Three Laguna Landscapes

The landscape-painting industry has had a hold on Laguna Beach for so long that the very idea of landscape in the resort town by the sea is inevitably fraught with cliché, but Thursday night’s art walk provided some fresh perspectives on the genre with the work of two master painters at the Laguna Art Museum and the photography of Tom Lamb at Forest & Ocean Gallery.

Wayne Thiebaud's Waterland, 1996, oil on canvas

Wayne Thiebaud’s Waterland, 1996, oil on canvas

Wayne Thiebaud, raised in Long Beach and still painting at 93, was the unquestionable star of the evening. He spoke at the museum last October in connection with his promised gift of six original prints and a painting, and those works make up part of the first room of his solo show “American Memories.” Among these works are his familiar gumball machines, candy counters and slices of cake, staples of the Thiebaud diet since his early (mis-)identification with the Pop art movement. Less diabetes-inducing however are the landscapes — the actual compositions of which may be more imaginary then literal, although clearly influenced by the urban environment of San Francisco and the contrastingly rural Sacramento River Delta. Whatever the subject, the color and handling of the paint is masterful, revealing an old-fashioned passion for craft as practiced and perfected over many decades of effort. For anyone with the slightest openness to the concept of paint on canvas, the luscious impasto of these works cries out to be witnessed in person.

Upstairs at the museum is a selection of travel scenes rendered in watercolor by the late Millard Sheets, who painted the landscape as a California Regionalist in the 1930s and quite literally changed the landscape of Southern California in the 1950s and ’60s as an architect, muralist and director of Otis Art Institute. (Examples of the bank branches he designed for Home Savings, with their mosaic murals — a free market version of what the WPA did during the Depression — still exist in Santa Ana, Buena Park and Anaheim; the long-vacant Scottish Rite Masonic Temple that he designed in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles has lately been purchased by Maurice and Paul Marciano to convert into their own private art museum.)

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Watercolors from the Laguna Art Museum show “Travels with Millard Sheets, 1950-1986.”

On display in Laguna are scenes from the artist’s travels to India, Mexico, Tahiti and elsewhere. Sheets traveled throughout his life, including in Burma during World War II, and served as an arts ambassador in the post-war period during a time when art, like everything else, was a commodity to be exploited in the Cold War. Some of the work can be seen as multicultural and forward-looking, showing a prudent interest in and respect for other cultures, while imagery of languid Polynesians borrows so heavily from the 19th century sensibilities of Gauguin as to appear thoughtlessly imperialistic.

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Tom Lamb’s “Cityscape” at Forest & Ocean Gallery.

Tom Lamb is a socially-engaged world traveler who has photographed the Tibetan diaspora in Dharamsala, India, and worked with threatened panda populations in China. While a student at Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1970s he assisted Aaron Siskind, a master of photography whose technique was to get in close with his lens to capture abstracted texture, and there’s something similar in Lamb’s work, although he goes in the opposite direction, rising above the land in a chartered helicopter to shoot from above. The most intriguing of his unconventional landscapes are probably the most ambiguous, where no man-made structure provides a sense of scale. We’re left to wonder if we’re looking at the ridges of an orange peel, a detail of copper relief or through the lens of a microscope. In fact, it might just happen to be the aerial view of a salt flat in northern California, somewhere in Mr. Thiebaud’s general neighborhood.

Laguna Art Museum 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, California 92651
Forest & Ocean Gallery 480 Ocean Avenue, Laguna Beach, California 92651

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