In the years bracketing the Great Depression and World War II, American artists responded to world events by rejecting European influences and summoning a fiercely American resolve that culminated in American Scene Painting. Given oil was a medium with heavily European connotations, it is not surprising that in California, the unfettered medium of watercolor shaped the California Regionalist Style.
These are the paintings currently showcased against hot orange walls at the Long Beach Museum of Art's “Buena Vista: California Painters in Mexico.” Curated by renowned California Style scholar Gordon McClelland, it includes 42 paintings by 19 big-name artists that capture 1930s-1950s Mexico.
Extending the California Scene into Mexico was a natural impulse. First, the California Style centered around the Chouinard School of Art, today Cal Arts, where Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siquieros and Jorge Juan Crespo de la Serna were teachers. The artists likely also were influenced by murals painted by Jose Clemente Orozco, Ramos Martinez and Diego Rivera. Second, roads between California and Mexico were paved in the 1920s, making travel easier.
Many works are painted boldly and quickly, often en plein air, with little sketching done prior. Millard Sheets's “Alamos, Mexico,” Rex Brandt's “Baja Boatyard,” Tom Craig's “Cactus and Pigs” and Ralph Hulett's “Niños con Burros” share an impressionistic quality. Sheet's “Borderland and Guaymas Bull” and Phil Paradise's “Fishing Village Near Guaymas” appear less spontaneous. Forms are tighter and more controlled.
Phil Paradise's “Ice Cream Vendor” and Hardie Gramatky's “Mexico” are controlled to the degree that, from a distance, they look like might be oil paintings.
These California Scene Painters were also called “White Paper Painters,” a moniker earned for their equally bold withholding of paint. For some, this is due to a quick painting style. For others, use of white paper as shape or color is deliberate.
In Milford Zornes's “Tijuana,” the shack-covered hill is built from multi-colored strokes of paint, representing houses, crowded onto its surface. The heavy stone structures of Ralph Hulett's “Niños con Burros” are shaped by shading and their juxtaposition against ground and sky. Emil Kosa Jr. defines the figures in “Guadalajara Cathedral” by wrapping white space in the highlights of blue garments and sombreros.
Several paintings distinguish themselves by employing unconventional perspectives. There’s the skewed and narrow bird's-eye view of the market scene in George Post's “Taxco,” and the cut-off view of Louis Hughes's Mission “Bell Tower.” A standout for its extraordinary quality of “seeing,” which painter Rex Brandt describes as “the smell of the barnyard, the pressure of the wind, the shock of a lizard running up the artist's leg, the buzz of insects” is Ralph Hulett's “Shady Spot,” for the simplicity with which it conveys the heat and dirt of Mexico. Finally, George Post's “Mazatlan” and Millard Sheets's “Windswept” merit attention because in a gallery of buenas vistas, they suggest that all may not be so bueno.
Viewers will enjoy the show for several reasons. They will recognize artists like Millard Sheets, Milford Zornes, Phil Dike, Phil Paradise, Rex Brandt, Hardie Gramatky, Barse Miller, and Emil Kosa, Jr. Or they will recognize places like San Carlos Bay, Guadalajara, Tijuana, Baja, Tecate, Taxco, Guaymas, or Mazatlan. Some will be drawn to the subject matter of a bygone era: indigenous people, outdoor markets, lush and rugged mountains, colonial cathedrals, ports of call, even a crowded casino. Also included in the show are five oil paintings by Doris Rosenthal who lived and worked in Mexico and whose work contributes to the overall buena vista of Mexico. This show is not to be missed.
The Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, to 8 p.m. Thursday. “Buena Vista: California Painters in Mexico,” runs through Nov. 4. For more information, call 439-2119 or visit www.lbma.org.