Fame And Fortune
It's world-renowned women painters and local artists made good at the Monterey Museum of Art's late winter exhibit.
Thursday, January 24, 2002
Photo:"Untitled #25" by Martha Casanave from her "Coastal Pinholes" show
Among the countless losses of September 11th was Louise Nevelson''s largest wood sculpture, "Sky Gate New York" (1978). Inspired by an airborne view of the Manhattan skyline, this monumental wood relief made of found objects hung on the mezzanine wall of One World Trade Center, embodying the creative energy of a city that will forever be changed. Beginning this weekend locals will have the opportunity to see another piece by Nevelson, "Rain Garden II" (1977), at the Monterey Museum of Art. Nevelson''s work has always evoked in viewers both tension and mystery, but following the destruction last fall of one of her most striking achievements, it is hard not to see a kind of dark prophecy in the blackened bric-a-brac of her art, an organized jumble of shapes and layers that speaks of transformation and power.
Nevelson, who died in 1988 (and whose work was featured two years ago on a U.S. postage stamp), is only one of the exceptional artists featured in the Museum''s new exhibit, "Works by Women: Art from the Gihon Foundation." The Gihon is a non-profit group created by Texas entrepreneur and philanthropist Bette C. Graham, the inventor of Liquid Paper. A list of the exhibit''s artworks reads like a veritable Who''s Who of important artists: Mary Cassatt, Georgia O''Keefe, Grandma Moses, Helen Frankenthaler. But Mary Murray, the museum''s curator, observes that while this exhibit offers a great opportunity to see art by such well-known figures, equally exciting is the discovery of strong artists we may not have encountered before.
A case in point is the sculpture "Vine Habitat" (1977) by Clyde Connell, a captivating artist whose life and work were deeply connected to the soil and swamps of Northwest Louisiana, a place she called home for 97 years (Connell died in 1998). "Vine Habitat" is made of simple materials-rattan, papier mâché and Elmer''s Glue-yet it shows a searching mind alert to the natural and spirit world around her. Murray notes that Connell, whose work can be found at the Metropolitan in New York, among other places, did not begin her art career until she was in her sixties, an inspiring example for those of us who may feel it is "too late" to pursue an artistic passion.
A very different kind of artistry is found in Helen Frankenthaler''s gorgeous "And White Makes Four" (1966). This intoxicating "stain painting" (a technique in which paint is poured directly onto the unprimed surface of a canvas) draws the viewer''s eye into a world of floating color that seems to shift each time we blink. To look back and forth between the Frankenthaler and the Connell is to experience a heady sense of how natural shapes can flow and how they are constructed. (Note that "Gihon" refers to a river mentioned in the Book of Genesis.)
Indeed, the exhibit abounds in intriguing juxtapositions. The side-by-side placement of works by O''Keefe and Grandma Moses suggests a commentary on themes of community and solitude. And looking over this world of artistic achievement is a delicate pastel sketch by Mary Cassatt, who embraced in her work images of motherhood even as she challenged rigid notions of what it meant to be a woman.
Challenging oneself to move beyond expectations is exactly what Martha Casanave has done with her "Coastal Pinholes," a beautiful exhibit of photographs that opened earlier this month at the Museum. Prior to this show, Casanave had not pursued outdoor photography, and for this series she took upon herself a particular landscape, the Monterey coastline, that many might assume has yielded all it can to black-and-white photography. Yet with her pinhole camera and her crab''s eye perspective (she had to get down on her belly to get some of the frames), Casanave has fashioned images of the familiar coastline that manage to be artistically fresh, even as they evoke a much earlier time, a time when photography itself was something new. Pinhole cameras are notable for their lack of lens, their infinite depth of field, and their long exposure times. In one photograph the camera''s slow speed transforms the rushing tidal water into something sculptural, like liquid rock. In another, Casanave uses Mylar to heighten the reflection of the stormy sky. These are magical landscapes, occasionally eerie, as in the photo where a man, like a character out of a Victorian ghost tale, seems to be giving the slip to his look-alike double.
Paul Whitman, another artist who found artistic inspiration in the buildings, trees and people of the Central Coast, is given the first large-scale exhibition of his work, over a half-century after his untimely death in 1950 at the age of 53. Whitman first came to the Monterey Peninsula in 1925 from St. Louis, Missouri, in order to pursue his dream of an artistic career. He studied with Armin Hanson, was a friend of the watercolorist Millard Sheets, and came to be a key figure in the growing cultural life of the area. Indeed, his skilled watercolors, charcoals, and lithographs are gently evocative of the 1930s, California''s golden age of watercolor, when many artists sought to celebrate the artistic beauty of ordinary, everyday scenes in their own communities. It was an aesthetic shared by John Steinbeck, whose centennial celebrations this year coincide with the Museum''s exhibit.
Viewed together, these three excellent shows suggest the virtues of juxtaposition, balance and flow, qualities worth striving toward as we collectively resolve to make this year better than the last.