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California Art Club: A Link to L.A. Public Art History

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While contemporary murals often rely on narratives that reveal the heritage of its location, a thorough survey of L.A.'s history would acknowledge that the city has long used public art to form its cultural credibility -- and the California Art Club was at the center during the city's early art history.

With the quiet dutiful patience of a landscape impressionist painter, California Art Club presses on. They are ready for their 102nd Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition at USC Fisher Museum of Art, which opens this Sunday, June 2. This return to the Exposition Park area, where 26 of the first 35 medal exhibitions were held, gives CAC, or "the Club" as they informally call, the chance to talk tradition.

Education programming during CAC's Gold Medal Exhibition will include "Robert Merrell Gage: Sculpting Lincoln and Los Angeles" on June 8, featuring a screening of "Faces of Lincoln," a 20-minute documentary that followed Gage at work. Produced and directed by USC, it was awarded the 1955 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. Jean Stern, Director of the Irvine Museum, will then discuss the Gage's works with a focus on his Los Angeles area sculptures, including the bust of Lincoln on Grand Avenue, the First Street façade of the Los Angeles Times, and the bas relief panels of the Edison Building. Gage was a professor of sculpture at USC and the 13th President of the California Art Club.

Rounding off the education programming, CAC will host "Portrait Painting Demonstration with David Leffel" on June 2, and "Painting from Life" by social realism artist Max Ginsburg on June 23.

Copp Building (left) was the first home for CAC. Photo courtesy LAPL Photo Library Collection
Copp Building (left) was the first home for CAC. Photo courtesy LAPL Photo Library Collection

The club is using the exhibition to reconnect its historical link to Exposition Park and the city's core. Founded in 1909, CAC's opening decade included a small gallery and monthly meetings at the Sketch Club, No. 424, housed in the Copp Building at 218 South Broadway (near Second Street), according to Eric Merrill, the CAC artist who is also a detailed minded historian for the Club. In that early downtown venue, CAC had a 1914 exhibition of sketches that introduced how Southern California was developing it's own school of art. It featured Maurice Braun, born in Hungary, trained in New York, and was beginning to make San Diego home and a career as a major American/California Impressionist painter. Also in that early exhibition was CAC co-founder, landscape painter Hanson Puthuff; Warren Rollings; and sculptor Julia Brancken Wendt, whose 1926 "Lincoln the Lawyer" is still a stoic presence at Lincoln Park, and her Beaux Arts statue "Three Muses" anchors the 1913 rotunda at the Natural History Museum.

CAC's history proudly includes a rabble-rousing protest by artists that gave the Club media attention in 1947, including national coverage in LIFE Magazine. That's when artists working in representational art forms gathered at the steps of the Los Angeles County Museum -- now the Natural History Museum -- to protest being left out of the exhibition "Artists of Los Angeles and the Vicinity."

The Club in an art battle in 1947
The Club in an art battle in 1947

The LIFE Magazine article reported that the protesting conservative CAC membership were "annoyed because the show favored what they call 'radical' or 'subversive' art." That exhibition, curated by James Byrnes, was considered the first to showcase modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles to "raise the profile of art in the city," according to Andrew Perchuk and Catherine Taft in the catalog for "Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980."

"Photographs of that protest symbolized the uphill battle that traditional fine artists had at that time in trying to refocus attention among the art establishment for representational art forms," says CAC's Beverly Garland.

The Club is still fighting the good fight.

"When Peter Adams and I became involved with the Club in 1993, we recognized that traditional fine art techniques and philosophies were no longer being taught, and therefore, in danger of being lost forever," said Elaine Adams, CAC's Executive Director. "We reached out to art educators, and the response we received from one -- 'We will never teach traditional arts in this school as long as I am in charge' -- basically reflected the thinking of that time."

Now with renewed interest in representational art forms, scholarship has increased in American Impressionism and California Plein Air movements, which, according Adams, "includes early Club members, such as William Wendt, Guy Rose, Edgar Payne and Franz Bischoff." She adds, "we are now witnessing a new generation of artists in their 20s and 30s, and they have specifically chosen to use realistic art techniques to present their perspectives on issues relating to environmental preservation and social context."

When you consider how realism by Charles White, Kent Twitchell and John Valadez have also inspired young muralists, CAC's advocacy has played out.

"Los Angeles is definitely a vibrant, imaginative city that constantly reinvents itself, and the city's artists innately reflect those dynamics," said Adams on the exhibition, which is also a tribute to early Club members. "As they interpret modern messages in their works of art, we believe that their freedom of expression should include the freedom to use the techniques they feel will best communicate their point of view to the viewer."

Among the pioneering artists was California Impressionist William Lees Judson, who founded the USC School of Fine Art in 1895. From the beginning, fellowship and education were considered ways the aesthetic could progress while appreciation of traditional art forms.

Last Train Home by Tony Pro is 102nd Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition. Courtesy of CAC
Last Train Home by Tony Pro is 102nd Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition. Courtesy of CAC

To say the least, that advocacy also positions CAC as an early practitioner in the long tradition of Los Angeles art protest, most recently seen in the debate concerning the city's proposed mural ordinance. CAC's position in 1947 is similar to today's muralists who do not want their form of technique trivialized by modernization. Upholding fine art tradition aside, CAC goal for art progression had its members assist David Alfaro Squieros in meeting the art community, which led him to his Los Angeles work, including "América Tropical."

This Gold Medal Exhibition also sways from having a curated theme to encourage artists to "take risks and raise the bar with their art." The exhibition will debut up to 200 pieces that rely on traditional mediums and techniques, "but modern in their messages as the work takes on topics from cultural diversity and urbanization," said the Club.

What is old may be new again. In "Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles," author Sarah Schrank noted how Rev. Dana W. Bartlett, an artist and member of CAC, was the voice of the City Beautiful campaign in the early 1900s, and called on Los Angeles to join the movement to "maintain its natural beauty, build parks and ensure healthy living" for all its residents. That included public art, some of which happened, and plaza and civic landmarks, which did not.

CAC's advocacy for maintaining art tradition, which came from a pedigree that wanted the naturalness of the city to thrive, could be viewed as a shared theme with many contemporary muralists, and even with kayakers splashing around the Los Angeles River with excitement. We may have to reconsider California Art Club; it may be a very contemporary advocacy group.

Lincoln the Lawyer by Julia Bracken Wendt, dedicated July 4, 1926 in Lincoln Park. Photo by Floyd B. Bariscale/flickr/Creative Commons

Top: Lincoln bust by Robert Merrell Gage on Grand Avenue. Photo by Ed Fuentes

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