlueter, Alton Club Cafe, oil, 21 x 34.,painting, southwest art.
Stock Schlueter, Alton Club Café, oil, 21 x 34.

This summer, for example, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art in Malibu, CA, presented On Location in Malibu, an exhibit featuring 65 works by current members of the California Art Club. The museum invited club members to visit Malibu during the past year and paint the scenic terrain. This show was followed by an Orange County Museum of Art exhibition, The California Water Color Movement (on view through October 31), which presents Depression-era scene paintings by Millard Sheets, Emil Kosa Jr., and Phil Dike, among others. The American Scene painters depicted both urban and rural landscapes and became known for capturing the everyday environments of people at work and play.

Millard Sheets [1907-1989], San Dimas Train Station, watercolor, 151⁄2 x 225⁄8, from the collection of Michael Johnson.,painting, southwest art.
Millard Sheets [1907-1989], San Dimas Train Station, watercolor, 151⁄2 x 225⁄8, from the collection of Michael Johnson.

At other museums around the country, record crowds have attended recent exhibitions of works by the French Impressionists and post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh. Through exhibitions like these over the past 25 years, artists and the public have become reacquainted with the aesthetics of Impressionism, scene painting, and Social Realism as valid styles retrievable from the art-historical ash bin. Rediscovering realist art in its various manifestations is a palatable antidote to abstract art and institutional postmodernism, which often eludes the public with its preoccupation with installation and concept as more valid subjects.

Arturo Tello, View From Refugio Road, Santa Ynez, oil, 15 x 30, private collection.,painting, southwest art.
Arturo Tello, View From Refugio Road, Santa Ynez, oil, 15 x 30, private collection.

Actually, though, realist art styles never really disappeared; they simply ceased to hold center stage in academia and the art world after being eclipsed by the post-World War II rise of abstraction. As early as 1973, however, art historian Linda Nochlin stated in Art in America magazine, “Realism exhibits a remarkable flexibility and range, springing to life like a phoenix when its adversaries proclaim it dead. Clearly the realism of today is not the same as the realism of the past. To condemn contemporary realism as resurgent academicism or a trivial deviation from the mainstream … is to falsify the evidence and prevent any just evaluation of its actual quality.”

Jerome Carlin, Launch #2, oil, 30 x 28.,painting, southwest art.
Jerome Carlin, Launch #2, oil, 30 x 28.

Fortunately, realism has demonstrated continued staying power, and an expanded version of the style has achieved permanent status in the art world. Today, contemporary realist art has succeeded in breaking through the restrictions of modernist theories of the past it embraces all media and styles, visually capturing aspects of human experience at a particular place and time. Today’s realist artist may choose to elicit for contemplation a single flower, a landscape (urban or rural), or various concerns and aspects of contemporary life. In California, these concerns center primarily on the land.

Embracing the land as a subject for art has a long history in the West, and California—with its varied terrain and ambient climate—has continued to be a gathering place for the arts. It was first a destination for explorer-artists who came to

Warren Dreher, L.A. Series: Downtown Noon, pastel, 19 x 25.,painting, southwest art.
Warren Dreher, L.A. Series: Downtown Noon, pastel, 19 x 25.

paint dramatic panoramas and stayed to develop American Impressionism into a Golden Age. In the 1930s and ’40s, California scene painters developed an approach to watercolor landscapes that changed the medium from one of muted poetry to a bravura style of bright color executed in strong, spontaneous brushwork. In Southern California, Millard Sheets and Phil Dike were among the artists who painted alla prima (directly from life) on full sheets of paper, incorporating the white of the paper into their compositions. In the northern part of the state, George Post, Dong Kingman, and the artists of the Berkeley School developed a more modernist approach to watercolor. As noted in the book The California Style [1985 Hillcrest Press, Beverly Hills], these works featured planes of vibrant color overlaid with rhythmic linear patterns, producing dynamic two-dimensional compositions.

