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On the Scene: California Landscape Paintings

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It all started with a label. As a 12-year-old growing up in Orange in the 1960s, Gordon McClelland, guest curator of Irvine Art Museum's exhibition, "California Scene Paintings: 1920s-1970s," worked at the Olive Heights packing house in Orange. He liked the fruit labels so much he began collecting them. Little did he know that this collection would spawn a life-long love of California art. The son of a painter, McClelland gleaned his early knowledge of art through his mother, who took art lessons from painters in the California scene. But his interest in visual arts stemmed from a love of those packing labels. "Everything I do is linked," he says.

During the turn of the century, fruit labels depicting various scenes of life in California -- clear blue skies over idyllic valleys, sunny avenues and palm trees, Spanish missions, seagulls flying over the ocean -- perpetuated the California dream to everyone else in the country. "These labels are California scene art," McClelland says. "When I taught 4th grade, I'd teach history via these labels." Not only did the kids love it, it made teaching history easier. "In these labels you'd see the Spanish influence, the missions, the Indians -- all of California history is depicted," he says.

The appreciation for labels as artistic depictions of history led McClelland to develop an eye for paintings that depicted everyday life in California. These California Scene Paintings -- works that include people or evidence of human life via of man-made objects such as cars, trains, barns, freeways, coastline piers -- were wildly popular before the war, but weren't considered important enough to merit attention from large museums and art critics until very recently.

Morse, Vernon Jay, "The Bridge Builders," 1926, 22x28
Morse, Vernon Jay, "The Bridge Builders," 1926, 22 x 28.

To date, the art collector/dealer/author McClelland is considered one of the foremost authorities on the subject. His expertise is reflected in the show he guest-curated for the Irvine Art Museum, "California Scene Paintings: 1920s-1970s." He has written more than 16 books on the California Scene Painting movement and its artists. In fact, the Irvine exhibition of 22 watercolors and 22 oil paintings is based on a book he co-authored with his son Austin.

Notables names -- Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Emil Kosa Jr., Milford Zornes and Rex Brandt -- are in the Irvine show, as well as relative unknowns such as Ben Norris, John Bohnenberger, Art Riley and Preston Blair.

"The first chapter traces the idea of scene paintings from when the state was founded in 1849," McClelland says. The images of golden fields, vendors hawking fruits and vegetables in the street, workers in the missions, and vaqueros working with cattle are all captured in paintings. But by the 1920s, California was already changing. There was a movie culture in Hollywood, and a citrus industry in Riverside. A few decades later, the war industry would change Long Beach and its environs. After World War II, the hippies, beatniks and surfers took over California culture. "All of those things are captured in the art," McClelland says. "In a sense, [California Scene Paintings are] a pictorial narrative of the state of California."

The golden era of California Scene Paintings was during the Public Works of Art Project in the 1930s, McClelland said. During the Great Depression, the government was paying out-of-work artists $15 per watercolor. Some of these were turned into murals that went up in government buildings. Others were placed in schools, hospitals and other government offices. The catch? It had to be the type of art that depicted everyday life, to reflect the lives of Californians. (The PWAP mural of a girl picking oranges still exists in the Fullerton post office.)

Brandt, Rex, "Horsemen at Mission Beach," 1942, 21x30
Brandt, Rex, "Horsemen at Mission Beach," 1942, 21 x 30.

It was then that the first of the movement's watercolor innovations got started. "California was one of the real key states," McClelland says. "The techniques that came out of here influenced people who were working on watercolors all over the country."

At the time, McClelland said, most people used watercolor as a sketching medium or used it to render or colorize pencil drawings." These guys just used watercolor as a painting medium. They began to paint wet on wet and worked in larger (22x30) formats, and the artists made quite an impression [worldwide]."

After World War II, art began to trend toward a more modern direction. California scene paintings became unpopular in highbrow art circles, which is why, McClelland says, most of the exhibit's works are not owned by museums but rather private collectors. Still, California Scene Paintings are being revalued as we speak. (Some works, McClelland says, go for over $100,000.)

Zornes, Milford, "Revelie," 1943, 22x30
Zornes, Milford, "Revelie," 1943, 22 x 30.

"These works are being rediscovered. As they are analyzed from a retrospective viewpoint, their value as highly creative fine art and as a visual record of the social history of California is becoming increasingly evident," he says.
The works are, of course, exceptional -- but that's not the only reason why a painting such as "California Holiday" by Phil Dike will elicit a visceral reaction. It's recognizing the places ('Holiday' is set in Corona del Mar) and inserting one's own history into that image. The exhibit, after all, also tell of forgotten histories: sailors at the Long Beach pier; the Japanese farmlands in Santa Ana; a tenement alley in Los Angeles.

"That's what makes these paintings resonate so strongly with Californians," McClelland says. "Most people don't get conceptual art but massive numbers of people can really relate to scene paintings because of the humanity in it, the human behavior and endeavors. People feel comfortable looking at that art, it doesn't need any explanation."

California Scene Paintings run through May 8. The Irvine Art Museum is located at 18881 Von Karman Avenue, Suite 100 Irvine, CA 92612

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