Los Angeles

The Pacific Coast International

Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego

“. . . a show wherein each invitee, painter or sculptor, is seen in depth to the extent of four works apiece. I feel this will lend significant distinction in numerous ways: for the artist, it is a prestige show and may become the means of achieving wide national recognition, the point of ‘arrival’ so to speak; for the public it will offer better opportunity to know the work of mature artists who may be relatively unknown outside their own areas; for the museum or gallery involved, it means making authoritative selections based on living experience with the region’s artists—a responsibility at once weighty and pleasant.”

These are the words of James W. Foster, Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art which organized the Invitation as a successor to its Pacific Coast Biennials of 1955, 1957 and 1959. They are the words of a responsible man whose vision and effort have resulted in the strongest and most revealing display of new, mature West Coast talent deserving of wider public appreciation since the Pacific Profile exhibition of 1961, which was organized by Constance Perkins at the Pasadena Museum of Art. The Pacific Coast Invitational includes 96 works by 24 painters and sculptors from Washington, Oregon and California. Artists were selected by regional committees on the basis of an agreed number of selections per region, this number being predetermined according to population and creative activity levels. Nine representatives of such institutions as the Seattle Art Museum, the Portland Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Department and the Los Angeles County Museum have come up with a show that might well fulfill Mr. Foster’s stated intention.

In his essay, “Reflections on Writing,” Henry Miller noted, “The great majority of artists are throwing themselves in with life preservers around their necks, and more often than not it is the life preserver which sinks them.” No doubt it takes more than a sink or swim attitude to negotiate the deep, swift current of art and life. Obviously it takes buckets of sweat and years of experience as well as an innate confidence and a visionary sense of direction. It takes all of this to even get to the brink.

The Pacific Coast Invitational includes at least six artists without life preservers around their necks. Eight others still cling to various impediments from water-wings to Mae Wests. Four are teetering on the edge of the precipice and three are wearing life saving gear on dry land like a coat of mail or a uniform of honor. Three others are more than whimsical; in the context of this show they are embarrassing. So much for the score card, but it should help to prove that this is an enterprise to be reckoned with. After all, six artists without life preservers constitute something of a record for exhibitions in these parts. Among those in this particular panorama who have nakedly entered the current of art and life are: Arlo Acton, John Altoon, Edward Kienholz, John Mason, John McLaughlin and Richards Ruben. Buouyant, but only with the help of various life-saving devices, are: John Baxter, Billy Al Bengston, Geoffrey Bowman, Byron J. Gardner, Edward Moses, Lundy Siegriest, David Simpson and Julius Wasserstein.

Arlo Acton’s witty, positive and dynamic hardwood constructions, bolted and pegged as if to keep them from climbing out the window and clobbering passers-by, are personal and relevant. Similar in spirit are John Altoon’s openhearted graphic jots. His untitled Ocean Park paintings are a rare achievement in directness and untrammeled innocence. Like explosive shouts of laughter (in the aftermath, who knows, of unbearable tears and pain), these works are without cookery of any kind. A broad, tragi-comic slapstick of scrawled references to such bittersweet delights as cotton candy and striped sleeves jostle in a knockabout enactment expressive of nothing less than excruciating hilarity. John Mason’s ceramic totems offer a mythic presence combined with a lyricism of surface, as any proper incantation should. In contrast, Edward Kienholz assembles fetishes which simultaneously innervate and mesmerize, satirize and praise, beckon and forbid. Kienholz uses physical reality to penetrate and lay bare cultural myths; an all-too familiar world opens up inside his crusty boxes and reveals itself within the dark voids of his negative torso forms. The viewer feels sucked into a clandestine meeting with life shorn of its deceits. The experience may be likened to attending a Black Mass wherein one’s own guardian angel turns out to be a witch. John McLaughlin’s contemplative “hard edge” compositions have long deserved a wider audience. If these seem “difficult” paintings it is only because they are so precisely simple and so uniquely clear. True, it takes a certain state of mind, if not an entire philosophic attitude, to accept their magic. McLaughlin’s paintings cannot be “grasped” verbally. Even less do they provide fodder for critical mastication. These paintings do not give out; instead, they call forth. In short, they are indestructible. Richards Ruben’s well-known Claremont series is represented by two canvases that literally overflow with feeling. At once passionate and tender, these broad-armed pictures sweep the viewer into an aura of human warmth. At the risk of sounding even more puerile, they give off a kind of selfless grandeur for which there is only one word: love.

John Baxter’s arrangements of found objects have a cool, gracious purity of expression only a stone’s throw (philosophically, not stylistically) from the paintings of John McLaughlin. Billy Al Bengston exhibits minor examples, but these are enough to reveal more than a beat-type cleverness or a hipster-type charm. Bengston kids around, always in danger of kidding himself and rubbing his own nose in his innate “revolt and disaffiliation.” But the difference is—he knows it. Geoffrey Bowman’s crazy-quilt conglomerations make one want to gasp for air, like all sermons by the obsessed. Bowman comes on like a funky, Gnostic Hieronymus Bosch. Byron Gardner has moved from an emphasis on line to an emphasis on color. His later work blooms with a greater authority. Edward Moses’ Gstaad insinuates a wry and delicately erotic poetry along with a certain graphic bite. Unluckily, this is the only work exhibited by Moses that adequately reveals his capabilities. Lundy Siegriest builds pigment into rich structures of texture, shape and color. David Simpson’s many-leveled stripes jarringly combine multiple land-sea images with pure plastic concepts. Julius Wasserstein whips and jockeys pictorial space into a visual panic; black barriers barge pell-mell through these “paintscapes” like bulldozers, dizzily forming and transforming the pigmented environment with unearthly upheavals.