Stan Washburn, Gallery With Landscapes, oil, 18 x 36.,painting, southwest art.
Stan Washburn, Gallery With Landscapes, oil, 18 x 36.

Many of the techniques developed by the California Watercolor School are currently in vogue among contemporary plein-air artists. In recent years, a number of art groups whose members concentrate almost exclusively on alla prima landscape painting have sprung up in California.

One of the oldest and most prestigious of these groups is the Pasadena-based California Art Club. Founded in 1909, the group’s early roster included many of Southern California’s best-known Impressionists, notably Guy Rose and William Wendt. (One indication of the increasing popularity of these early California Impressionists was last year’s sale of In The Valley by Wendt for a record-breaking $480,000 at a Christie’s auction in Los Angeles.)

Thomas Van Stein, Oil Field Nocturne, oil, 30 x 40.,painting, southwest art.
Thomas Van Stein, Oil Field Nocturne, oil, 30 x 40.

1993, have been able to resurrect the club. Under their inspired and energetic guidance it now boasts a membership of several hundred practicing artists, many of whom have been selected for museum exhibitions and have participated in conservation-oriented programs.

The Catalina Island-based Plein Air Painters of America group also claims a large share of the credit for the recent popularity of alla prima painting. Established in 1986 by artist Denise Burns, an island resident, the group has held workshops all over the country teaching the spontaneous techniques of painting outdoors. This year PAPA members will paint the glory of fall in Bennington, VT, during their annual workshop for artists; in November they will reconvene on Catalina Island for their annual art sale and exhibition. The group’s current president, artist Kevin Macpherson, recently announced its latest project: The artists plan to paint the entire length of coastal Highway 1 from Mexico to Canada, one of the most scenic stretches in America. This project, which will take several years to complete, is slated to culminate in several museum exhibitions in 2004.

While the unique geography and climatic conditions of California have drawn artists to paint, they also have spurred continual development, destroying open space and precious wilderness habitats. In response, a number of artists in recent years have not only eulogized on canvas the beauty of rural and wild California but also endeavored to increase public interest in the preservation and reclamation of the land. Two California artists’ groups have specifically focused on these goals: the Oak Group of Santa Barbara, which formed in 1986, and more recently, in 1997, the Baywood artists of the San Francisco Bay area.

The Oak Group has achieved an impressive conservation record in the 13 years of its existence. Starting out with a bang, the group had three public exhibitions in their first year: Endangered Landscapes, Vanishing Views, and Nature Preserves. These established the group’s permanent association with the Nature Conservancy and other preservation-oriented organizations. In their brief history the artists, through the exhibition and sale of their work, have contributed nearly $450,000 to conservation organizations that also include the Environmental Defense Center, the Santa Barbara Land Trust, and Channel Islands National Park.

In addition to their numerous fund-raising and awareness-building exhibitions, the Oak Group continues to record for history the beauty of the land. Recently, they joined together to document what remains of Santa Barbara’s original land-grant ranches, which were established in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Their collection of paintings of this important chapter of California history has been published in the book Ranchos: Santa Barbara Land Grant Ranches [1996 Easton Gallery, Santa Barbara]. Arturo Tello’s painting View From Refugio Road, Santa Ynez graces the book’s cover.

The Baywood artists were inspired to associate as a group in 1997 by Mary Welch, founder and director of an annual Marin County event called MarinScapes, which presents contemporary Northern California urban and rural scene paintings as a fund-raising event. Philosophically aligned with the Oak Group, the Baywood artists have raised funds to save the Bolinas Lagoon, one of the most important flyway preserves in the country, and to protect Hawthorne Canyon at the base of Mount Tamalpais in Northern California. Later this year, the artists will join efforts to preserve a grove of ancient oaks in the Oakwood Valley area of Marin County. Baywood artist Carolyn Meyer says Napa Valley & Mayacmas is typical of her landscape work. “I want to bring attention to the beauty of the landscape and ensure it is protected,” she says.

