Los Angeles

“The Sky Show”

Otis Art Gallery

In former times, an emblem for the seraphic mood of Irwin’s room might well have been a horizonless depiction of calm sky. But the heavens are no longer an unequivocal symbol for the spiritual state: “upper air” also means sinister outer space, and heaven, these days, is mostly in, down, or out. Nevertheless, the sky has never forfeited its position as the locus of a brilliant variety of ephemeral events; for those who charmingly refuse to discern any fault in the pathetic fallacy, it is still the scene for discovering symbolic expression of human states of mind: and, if the sky is no longer a legible page of the old Book of Nature, it remains the most visibly impalpable, immaterial division of our otherwise grossly material world. It may even be that, for some imaginations today, painting which depicts the sky is itself made less corporeal, and therefore carries less stigma of being vieux jeu.

How else to explain a rush of simultaneous attention to the airy subject by numerous Southland artists, several dealers, and a curator who wants to be known as “a functionary of revolution in culture”? Running approximately concurrently during the smoggy fall season were shows of recent sky paintings by Joe Goode (Wilder), Salvatore Pecoraro (Robles), Peter Alexander (Comsky), and a large group exhibition organized by Hal GIicksman and entitled “The Sky Show.” Although Joe Goode, for some years the chief local exponent of sky painting, declined to participate, the Otis group contained work by both Alexander and Pecoraro, as well as treatments of the same subject by Lilly Fenichel, Shirley Pettibone, Ralph Reed, Paul Beattie, Victor Lance Henderson, Addison Helms, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Kramer.

Sky painting is, of course, not new. “I have done a good deal of skying,” wrote John Constable to a friend on October 23, 1821, at the beginning of a period in which he would systematically prepare a large series of sky studies; he was only one of many late 18th- and early 19th-century English landscapists who found the subject both important and congenial. In more recent times an illusion of limitless skyscape has been a frequent means of establishing the dislocations of surrealist composition, and agitated skies, Turner-like, have been suitable subjects for such Abstract Expressionists as Jon Schueler.

The Otis group of contemporary Californians contains a pleasing muster of sky painters. Collectively they are more ingratiating than astounding, their technique more competent than audacious. The range in format and stylistic variations on a theme is fairly broad: from quasi-abstract to super Kodachrome, from subjective inscape to scientific diagram, from big-screen scenic art to tiny easel painting, from daybooks to a mural-size panel, from dated diurnal weather notations to weatherless color variations on a standardized bank of clouds. If the accompanying literature (the show was an occasion for Otis to issue a calendar) is pinchfisted about dispensing information and one feels the lack of a catalogue, the installation itself is impeccable. The curator’s flair for clustering works in blocklike units (aided by the tendency of some of the artists themselves to work in block formation) results in tidy wall patterns as well as useful juxtapositions. The most adventurous aspect of a nonrevolutionary show is in the allocation of generous space to several heretofore never or barely exhibited Californians.

Among these, the little-known Los Angeles artist Lilly Fenichel is given the most ample field, showing six large acrylic stain paintings and the same number of small pastels. Fenichel works on stretched muslin in a horizontal format, creating a moody series of primarily dark-weathered, nubilous images. She goes in for nature’s chiaroscuro and high drama in the skies: auroras of light under a thunderhead, the ominous massing of sullen cloud banks, the sudden peep of azure seen through a gap in stratocumuli—in short, the type of celestial configurations which continually have the ability to startle us with their beauty in real life, but court banality in a painted skyscape. The two least compromised paintings of the series are the least illusionistic—#80, a pallid fogged-in field of gently modulated gray stain touched by yellow, and #104, the most abstract of her exhibited paintings and a work which, in the context of Fenichel’s other emphatically horizontal compositions, draws attention to itself by reason of its forceful diagonal surges of caliginous movement. In spite of the naturally matte surface of these stained canvases, there is a silky swell to Fenichel’s rolling cloud formations. Though the darks are melodramatic and streaks of light have an expansive glow, the transitions between are softly feathered. Furthermore, the artist is particularly deft in raising highlights from her ground, a technique that slyly turns muslin into satin and flat picture plane into rippling space. Fenichel’s paintings have great polish, a sleek look born of fastidious handling. Yet one chafes at the seduction of her work and resists its hedonistic appeal, wishing that in her subjects she might hoard Nature’s coin somewhat, and instead add a bit of bluster to her style.

