Painting in Southern California: the 1980s
The 1980s were a peak time for painting-everywhere, but notably in Los Angeles, which until then had never really been a "painting town" (as, for instance, New York, San Francisco, and Berlin were). The emergence of a powerful and pervasive painterly style, neo-expressionism- constituting a loosely defined "return to the figure"-occurred at a moment in which a global artistic network had come to fruition. This helped return the practice of painting not simply to universal respectability, but (at least briefly) universal dominance. At the same time, artistic directions in southern California that had manifested in painting and other media and forms in previous decades found renewed expression in painterly practice; thus, the "finish-fetish," "light and space" and "material" tendencies in local abstract art concretized in painting, in effect reviving local versions of abstract expressionism and hard edge painting. As well, certain painters who had practiced figuration until this decade decided at or near its outset to investigate non-figurative painting, almost in defiance of the neo-expressionist "fad."
Almost thirty years have passed since this "moment of painting," meaning that we can now consider the nature of painting in 1980s southern California in an historical light. Even while so many of the artists associated with these developments still live and work among us-and while many more still live and work elsewhere-their signal contribution to the discourse in painting deserves to be re-examined and re-admired. And, if anything, the work in this context of artists no longer alive fairly cries out for re-exposure.
Driven to Abstraction II
Two Directions, One Medium
Such re-examination is best served not in one exhibition, but two. One isolates neo-expressionism and the other updates the Riverside Art Museum's previous look at abstract painting in the postwar era. Both shows are notable for what must seem at first a robust stylistic eclecticism. By the penultimate decade of the 20th century, awash in post-modernist theory, the rubrics that had distinguished the modernist adventure had softened considerably, at best into guideposts, at worst into branding. The expressionists active a century ago worked in manners far more closely related to one another in form and spirit than did the neo-expressionists active a quarter-century ago. So did the non-objective painters of the same era. Indeed, abstraction tended to come in a relatively few flavors, positing itself in dialectical polarities, until well into the 1970s.
Thus, the symptom these shows reveal most markedly about the 1980s is its label-bending pluralism. Artists found themselves grouped together less in elective affinities than in untidy group shows; and, admittedly, these two group shows seem at all tidier only as a result of hindsight. Indeed, there are more than a few artists, represented here or not, whose work from 25 years ago could be called either or both neo-expressionism and abstraction, and who moved between gestural figuration and non-objectivity, in either direction, as the decade progressed. What we find is that these rubrics did not define polarities of painterly practice but constituted relative positions along the spectrum of that practice.
At this writing (early October), the rosters of both shows continue to take shape. By and large, however, the principles for both shows dictate whom the principal artists are in each. That does not guarantee that appropriate works by all these artists are going to be available for exhibit, but it does establish rosters of central figures who will be present or, occasionally, conspicuous by their absence. It is interesting to contrast activity in Los Angeles in both neo-expressionist and abstract painting with their counterparts on the other side of the country. Neo-expressionism was clearly a marketing label imported here from New York, and it was an even more ill-fitting rubric here than it was there. As a measure of spirit, however, it found resonance in southern California among several disparate artistic circles. Abstraction, on the other hand, had maintained comfortably in the Los Angeles area during the 1970s, challenged far less than its New York equivalent(s) by the surge in conceptual, performance, and video art. The new media pervaded local discourse no less than it did back east, but because discourse in southern California was broadcast through schools rather than funneled through galleries, disparate practices such as abstract painting and conceptual photography had room here to co-exist with little significant contention.
Southern California neo-expressionism was defined in the early 1980s against its already established New York counterpart. In particular, Ulrike Kantor dedicated her La Cienega Boulevard gallery to the presentation of five more or less gestural figurative painters, Andrew Wilf, Roger Herman, George Rodart, Victor Henderson, and David Amico. As importantly, a strong Latino presence in Los Angeles art had asserted itself in the previous decade, and a number of Chicano painters adopted expressionist modes in the depiction of their cultural milieu, personal fantasy, or a mixture thereof. Among these were Carlos Almaraz, Patssi Valdez, and Gronk, as well as San Diego-based Raul Guerrero. Another San Diego painter, Ernest Silva also produced highly stylized renditions of the human figure. Also factoring in local neo-expressionism were certain painters a generation older, notably figures like Charles Garabedian who had been associated with an odd, funky figuration (a kind of "proto-neo-expressionism") presented as early as the 1960s. Younger artists who had been associated with performance art, punk music, and/or the emergence of a “downtown art scene” in the loft district east of LA’s historic core also distinguished themselves as neo-expressionists. Such artists as Sabina Ott, Sheila Elias, Jim Morphesis, and the performance duo Bob & Bob inflected their own versions of neo-expressionism with their particular interpretations born of everything from geographic context to stylistic attitude, lavish material intervention to broad humor.
Driven To Abstraction II
Abstract painting in the '80s served to harness the new prominence of painting to the evolving treatment of established investigations, especially in the quasi-minimalist "perceptualism" of light-and-space and finish/fetish art. Still, the "return" of painting allowed some abstractionists to reawaken the pleasures of paint and the joys of fanciful form. Minimalism manifested in the work of ts such painters as Scot Heywood, while the "material abstraction"ists of the 1970s continued to permutate in the work of artists as disparate as such as June Wayne and Laddie John Dill. Performative conceptualists like Channa Horwitz who could turned notation into structure. And a raft of , and eccentric abstractionists emerged, painters such as John Millei, Gary Lang, Sheldon Figoten, Claude Kent, and Ann Thornycroft who mediated or vacillated between geometric, gestural, material, and color-field practices. A veteran painter such as William Brice could even straddle abstract and figurative approaches. All these painters and many more all contributed to a discourse in painting that at once echoed and challenged the more popular and widely touted neo-expressionist modes, both the ones produced locally and those imported from New York and Europe.