In Laguna Beach, Walking and Talking Art

Impression | Photo by the author

I went with some friends on Saturday to Laguna Beach. The day should have been cooler, but it wasn't. The light was late October, but it was fierce enough to put the crowd along the sidewalks half in and half out of summer wear.

It was unsettling, as if climate change's intent was to take from us what fragments of seasons we have.

I was along for the ride because one friend - the artist Michael Ward - wanted to take measurements of the rotunda gallery on the second floor of the Wells Fargo Bank building on Ocean Avenue. He will mount a retrospective of his photo-realist paintings there in December.

Later, we walked in and out of the galleries that punctuate the storefronts along the side streets between PCH and Forest Avenue/3rd Street. There are even more galleries as PCH lifts and dips from Laguna Canyon to Boat Canyon.

Art and tourism are the business of Laguna Beach; practically the town's reasons for being.

The art came on July 27, 1918, but the tourism followed just days later when the first of more than 2,000 visitors passed through a beachside hall that the plein-air artist Edgar Payne and his friends had turned into an impromptu sales gallery.

At the time, Laguna Beach had fewer than 500 residents.

European Impressionism bled out in the trenches of World War I, but in Laguna Beach in 1918, the plein-air did not smell of cordite, decay, or disillusionment. Loosely, mostly cheerfully painted eucalyptus trees, beaches, wildflowers, embowered cottages, and crashing surf turned Laguna Beach art into cliché.

Laguna Beach Hotel
Laguna Beach Hotel | Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier in 1938 wrapped up the art in snark, calling it the stuff of "older professional artists who helped found the colony before boulevards, realtors and bourgeoisie flocked in ... a group of amateur or businessman painters whose artless productions are often preferred as souvenirs of the art colony by gas buggy tourists ... a sprinkling of 'pinkish' youth who talk learnedly about modern art but seldom work hard at it, or at anything ... (and) a precious nugget of a few souls who want to galvanize the sluggish stream of colony art by attracting vital outside work into local exhibits."

Laguna Beach and art continue to flourish in their way, more than a little insular, but few artists make a living making art there. A job pays the rent.

Elizabeth McGee, a portraitist with an eye for the faces of ordinary people, was keeping watch over Laguna Art Supply & Framing when I walked in. She sat at the entrance on a tiny chair in a tiny alcove of art supplies for children. Three of McGee's paintings hung over the sales counter. I wandered into the back of the store, past paint, solvents, clove oil, canvases, antique suitcases, brushes, and unknown tools.

The artwork that's in front of us, whatever its aesthetic qualities, is never less than itself. Before it is, perhaps after months or years, is all the matériel of the work in bewildering amounts and types. Works of art are work.

Looking at the racks of paint tubes reminded me that art begins in glue and cloth, animal bristles and petroleum by-products, colored mud and liquid plastic.

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We went further up the block and around the corner and into a small show of student work from the Laguna College of Art + Design.

The work of the students was astonishingly skillful. Into the paintings and charcoal drawings and computer generated images had leaked everything from the flat patterns of Matisse to the wiry hilarity of Chuck Jones. The LCAD students had gotten well past the eucalyptus trees but not beyond the significance of stuff.

Much of the art of the past 60 years, it seems to me, has been about formalizing the artist's body as gesture applied to canvas. Or it's been about dissolving the artist's body in the making of a perfected surface. Or it's been about replacing the body entirely with the artist's intellect. The LCAD students seemed to have re-seen the values in bodies other than their own. You might say that the students strived for a superb humility.

There is a cast of mind that sees the numinous in things and makes one a connoisseur of what's at hand.

My friends, who know more about art than I do and who are able to see more than I can, spoke at length with the gallery owner about the students and their work. I turned away, embarrassed with nothing to say but my own clichés.

Later, I bought a small glass bottle the color of sunset. A former dentist in Laguna Beach makes these vases because one day, dentistry stopped being his profession and glass became his work.

I think I'll give the vase away, but I worry. The glass is so thin. Only one awkward gesture would surely break it.

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