April 2012: Abject Expressionism in LA @ Pasadena Museum of California Art

Betye Saar, Nubian Shadows 1977. Mixed media collage on paper. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of California Art.

L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in LA 1945-1980, from Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy
Pasadena Museum of California Art
January 22 - May 20, 2012

The Los Angeles art scene is nothing if not dynamic, but of course it’s been that way for some time. Today presents an exciting stage in its evolution, built on a legacy of past generations of artists who established a strong foundation here. Since October of 2011, Pacific Standard Time -- the huge collaboration of more than 60 Southern California arts and cultural institutions initiated by the Getty Foundation -- has showcased the decades from 1945 to 1980 that led to today’s burgeoning art environment. The upshot is a greater grasp of what happened here then, which translates to a clearer understanding of what’s going on now.

A gripping survey of the figurative artists who dominated the post World War II art scene until the late 1950s, L.A. RAW fills in an important piece of the PST retrospective puzzle. The exhibition features more than 120 works by 41 artists, including Rico Lebrun, William Brice, Edward Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Charles White, Charles Garabedian, Judy Chicago, Paul McCarthy and Jack Zajac -- and revisits the Ferus Gallery and Ceje Gallery, which in their heyday were important venues for the patronage of local artists.

Curated by art writer and independent curator Michael Duncan, L.A RAW presents variations on its theme in a variety of media – painting, sculpture, photography and performance. The imagery is not merely figurative, but “abject,” in that it contends with the coarser aspects of the human body. Included here is chillingly graphic work -- from Lebrun’s controversial and haunting close-up paintings of nude, decaying bodies from Nazi extermination camps; and Hans Burkhardt’s vast assemblage of embedded skulls and oil on canvas, My Lai, (1968) a grim and shocking commentary on war; to subtle and quasi-pornographic works by Robert Heineken and John Altoon. 

Hans Burkhardt, My Lai, 1968. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of California Art. 

Channeling the “rawness” theme from a feminist perspective is a selection of pieces by female artists in addition to Judy Chicago, such as Barbara T. Smith and Carole Caroompas, who challenged the prevailing figurative conventions in their own way. Chicago’s Ceramic Goddesses, (1977), a series of mini nude ceramic bas-relief female torsos, at first glance almost read like fertility talismans. After a little more consideration, it seems apparent they are a wry commentary on the objectification of woman as sex object. In her 1971 offset lithograph, Love Story, Chicago reproduces a passage from the Pauline Réage’s classic S&M novel, The Story of O, with an accompanying image of a gun pointed at a woman’s buttocks -- one of her many works which grappled with the subjugation of women.

The feminist point of view is only one among several distinct perspectives represented. If contemporary Southern California society is a dynamic multi-cultural melting pot, it already was rich in cultural diversity during the early post-war years. African American artists such as Charles White, John Outterbridge, Betye Saar and David Hammons, while somewhat isolated from the mainstream, were expressing their own experience in distinct ways. Included here are three examples of Outterbridge’s Captive Image, Ethnic Heritage Group, made between 1975 to 1982. These expressive mixed media sculptures of headless doll-like figures rendered in cloth are somehow timeless, even as they seem to channel ancestral and religious figures of ancient cultures.

The work of emerging Mexican-American artists, like Judith Baca and Roberto Chavez, mural artists who had a high-profile impact on the Los Angeles cityscape, adds another dimension to the discourse. A cartoonish sketch for Baca’s mural, Uprising of the Mujeres (1979) and a study of one of the figures for the mural (1977), are powerful examples of the artist’s signature bold graphic style. Perhaps among the more abject of artists in his process, which did not necessarily translate to his finished work, Paul McCarthy at times used his face and penis as brushes, even incorporating bodily fluids as part of his sometimes grossly raw performing repertoire. Among the works shown here is his 1966-67 painting, Pawnbroker Girl, which portrays a female figure inspired by the prostitute in the Sidney Lamet film, The Pawnbroker. Although the surface is distressed by oil and water, and partly burned, the lines stand out, articulate and pure.

Perhaps bold, rather than raw, William Brice’s 1968 painting, Untitled (Malibu Figure), is a deconstructed nude female figure in vibrant reds and blues, echoing the palette of Matisse. The painting straddles the border between abstract and figurative. Daring in its use of color and form, it pops from the wall, exuding something of the essence of the rebellious 60s. Selected works of sculpture round out the exhibit. At the entrance of the main gallery stands Edward Keinholz and Nancy Reddin Keinholz’s Still Life with Bird, (1974) an odd assemblage of a disparate pieces that somehow combine harmoniously –a cabinet with a bird perched on it, the bottom half of a one-legged torso, with a plugged-in light fixture dangling in place of the missing leg.

Many of these artists were influential not only because of their own bodies of work, but also as instructors and mentors for the younger generation of artists coming up through the ranks at various Southern California art institutes. For example, while teaching a UCLA summer school class in 1957, Lebrun encouraged a young John Baldassari to abandon his career as a high school teacher and devote himself to art full-time. L.A. RAW chronicles a turbulent and complex historical period, touching on the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements, from a variety of vantage points. It retraces a vital phase in the development of the Southern California art scene, and provides a key to understanding a pivotal figurative phase in the history of American art.

Roberto Chavez, Adam, 1960. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of California Art. 

Roberto Chavez, Eve, 1960. Oil on canvas.Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of California Art. 

 Chris Burden, Donatello, 1975. Collage and felt tip pen on paper. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of California Art.



Megan Abrahams

Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings. 

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