Freedom’s Just Another Word
An exhibition of Big Sur artwork reveals more passion than precision.
Thursday, January 29, 2004
The key to understanding and appreciating Sparks Fly Upward: Big Sur Artists 1950-1990, the new exhibition at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, is Henry Miller. His writings about Big Sur and his critical evaluation of his Big Sur neighbors lends credence to the work of so many of these artists.
In Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957, we get a picture of the bohemians eking out a living in this fringe society. It is a romantic vision of free thinkers and seekers described by Miller in his characteristic vainglorious, namedropping style.
The current Cherry Center exhibition is an interesting jaunt down memory lane to witness some of the products of these independent types, a real part of local history, but it also reveals how limited, with a couple of exceptions, the artistic achievement of Big Sur artists actually was. They made their art in blissful isolation, and it was, by and large, Miller’s writing that puts them on the artistic map, not the virtues of their painting and sculpture.
Miller lived in Big Sur for 15 years, starting in 1944. When he arrived, he joined a community of scattered people who, as he notes in his book, sought an alternative lifestyle, doing odd jobs for cash or trade, living in shacks, rejoicing in their poverty and freedom from social restraints and expectations. Miller sizes up his neighbors by saying that if they weren’t actually artists, they nevertheless lived life as artists; they made their lives works of uninhibited expression.
But many were artists, and that is the focus of this exhibition. Lloyd Jones, one of the organizers, states, “We wanted to show a cross-section of the artists who lived in Big Sur in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. There was great diversity in what was, really, an artists’ colony led by Emil White and Henry Miller. Many of them, including Miller for a time, lived at Anderson Creek in the cabins built for the convicts who worked on the Coast Highway in the ’30s.”
The names of some of these artists are familiar: Benny Bufano, Gordon Newell, Jean “Yanko” Varda, Edmond Kara. Bufano, Newell and Kara, all sculptors, have work in public spaces that are seen everyday: Newell’s “Butterfly” at Lovers Point in Pacific Grove and Kara’s “Phoenix” bird at Nepenthe.
Buss Brown and George Choley—both painters—and sculptor Harry Dick Ross (whose mother must have had a sense of humor), represent the Big Sur artist who had sufficient art training to address some fundamental technical issues, but not enough vision to transcend mediocrity and the cliché.
Brown’s “Christ with Crown of Thorns” and “Rabbi Face” have a noteworthy gravitas and modernist paint handling, but these small paintings owe much to Georges Rouault’s faces. Choley, similarly, made paintings that looked like a lot of other modernist-flavored paintings with little distinction other than a palette of colors in turmoil. His forms display modest draftsmanship, his colors a struggle between brightness and mud. But his compositions of personal subjects are interesting for the history in them.
Ross sculpted in the spirit of the times, and those times are long past. His attenuated female nudes are Lembruck and Modigliani dumbed down. However, his “Fish,” a sliver of a sardine type balancing on a wire off the pedestal, captures the essence of an underwater glimpse.
Varda, like Ross, seems dated today. Locked in time by their stylization, Varda’s collages are engaging the way old fashion photographs are; they provoke wonder, maybe even amusement, at the ways of the past. Emanating from them is a decorative energy, mummified by the fashion taste of another era.
Kara, the best artist of the group, was a soulful man who brought intelligence and a craftsman’s gifts to the studio. His conception of the human experience was laced with myth, magic and religion, and these elements found their way into his carved sculptures. Looking at them, one enters Kara’s sardonic world where unbridled passions and noble virtues bump heads.
Then there’s Miller himself. An autodidact, he put great stock in freedom and intention, and was accountable to no one as far as his watercolors were concerned. His paintings served his writing by exposing him to another way of expression (the right side of his brain), and his writing served his painting by exposing the reader to his awkward artistic efforts.
In Big Sur, Miller recalls how an artist friend admired the freedom and disconnection from conventional artistic elements with which Miller attacked the paper: “I wish I had the courage to paint like you, Henry.” Miller explains this comment, writing that he, Miller was “’wild and loose.’ Meaning with utter disregard for anatomy, perspective, structural composition, dynamic symmetry, and so forth. Naturally, it was fun to paint as one pleased.”
And that summarizes so much of the Big Sur aesthetic.
Sparks Fly Upward: Big Sur Artists 1950-1990 is at the Carl Cherry Center until Feb. 20. 624-7491.