Between the devil and the deep, still cliff-hanging, are: Manuel Izquierdo,Ynez Johnston, John Paul Jones and Philip McCracken. The problem here is that none of these people can quite abandon their own romantic attitude toward romanticism. Romanticism for romanticism’s sake is another form of self-conscious mystification, whichever way you slice it. Although these artists remain basically tentative, each attempts to cover up a deep (perhaps hardly conscious) indecisiveness with an old game: masquerade. The mask is “lifelike” and skillfully wrought but also dense enough to obscure the indistinct feelings behind it. The archaism of Johnston is not quite genuine; the baroque solutions of Izquierdo are sometimes glib; the surreal darkness in portraits by Jones lacks conviction. It is as if they all have a handle, but none have a pot. It’s hard to confirm one’s response to McCracken, since he shows several lesser works up to eight years old, even though the exhibition was proposed to include only works completed within the last two years. Paul Horiuchi, Ray Jensen and Jack McLarty seem firmly enshrouded in their own inflated life-saving devices, in spite of the fact that they are still high and dry. Horiuchi’s collages are poetic and attractive but little more; Jensen’s wrought bronze sculptures lack authenticity and have the look of being made-to-order; McLarty’s frothy, befeathered and befrilled symbolic fancies are often sugary and fey. Three artists, all painters, display a definitely trivial achievement: Boyer Gonzales, Neil Meitzler and Michele Russo. These show amateurish works, inhibited by unassimilated derivations, popularized and full of choked efforts to ingratiate. Works of the kind and calibre of Gonzales and Meitzler can be found by the dozen in most college art departments. Russo’s work is bettered by Cosmopolitan illustration.

In the essay by Henry Miller mentioned above, he reveals, “I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.” Henry Miller is by no means alone in this experience. From the look of the Pacific Coast Invitational, a similar creative breakthrough is befalling more and more Pacific Coast artists. Perhaps, at last, we are coming of age.

“Courage” and “commitment” are words often applied in the critical evaluation of creative endeavor. Yet seldom do we find such words applied to those whose life and work involve the presentation of the creative result. Museum personnel and critical writers tend to get elbowed into that no-man’s-land of the mere spectator, the faithful but dispassionate “observer of passing events.” One step into human territory on any side has invited a barrage of hysterical catcalls, if not the more politically and economically dangerous wrath of city councilmen, county supervisors, museum trustees and even postmasters. Alone in his studio, the artist faces only himself, however formidable that self may be. But the man whose job it is to present the challenging and the new to a guilt-ridden, manic, culture-for-God’s-sake multitude of “art lovers” is treading where angels fear to.

If he can’t walk on water, he’s likely to be stoned. The worst that can happen to an artist is suicide or being “suicided by society.” But the worst that can happen to those who evaluate and present the artist’s work is crucifixion. And no one fears suicide.

This is probably why Warren Beach, Director of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, where the Pacific Coast Invitational is presently being shown has chosen to prepare a mimeographed explanation-apology. “This is given,” offered the receptionist, “to those who express their distaste for this kind of exhibition.” The same explanation-apology, printed in large formal type, is conspicuously mounted in each room of the exhibition itself. One wonders why it was also necessary to pass out under-the-counter literature, but then “those who express their distaste” are historically notorious for their oversights. Mr. Beach’s tract begins apologetically: “This exhibition is similar to shows you might see in any of the Free World’s major cultural centers.” He goes on to make it clear that he alone is not responsible, that “this exhibition will be seen in five of our important West Coast Museums,” and that, anyhow, “you could equally well see it in such advanced centers as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, or such conservative art museums of undoubted greatness as those in Boston or Philadelphia.” He then explains everything by handing out a fist-full of labels (something to hang onto, something to take home as a souvenir): “Three main styles are evident in these works. 1. Abstraction 2. Figurative 3. Neo-Dada.” One envisions the casual museum-goer metamorphosed on the spot into Cinderella’s Prince Charming, convinced that once the shoe fits, Ed Kienholz’s “American Lady” will turn back into a beautiful princess and everyone will live happily ever after. Printed below, on this same tract, in capitals: “ALL OF THESE ARTISTS ARE WORKING SERIOUSLY. ALL HAVE RECEIVED WIDE NOTICE OF THEIR SUCCESS. ALL DESERVE YOUR OPEN-MINDED COMMENT.” It sounds as if open-minded comment is too much to expect in San Diego. But it is not too much to expect open-minded comment regarding Mr. Beach’s actions on the part of his museum colleagues in this project and the artists invited and exhibited. (Kienholz’s “Charlie Delegate,” listed as being shown, was not in the exhibition at San Diego. Since space was available, and since this particular work is probably as hard to label as it is to defend, one can only suppose that it was personally rejected by Mr. Beach in spite of his colleagues’ opinion and in spite of the fact that this is an invitational show.)

To pussyfoot, hedge, quibble, compromise and cajole is perhaps the lot of the middleman. Politics are politics. But no amount of apology and no amount of explanation can take the place, politically or morally, of a frank and straightforward statement of deep personal belief. It is said that the Bank of England thrives on a motto which reads: “Never explain; never apologize.” In any case, this exhibition contains its own rare strength and inherent pride. It constitutes a definite triumph not only for the artists represented but also for the nine members of the committees of selection and the institutions involved. The show justifies itself. It is to be hoped that it will not be tampered with again. It is also to be hoped that the significance of the Pacific Coast Invitational will be widely recognized and that it will achieve its ultimate goal which is, as stated by James Foster of the Santa Barbara Museum, “. . . to boost outstanding artists to nationwide recognition, and that it will continue as a biennial.”

Vic Smith