Lindsay draws a Ruscha. Yes, an Ed Ruscha.
By Arron Collins
It’s probably too soon to claim some sort of art world invasion is occurring in the San Joaquin Valley, or the permanent piercing of the seemingly impermeable cultural barrier that encases it. But with two developments – the recent Joan Quinn portraiture exhibition at Fresno Art Museum, and now the even less likely venue of Lindsay Art Museum hosting a similarly quirky and personal portraiture show of nationally and internationally-known contemporary artists – the relatively trend-resistant region is threatening once again to join the 21st Century art world proper.
For art aficionados, the Lindsay show represents two worlds colliding: the broader blue chip art world that trades in talent as well as fame and prestige, and a most unlikely little town where little of that former world computes. (Regular readers might recall our feature on Shane Guffogg, Lindsay’s most notable artist and art world citizen; It is Lindsay’s “local boy made good” who is to be credited with the birth of this unicorn. Guffogg is the explanation as to how the humble Lindsay Art Museum bagged a group show that includes one of the most notable artists of the 20th Century. And for sheer art world heft and luster, this little engine that could, located in the erstwhile Olive Capital, appears to be poised to attract some rare-for-the-valley art world cred, thanks to Guffogg’s determination to connect his hometown with his longstanding connections throughout the L.A. and international art scenes.
Curated by Guffogg, this exhibition has a little of everything, including a delightfully unlikely number of connections to the culture high and low: A Beatles connection; blue chip notoriety in the form of Ed Ruscha; the work of a successful actor who moonlights as a painter; a variety of art-making impulses spanning a four-decade period; and of course, Shane Guffogg himself, whose work he included as well, a gambit that is perhaps itself a very L.A. thing.
There is a nearly four-year span of art featured in this show, and Guffogg feels that “they all add up to what I think of as a snapshot that is being driven by a need to understand and reflect about what it means to be human in the beginning of the 21st century.
But in some respects, this show constitutes just as much a snapshot of the curator’s own life in art as it does a presumable survey of contemporary portraiture. Reconstituted from an earlier show entitled Portrait held in 2006 at Pharmaka, the former gallery that served as catalyst for the once-vibrant Downtown L.A. gallery scene, Guffogg’s friends, mentors, and luminary acquaintances populate this endeavor and render a kind of visual diary of halcyon days at the confluence of so many creative flows within the Southern California scene.
“Portraiture is much more than capturing a likeness of someone. It goes deep into our past like an underground river, resurfacing as our future. The artists I have chosen for the portrait exhibition adds to a larger picture that is both a vision of our reality and a psychological reflection of what that reality is,” said Guffogg. “I admire what these artists are doing – making images – which is a tradition and form of communication that is as old as humanity itself.”
Consider the inclusion of the renowned text-based Pop Artist Ed Ruscha, whose work currently tops revenues for the international behemoth Gagosian Gallery to the tune of $50 million in annual sales. And whose work appears in nearly every notable museum collection.
As a former studio assistant to Ruscha, Guffogg was uniquely situated to include his mentor and former employer in the show. The work is owned by Guffogg, a silhouette portrait of Shane with his wife and son, so Ruscha’s presence is perhaps roundabout, at most. But Guffogg says the venerated artist is fully aware and supportive of the Lindsay show.
Paul Ruscha, Ed’s younger brother, also features in the show with Portrait of My Brother as Cave Dweller, a portrait of his big brother that speaks perhaps both to the solitary requirements of art making as well as the defensive nature of fame as luminous as the elder Ruscha’s.
Don Bachardy might not be as familiar a name as Ed Ruscha in cultural circles, but like Ruscha, his works are included in some of the best museums. At 82 years of age, Bachardy, who was the life partner of the late author Christopher Isherwood, has works permanently included in not only important California institutional collections like the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum of Art in San Francisco and The Huntington in San Marino, but in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University; the Smithsonian Institution; and the National Portrait Gallery, London. With that resume, who needs fame?
Xander Berkeley’s face might be familiar from his day job in film and TV series work from M*A*S*H to Law & Order to the X-Files and Terminator 2, among many others. His laborious technique involves a subtractive process that renders painting as sculpture, an archaeological dig backwards through layered paint to reveal his portrait subject, such as in Surfmom the Seer (oil on wood, 2013-16). This surfmom evinces a thousand-mile stare that perhaps reveals the inner states of mothers of kids everywhere who fall in love with dangerous pastimes.
Jeff Britton’s earlier work recalls the Bay Area Figurative Art of Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, an ascendant style in the late 1940s and ‘50s. His self-portrait was actually a likeness painted in 1996, well after the style had its cultural moment but well before “selfie” was a word.
Vonn Sumner is one of the standouts in the show with his meticulous and unsettling monochromatic oil paintings that keep viewers guessing as to the possible narrative behind the scenes of subjects in curious headgear. Sumner uses subdued palettes and pictorial veracity to good effect in selling his brand of plausible surrealism.
And about that Beatles connection we mentioned: Michael Lindsay-Hogg, whose father turned out to be Orson Welles, shot a little documentary film in 1969 called Let It Be, putting him Zelig-like in the middle of one of the most notable pop cultural implosions of the 20th Century. The film only hints at what would become clear later that year as the Beatles disintegrated.
His pieces in paint and colored pencil suggest stills from a movie, little dramas that play as behind-the-scenes glimpses into an extraordinary life. His mother was actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, whose friend Gloria Vanderbilt confirmed that Welles was actually his father – not Sir Edward Lindsay-Hogg. Seeing his paintings in Lindsay should only enhance the various absurdities of the life of Michael, now known with the honorific Sir Michael.
“I paint people, people who are sometimes confused, who don't know where they are or what they're doing. Sometimes they're okay and sometimes not sure where they are or what to do with each other. I like to think I paint versions of people who are like versions of us, other people,” he said. Of Lindsay-Hogg’s work, Guffogg said, “They are just the strangest paintings, like a Fellini film gone awry!”
This exhibition examines both contemporary portraiture threads and how they connect to the long history of the form, and the diversity in how artists choose to see their subjects. This show depicts not a moribund, staid art form circumscribed by academic concerns, but a genre that is still vibrant and alive with contemporary possibilities for social examination.
Works by Guffogg, Laura Hipke, and Doro Hoffman round out this rare (for Tulare County) show on view through November at Lindsay Museum & Gallery, 147 N. Gale Hill Ave.