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The Riverside Legacy: California Plein Air Paintings Past and Present

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If the Europeans didn't invent the "en plein air" art movement in the mid-19th century, Californians would've been all over it sooner or later. After all, the movement, which refers to a landscape painting done primarily outdoors and onsite (it translates to "in the open air" in French), seems tailor-made for California and its never-ending natural light, its golden poppy fields, invincible deserts and beaches bathed perennially in sunshine.

The geography may have been vastly different from what the Impressionists saw in Europe -- Californians didn't really paint visions of wooded hills, fields and forests as much as they did foothills and seashores, -- but plein air's California boom reflected the influence of French impressionists even as it showcased the state's diversity in bright, chromatic colors.

Even as the movement waxed and waned in recent years, it never died off in Southern California. Kept alive by artists' organizations such as the California Art Club and the more regional Plein Air Artists of Riverside (PAAR), the plein air genre played a role in documenting the changes in California's landscape. In the more recent years, interest in en plain air painting also promoted environmental awareness in the state.

In "The Riverside Legacy: California Plein Air Paintings Past and Present," running through March 30 at the the Riverside Art Museum, featured works tell the history of plein air in Riverside and other parts of the Inland region -- from farmland to suburban to urban.

Unlike paint-outs, where artists meet and worked on location as a group and then complete their works within a specific time frame before exhibition, most of the work in in "The Riverside Legacy" were chosen from RAM's permanent collection( as well as private collections). Guest curator Devi Noor, the curatorial assistant in the American Art department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), says she chose the works in collaboration with PAAR. "My main interest was to show the beginnings of plein air paintings by artists connected to the Riverside area from RAM's collection,"guest curator Devi Noor, the curatorial assistant in the American Art department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) said. "Then depict the contemporary responses through PAAR's eyes via their artwork." By choosing works that captured some essence of the Riverside community, Noor was able to convey precisely how Riverside changed through a lens of light and paint. The paintings then become an excellent doorway into introspection.

"In looking at examples of contemporary plein air artwork, I was amazed at how the scenes of nature, while roughly depicting the same subjects of trees, flowers, hillsides, grass, were now integrated with elements of urban development," she said. One such example was Becky Bane's "Propelled Groves" (2013). In it, a large metal wind machine towering over the groves prevents frost that can badly damage the crops. "These new additions to the landscape are slight indications of how the Riverside population is thriving and burgeoning outward."

Many of the artists who in the exhibit, who are members of PAAR, emphasize that painting en plein air helps them view Riverside differently, turning the mundane into the extraordinary. Artist Ada M. Passaro says, "I can't look at the same area twice; I'm constantly aware of how the light hits buildings, trees, mountains at different times of the day."

It doesn't hurt that the artists venture out to paint in groups ("Safety in numbers," Passaro says). Artist Susan De'Armond says being part of PAAR allows her to explore various locations more thoroughly. "[PAAR members] go to a wonderful variety of locations in the city, desert, mountains, ocean and historic sites," she said. De'Armond says she's also able to study the history and geography of the Riverside area more thoroughly. "[Conducting] research for 'Citrus Connections,' the theme of the annual PAAR 9-Day Paint Out of 2013, brought into focus just how much the citrus industry owes to Riverside and in turn how much the industry has shaped Riverside," she said.

It's this personal attachment to Riverside's earthly visions that inspires Joan Coffey. "I form a personal attachment to every scene I paint. The people, the sounds, the light all make each painting experience very special. It follows that each painting of my beloved Riverside changes my perceptions in some way, and therefore I see the city in a different light."

De'Armond agrees, saying, "Plein air is a way to get to know a place and a people in the same way learning a language helps you to learn a culture better. It helps you get under the skin of a place. Of course, it is always about the light for an artist, but one sketch at a time it is also a way of seeing a place more deeply."

For most, it all comes back to the zen of it all. Becky Bane, of the aforementioned "Propelled Groves," says plein air painting is the only time she gets to fully experience the present. She says, "As I struggle to find the way I can capture the light in my composition -- all within a few short hours -- I grapple with the now. Unraveling the magic so it flows means working as diligently as I can, to the best of my ability."

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