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The Creative Cosmos of June Wayne

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When the artist June Wayne touched down in Los Angeles in the 1940s, she'd already lived, it seemed, nine full lives: at 17, she'd mounted her first exhibition -- a series of abstract pointillist paintings in her hometown of Chicago. Shortly thereafter, on the strength of that work alone, she had been invited to Mexico City by government representatives to create and install an exhibition in the Ministry of Public Administration alongside the works of Diego Rivera. Wayne returned stateside in 1935 to work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), for the moment abandoning abstraction and continuing to paint in the Social Realist style. By 1939 she'd uprooted again -- landing in New York, where she would continue to paint as well as trying her hand at jewelry design -- but this was all just the foundation.

Los Angeles wasn't just a new address, it was a launching pad. Settling into life in Southern California, Wayne found herself particularly well-positioned within region's orbit of sharp, cross-disciplinary thinkers -- artists, writers, film directors and scientists. The convergence of time and place -- and its influence on her imagination -- can not be minimized. "She came to Los Angeles for work," explains Betty Ann Brown, art historian and author of "Afternoons with June: Stories of June Wayne's Art & Life." "She did some technical illustration for the aeronautic industry" says Brown, "but we would see echoes of it in her much of her work throughout the rest of her career."

Life in Southern California, as it turned out, would begin what would be her most prolific and defining period yet. While Wayne is perhaps best known as the founder of the Tamarind Lithography Studio, the pioneering -- and game changing -- collaborative print workshop, which the artist ran between 1960-1970, there would be many more incarnations -- creative expeditions -- before her death 2011 at 93. Almost up to the very end, says Brown, she was still working -- pushing boundaries, bending definitions.

June Wayne | Photo: Niku Kashef
June Wayne, | Photo: Niku Kashef.

Wayne was not simply a multidimensional, multimedia artist, she was also, says Brown, a deeply dedicated social activist, interested in identifying disparities and confronting inequalities, head-on, but in a grassroots, hands-on fashion: "For June, collaboration was the ultimate humanizing practice, because it connected people as partners in a particularly profound way."

Attempting to connect the many parts of an artist's life and provide fresh context, a new exhibition of Wayne's wide-ranging explorations opens this week at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, the first major retrospective of her work in nearly 20 years. Co-curated by Brown and Jay Belloi, the exhibition -- "June Wayne: Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries" -- links the many chapters of Wayne's varied career and features key pieces representing each of her major periods: her early Social Realist work, her California Surrealist paintings; her many lithographic series -- including the nuanced and groundbreaking "Dorothy Series." A visual narrative -- a sequence of emotionally evocative prints based on her Russian-immigrant mother's life-journey -- "The Dorothy Series" reflected not just the points on her mother's personal map, but also traced the emotional territories and consequences of her decisions.

The exhibit, as well, features the evolution of the work that pulled Wayne to Los Angeles; the paintings and prints based on scientific inquiry -- specifically the pieces exploring genetic code and meditations on space explorations. Rounding out the show are Wayne's signature pieces -- the narrative tapestries and the late canvases -- echoing familiar motifs.

Throughout the rest of her life, the cosmos of Los Angeles was not incidental: "The extraordinary advances in space exploration and genetics made during the mid twentieth century were essential to Wayne's artistic process and art," co-curator Belloi underscores in his essay "June Wayne: Art and Science." Wayne, he points out, "began her artistic involvement with scientific information in 1965, the year after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory began its exploration of the solar system and the moon. "At Last a Thousand," a print that she made at Tamarind Lithography Workshop that year, marked her move into art influenced by cosmos."

For all of her travels -- the physical relocations, flights of the mind -- Wayne's perch in Los Angeles (her home for 60 years) wasn't just an address, it was muse. "The quality of light we have here ... the vast expanses of sky," Wayne once told Brown "I think that took me off the earth and got me interested in space."

From a distance, Wayne's disparate explorations might not seem to intersect, but at closer inspection they were an outgrowth of the same stream of inquiry -- how we perceive the world around us and how we are perceived within it -- and how that all connects, like beads on a chain. "[Wayne's] underlying tendency was the precise fitting-together of interlocking forms," writes Ruth Weisberg, professor of Fine Art and former dean at USC's Roski School in her exhibition essay: "Even 'The Dorothy Series' was composed of discrete elements arranged in brilliant and unexpected patterns."

