The Laguna Art Museum is on a roll with two enticing exhibitions. The main galleries feature newest gifts slated for its permanent collection, a veritable Smorgasbord of works ranging from California Impressionists to more contemporary works gathered under the title “From Wendt to Thiebaud: Recent Gifts from the Permanent Collection.”
The upstairs mezzanine offers versions of Japanese haiku poetry and visual interpretation of verses in “Stanton Mcdonald-Wright: The Haiga Portfolio.” Both are up until May 29.
“From Wendt to Thiebaud”
Can a dress convey social movements? Cheryl Ekstrom (1943-2015) created a turn of the century bronze gown bereft of a body, but rife with references to women’s lives that led up to the suffragette feminist movements. Titled “Misplaced Heart with a Wolf at her Back,” Ekstrom’s 2012 sculpture implies women navigating at least two versions of their lives, one private and one for public viewing. The wolf stands for the toll that process often takes and the heart for their fortitude.
The museum is showing off its new cache of acquisitions beginning with three William Wendt paintings including “Laguna Coast.” It shows a view of early Laguna Beach from Wendt’s home on Arch Street and the dirt road that was to become bustling Glenneyre Street. The trio is a welcome addition since the museum only owned three small Wend landscapes before. After devoting a 2016 exhibition to Anna Hills, pioneer of the Laguna Beach Art Association, the museum acquired two paintings including the energetic “High Tide, Laguna Beach.”
In a different vein, “Mother’s Watchful Eye” reveals Joseph Kleitsch as a figurative painter. Here he captures his wife and son while still in Chicago before moving to Laguna Beach in 1919. The museum already owns his iconic “Old Post Office.”
Then there are works that are eerily timely: Take local artist G. Ray Kerciu’s politically tinged “God Bless Mommy and Daddy and the John Birch Society.” The 1964 work references the far-right group that for a time defined Orange County politics. “Untitled White,” shows a confederate flag with “WHITE” smeared across. They were done in 1962.
Scroll forward a few years to John Sonsini’s “Daniel, Rudy, Jose, Gabriel,” a portrayal of Latino day laborers, whose joyful mien suggests immigrants’ hope for a better life here. Dennis Hare’s collage painting “Los Innocentes” rings a similar note.
Also notable are Tony DeLap’s works referencing his fascination with magic (“Florine, Child of the Air,” “Portrait of Queen Zozer II”) as well as David Ligare’s meticulous drawings (“Thrown Drapery,” “Sand Drawing”) that were seen here in a major 2015 retrospective. Then there’s Thiebaud, who has either given or promised several works to the museum including his spectacularly drawn “Paint Cans.”
Altogether, this is the sort of show one can hopscotch from one field of interest to another and not waste any time returning more than once. A personal favorite? Timothy J. Clark’s watercolor titled “Italian Bicycle,” a painting that effectively combines meticulous representation with minimalist abstraction in the same composition.
“The Haiga Portfolio”
“Cruel Heat, My Mind in a Whirl, I Listen to the Thunder Rumble,” so goes a Haiku accompanying a colorful wood block print by Stanton Macdonald-Wright. The museum exhibition was created in Japan in collaboration with printmaker Clifton Karhu.
This particular piece combines elements of representation and abstraction centered on a vortex of color and movement evoking the fury of an electrical storm as well as turbulence of mind.
Comprised of 20 uniformly beautiful prints, the collection is a gift to the museum from the Stanton and Jean Macdonald-Wright estate and one that proverbially promises to keep on giving.
“After Issa, Stony River rippling…” contains similar energy even if colors are more subdued blues, grays, greens and purples. The way Macdonald-Wright moves the action in a circular motion, keeps one’s attention.
“Flying Butterfly, I Feel Myself a Creature of Dust” has a different vibe altogether. Here pastel colored forms with one dramatic addition of black are stacked in a vertical manner, their delicacy alluding to the fragility of life. The piece is also reminiscent of his earlier, Cubist-inspired abstracts.
The haiku themselves appear stylized with two lines instead of more. The essence of such poetry, juxtaposition of disparate elements connected by a key word remains. For non-expert Westerners it should suffice to study the beautiful imagery that illuminate the words. Somehow, one gets it.
“In the Hand, the Firefly Makes a Cold Brilliance” seems odd at first until one looks at two hands joined together cradling an amorphous form, the essence of the firefly. And then there’s a favorite, “Bright red sun cruelly hot but the wind is of autumn.” Here undulating forms evoke a summer storm, a last hurrah before cold season begins.
Macdonald-Wright, 1890-1973, was a pioneer of American abstract art who, with painter Morgan Russel, founded “Synchronism,” an avant-garde painting movement meaning “with color,” according to writings. It was a fusion of abstract forms and color creating a sense of movement and traces of that mode of expression can also be found in some of the prints here.
After World War II, Macdonald-Wright became interested in Zen Buddhism and meditation, journeyed to Japan where he established a home and by translating haiku into paintings and woodcut prints, created a form of visual poetry. The Haiga on view were made during the 1960s.
Macdonald-Wright also maintained a home in Malibu, where became a leader among the Los Angeles modernist community.