Representing L.A.

F. Scott Hess, Mud on a Stick [1999], oil, 18 x 24. painting, southwest art.
F. Scott Hess, Mud on a Stick [1999], oil, 18 x 24.

By Gordon L. Fuglie

Representing L.A.: Pictorial Currents in Southern California Contemporary Art explores the rich and varied phenomena of representational painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture among Southern California artists from 1990 to 2000. It was during this decade that exhibit curator Gordon Fuglie discovered that strong figurative, Realist, illusionist, fantasy, and narrative work was being done by a large number of Los Angeles-area artists. Fuglie sees the city’s “new representation” as a multifaceted tendency rather than a “school”— much of the work endeavors to engage the viewer with startling configurations of self, society, landscape, and the spiritual realm. Moreover, the exhibit breathes new life into a number of themes and genres long thought passé in contemporary art. Representing L.A. is on view at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA, through February 11. The exhibition then travels to the South Texas Institute of Art, Corpus Christi, TX.

Patty Wickman, A Thief in the Night [1996], oil, 72 x 115. painting, southwest art.
Patty Wickman, A Thief in the Night [1996], oil, 72 x 115.

Representing L.A. owes its existence to three factors. First, in the past 25 years the breakneck pace of one art movement succeeding another—the very hallmark of late modernism finally faltered and collapsed. I personally witnessed this “closing phase” while I was an art student in Southern California in the 1960s and early 1970s. In this period of less than 10 years, abstract expressionism declined, Pop Art rose and was then succeeded by minimalism, and hot on its heels, conceptual art emerged. Performance, video, and earth art were also born. Locally, Los Angeles got a nationwide reputation for midwifing its own novelty, “light and space” art.

Looking back, what remains of these movements and “isms” seems rather pale, or scarcely exists. Here and there, now and then, some artist may try to reinvigorate them and for his/her trouble gets labeled with a “neo-” or a “post-” qualifier. Where the American art world is in 2001 is an amorphous place called postmodernity, a category used to denote some vaguely expanding terrain where many art modes are permitted to flourish in hopes that one more new thing might take hold. As for the notion of the avant-garde, only naïfs or the culturally deluded still give it credence.

James Doolin, Psychic [1998], oil, 54 x 36. painting, southwest art.
James Doolin, Psychic [1998], oil, 54 x 36.

What is truly blooming in the field of postmodernity, however, is representational drawing, painting, and sculpture. Despite seasons of heavy plantings of successive nonrepresentational trends, representational work has sprouted like never before—no amount of “art-crit roundup” has killed it. And as the 100-plus works in Representing L.A. demonstrate, this work has a wide range across traditional to edgy sensibilities. And, unlike most other contemporary work, it doesn’t look exhausted.

The second factor contributing to the exhibition is that in a 35-year period covering the early 1960s through the late 1990s, greater Los Angeles culturally transformed itself from a regional outpost to an institutional art center that could claim rivalry with New York. In this astonishingly brief period, the following museums came into being: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu) and its fabulous expansion into Brentwood, the Getty Center, the Norton Simon Museum of Art, the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art, the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Museum of Latin American Art, and numerous smaller museums and public galleries. Even the once-staid Huntington Li-brary and Art Collection in San Marino underwent reinvigoration.

Local university and college art programs also grew. Among leading art schools are UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts, the Art Center College of Design, and the Otis College of Art & Design. University museums and galleries expanded as well: the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach; the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu; and the California Museum of Photogra-phy, affiliated with UC Riverside.

These robust institutions now constitute a richly variegated tapestry of visual culture and study—the pre-1965 era seems a mere skein by comparison. They have given the region greatly enriched public collections at a time when acquisitions were costly and difficult, brought major traveling exhibitions from the eastern United States and the world that were previously unavailable to the West Coast, and, perhaps most importantly, originated significant exhibitions that traveled from Los Angeles to other cultural centers. In education, Southern California has nurtured a number of artists, art historians, curators, and administrators.

The development in depth of these cultural resources made it much less tempting for young artists to go to New York or Europe to study. A first-rate education could be had here, and the strengthened local collections and exhibitions offered inspiration to artists. By no means least of all was the establishment of a network of serious commercial galleries that displayed the work of both seasoned and emerging artists of greater Los Angeles. The breadth of commercial spaces also meant that a good figurative/representational artist could find a gallery to show in.

The third factor behind the exhibit is a gathering of representational artists that took place in the early 1990s. At that time, Ruth Weisberg—a figurative and narrative painter/printmaker based at USC—realized that there were a sizable number of like-minded artists active in greater Los Angeles. Noting that they lacked a critical mass, she decided to convene them. The city’s contemporary art institutions (critics, public galleries, and museums) were aware of only a few artists working in figurative or representational modes, and the great number of others were unknown. Weisberg thought that bringing together these relatively isolated individuals would give them a sense of their achievements and goals as a body. With fellow painter James Doolin she compiled a two-page list of artists, and they brought together a large gathering in a downtown studio.

All who attended were surprised and delighted to encounter other figurative and representational artists beyond their own circles. After some efforts to have these gatherings (dubbed “the figurative group”) turn into a venue for formal discussion of issues facing these artists, factions formed, a few heated quarrels broke out, and after two years the group dissolved. In retrospect, most of the artists who participated in “the figurative group” acknowledge that it served an important purpose in affirming their direction and exposing them to the work of their peers. Indeed, some later formed smaller groups for more specific purposes such as pooling modeling fees for drawing sessions, discussing art historical or philosophical topics, or even collaborating on projects.

In the early 1990s it was, ironically, the undefined character of postmodernity that allowed a number of previously ignored or reviled figurative and representational artists to be looked at with fresh eyes. In addition, the recently developed cultural institutions of Southern California became sources of encouragement and support for them. And specifically, it took meeting together for two years to give many of these artists their peculiar sense of identity in the wake of modernism’s fall.

In the end, my approach in putting together this exhibit has been to identify what I found to be important currents in the resurgence of local representational work done over the past 10 years. Furthermore, I am more interested in what these works do for the viewer’s aesthetic pleasure than in what they may mean as part of some “theory of representation.” Moreover, I have chosen to be catholic in my selection. I have no problem with works that hew closely to earlier traditions because I believe the best part of those traditions remains vital. More adventurous or frisky pictorial approaches were just as welcome in my selection. It is my hope that in the years to come this exhibition will encourage more specific and scholarly projects on Southern California’s recent representational revival.

Featured in January 2001