Paul Beattie, a Northern Californian even less known to Los Angeles (he apparently has not shown before), also exhibits a large number of skyworks, but his 12 acrylic-on-masonite paintings are relatively small in size, intimate in scale, and introspective in character. Textured, lined with multi-colors, sensitively brushed, his unreal skies could equally be read as abstract madras, stretches of sand dune and marsh, or idyllic visions of the ocean’s motley. They aim, perhaps, at a Monet shimmer. Beattie is more interested in the places where colors change than where they live, which leads him into a slightly disagreeable tendency toward iridescence. His modest set of 13 very small drawings, on the other hand, is easily the most intriguing exhibit in the “Sky Show.” Entitled The Earth’s Early Atmosphere #2, these pencil drawings are presented as illustrations for a proposed (or fictive) version of the earth’s prehistoric evolution from a period in which an atmospheric belt of steam and ash swaddled our planet to a much later post-volcanic age, when evaporation began and the oceans cooled. An accompanying chart specifies dates and provides additional data, as well as the titles of individual works, such as The Ash Belt, Magnetic Field Lines, The Million Year Rain, and so on.

The drawings—a series of abstract images verging on landscape—display a nice, if not unusual, variety of pencil techniques: crosshatch, eraser streaks, dot-and-dash stipple, hard-lead striae, soft-lead smudge. As individual units (each tiny drawing is separately mounted and framed) they have a quaint appeal. But the fascination of the work is less in its parts than in its entirety. As an independent heterocosm, Beattie’s construct hovers between fact and fiction, ambiguously sharing the virtues of both. Although to an uninformed viewer there is nothing obtrusively chimerical about Beattie’s scientific proposition (as outlined in his chart), the presence of his drawings heightens the poetic, fantastical quality of the theory, calling into question its serious intent. Conversely, the cool temperature of science (even in the warmer form of pseudo-scientific speculation) has an insidious way of invading the abstract, subjective mood of Beattie’s drawings, lending them a concrete documentary tone totally unrelated to their style. For the viewer, who must at the same time affect scientific expertise and willingly suspend his disbelief, the piquancy of the work is in its offer, inextricably commingled, of two usually antithetic experiences.

Other participants in the “Sky Show” remind one that the California heavens also shelter the movie business. Addison Helms, recently retired from his position as lead man of the scenic crew at ABC and author of such widely exposed skies as those used for backdrops in Ben-Hur and Gone With the Wind, was invited to display his technique as a “master sky painter” by preparing a work specifically for the show. Executed in acrylic and applied by spray-gun, Helms’ huge sky, with its middle-American distance and innocent clouds, covered the entire entrance wall to the Otis Gallery.

Peter Alexander, exhibited on the verso of Helms’s wall, deals directly in Hollywood gaud and spectacle, rather than with its craft. Empire Films, a four-part work hung as a single unit, consists of a sequence of weather variations on the same parodic image—a doomed landscape that may depict the White Cliffs of Dover i n the process of becoming Stonehenge. Alexander’s black-bordered panels grow out of the silver screen; they resemble stills shot, respectively, at brilliant sunset, under a beginning shower, in darkest mid-storm, and, finally, at that happy moment when an optimistic ray of light comes in view.

But such a listing of natural events belies their character. The atmosphere of these landscapes is mock-decadent, end-of-the-Empire gloom, their light an unnatural metallic gleam. The subject may be nature, but nature only as a pretext for the fakeries of artifice. Sky, cliffs, and water are depicted in Pop-Iike simplification. The medium is a silvery enamel spray applied over a black matte ground; the last three scenes are speckled with shiny raindrops, a flashy shower of metallic blue. Glitter, in fact, seems to be the main point, and Alexander uses every possible excuse to exacerbate the conflict between his matte absorptive surfaces and the frippery of light.

Alexander is child of a fearful age. Perhaps he is overly anxious about the well-known short attention span of the contemporary audience; perhaps he worries about boredom in the balcony. Most certainly he is too eager to entertain, too willing to launch tawdry fireworks in the hope that somebody out there is watching.

Nancy Marmer