Another group whose members share the desire to paint in the open air and express their responses to the landscape with energy and verve is the Outsiders. The seven plein-air artists, who joined together last year, trace their history back through three generations of Northern California artists, as noted by Sarah Bessera in The Plein-Air Scene [April 1999]: In 1917 Seldon Gile, Louis Siegriest, Maurice Logan, August Gay, Bernard von Eichman, and William Clapp initiated a group known as the Society of Six. The Six established a Post-Impressionist/Fauvist style, and their tradition of intense color and robust brushwork continued to flourish. Although the original group disbanded in the 1930s, Siegriest and his son Lundy formed the link that carried on the style through contemporary artist Terry St. John. In 1972 St. John, then a curator at the Oakland Museum, organized a milestone exhibition of the Society of Six and—inspired by their work—began joining the Siegriests on their outdoor painting excursions in the East Bay hills. Thus began the re-emergence of the colorist tradition in Northern California, with a small artists’ group consisting of St. John, the two Siegriests, and Peter Brown. Soon Pamela Glover, another local artist, became the first female to join the new group. With the publication of Nancy Boas’ book The Society of Six: California Colorists in 1988 [Bedford Arts, Publishers, San Francisco], this second group expanded to form the Outsiders. Member Warren Dreher carries on the tradition in his urban/realist-style painting L.A. Series: Downtown Noon.

Like members of the Outsiders, many contemporary landscape artists enjoy tackling urban and industrial scenes. Plein Air Painters of America member BrianStewart’s The Boat Shop [see page 8] is an example, as is Oak Group artist Thomas Van Stein’s Oil Field Nocturne. Independent California artists Jerome Carlin, Stock Schlueter, and Stan Washburn have all selected aspects of contemporary American culture as subjects for their work.

Jerome Carlin focuses on the emotional sustenance of family relationships in a body of work that portrays family gatherings over time. Carlin, a graduate of Harvard University with a law degree from Yale University and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago, gave up a position as a leading public-interest attorney in San Francisco to become a full-time artist in 1970. Launch #2 is one of a collection of his autobiographical family paintings featured in 1998 at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.

Artist Stock Schlueter, who grew up in the rural community of Willow Creek, CA, has intimately experienced the land and the world of working men. In realist paintings, which he considers “a continual challenge to tell the story of the way life is,” he captures with striking veracity the lives of mill workers, machinists, miners, and shipwrights. His freeze-frame image of a rural train station in Alton, CA, depicts agricultural machinery sitting idle by the railroad and captures a solitude that seems to belong to another time.

Stan Washburn’s painting Gallery With Landscape is one of a recent series of works in which the Berkeley artist wryly captures Americans engaged in positive cultural experiences an evening with friends at a restaurant, as spectators of performing arts, or contemplating artworks at a museum. Executed in the chiaroscuro style of the 17th-century Flemish masters, this complex painting of people viewing paintings presents the museum as sanctuary for the serious consideration of art.

Like many of his colleagues, Washburn feels free to range back and forth in art history to various themes, styles, and techniques in creating his own art. He is among the legions of contemporary artists who have abandoned the idea that there is anything like linear progress in the art world—the newest trend isn’t necessarily the only right way. Today we know that modernist abstract theory, which categorically claimed supremacy over other forms of art, was a passionate myth. It followed the pattern of previous movements that also dismissed the legitimacy and co-existence of other styles. Indeed, a simple examination of art history dispels the notion of supremacy of any one style to the exclusion of others although one style has achieved celebrity at certain points in time. In the current climate of stylistic pluralism, representational art has made a resounding comeback and continues to contribute to the ongoing history of art.

Photos courtesy the artists and California Heritage Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Montecito Art Gallery, Montecito, CA; North Point Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Graphics Gallery, Balboa Island, CA; John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, CA; and Easton Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA.

Featured in September 1999