Part of that creative fluidity had to do with the manner in which Wayne charted much her life. She saw the big picture, but she also understood its smaller components. She didn't see limitations or borders. She understood that really seeing -- understanding -- the world required a certain distance -- a pulling in close and then pulling back. She asked big, open-ended questions that, consequently, put her in the middle of a busy world of possibility

Born in Chicago in 1918, Wayne moved from place to place, and would begin early on cultivating a high-profile roster of friends acquaintances and collaborators in each of them. Among them: the writers Nelson Algren, Richard Wright and Saul Bellow; the artists; Louise Bourgeois and Louise Nevelson. In Paris she dined Man Ray in Paris and once she landed in Los Angeles, she found herself in circles intersecting with the painter Helen Lundeberg and surrealist Marcel Duchamp.

And while literature and social justice commentary were areas she was passionately pulled to and figured into much of her work, science and its the meta-stories about existence and evolution remained, until the end of her life, at the heart of much of it.

"She told be about going to the World's Fair in Chicago as a teenager," recalls Brown, "and she shared this story about how they used starlight to activate the flood lights at the Fair. Imagine that? Starlight coming into the city? And I've often thought that that moment was archetypal, lhat it was life changing for her."

Like a scientist, Wayne used the various media she worked in as little laboratories -- places in which to not just work out technical dilemmas but philosophical quandaries. It was an approach that would carry her through the rest of her life. For instance, her exploration in lithography in attempt to convey motion on a fixed, flat service. Her painting, "The Tunnel" (1949) is evidence of her early efforts to reproduce what she saw as she moved through the Second Street Tunnel in Downtown Los Angeles. But what she saw -- in motion, in her mind's eye -- on the canvass eluded her.

She discussed these challenges with a friend, the art critic Jules Langsner, who encouraged her to experiment with printmaking. That suggestion would launch Wayne on the chapter of her career that would result in some of the breakthrough groundbreaking work she would become best known for.

Knee deep in her exploration, Wayne produced a series of lithographs -- the "Kafka Series" and the "Justice Series." She was ready to embark on the next set, a collection of pieces based on the poems of John Donne. To reflect the sensual nature of the work -- and how it affected her -- the images she had conceptualized would be erotic in nature. Her California printer balked. Frustrated, Wayne looked to other options -- a continent away. En route to Paris to work with the renowned printer Marcel Durassier, in a New York-stop-over she bumped into Mac Lowry of the Ford Foundation. She vented, citing the lack of creative collaborative support available to artists in the States. Intrigued, Lowry asked her to keep in touch. "I remember saying to him: No wonder Picasso was so prolific. Anything he wanted to do, there was an army of craftsmen to fabricate it or him." Wayne, decades later related to Brown, "They had a tradition of collaborative practices. We don't have that here."

When she returned, two months later, Wayne met with Lowry, book in hand. He was impressed with the results and suggested she craft proposal for launching a lithography workshop, based on the European model, in the US which would support collaborative work. That proposal took concrete shape in the formation of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop named after the street on which Wayne lived in Hollywood. (The workshop moved to the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque in 1970, where it still operates)

"She really believed that this should be the way art should go," Brown recalls. "She brought to L.A. so many important artists of the time -- from abstract expressionists to figurative art -- it was an incredible center of creative energy."

After a decade of running Tamarind, Wayne further fine tuned her focus. Still in the spirit of collaboration, she invited a group of women artists -- 20 or so -- to meet in her studio and discuss the inequities and hurdles they faced in the art field. Perfecting her practice, she understood, was just one puzzle piece. It was important, Wayne knew, that women learn in a practical, hands-on way how to negotiate the business of the art world. Wayne gave the workshop a title that wouldn't be out of place in a university business department's course offerings; "Business and Professional Problems of Women Artists. But the members soon rechristened it: "Joan of Art." The re-branding stuck. And Wayne's bounty of advice and guidance would influence succeeding generations of women artists who could benefit from both her trailblazing path and persistence of vision.

For Brown in particular -- who met first met Wayne through the Tamarind/Albuquerque connection -- the show is a tribute to and recognition for a visually eloquent artist who shattered perceptions on multiple levels levels; an artist who saw endless possibilities both across disciplines and within their intersections.

"She was a mother figure for many of us," says Brown, "not in that soft nurturing way, but in that 'I'm going to push you, I'm going to inspire you, I'm going to get you going' -- way. We can see all of these artists over time who were connected to her. You can see her influence. So it's important to know that she was the very center of that web."

"Anki," Cognitos Series, 1984, Acrylic and silver leaf on paper marouflaged onto canvas with gesso and gelatin, 72 x 54 inches | ©The June Wayne Collection, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts
"Anki," Cognitos Series, 1984, Acrylic and silver leaf on paper marouflaged onto canvas with gesso and gelatin, 72 x 54 inches. | © The June Wayne Collection, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts.

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