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Indian Paintbrush: Unlike other California painters, Maynard Dixon was drawn to the arid landscapes of the Southwest, the scene of his painting 'Study for Migration.'

Made in California

New MAH exhibition showcases the Golden State's artistic past

By Tai Moses

SOMEONE ONCE asked the artist Gottardo Piazzoni what church he belonged to. The San Francisco painter replied that his religion was California. Luckily for us, many artists of Piazzoni's time shared his religious convictions, and their creed is abundantly clear in the new Museum of Art and History exhibit, "California Paintings 1910-1940: Selections From Mills College Art Museum."

The works--which include Piazzoni's shimmering oil Haymakers--are imbued with an atmosphere of golden serenity that could only have come from a profound reverence for their subject: the unspoiled California of the '20s and '30s.

The 40 paintings, selected from the larger Mills College collection, depict what, to a painter's eye, was an Edenic California, its hills, meadows and coastline virtually untouched by man or machine. Most of the pieces are plein air landscapes in the style generally called California Impressionist, but the artists freely experimented with other styles, from the subtle cubism of Elinor Ulman's Portrait of the Gardener to the distinctly Fauvist sensibilities of Granite Mountain, by Florence Lundborg.

Neither did the California painters neglect the human landscape. Xavier Martinez chose a somber tonalist palette for his painting Water Carriers, one of several works that portray the daily lives of working people. A woman carrying two earthen jugs of water from the river seems to pause on the trail as she waits for her companion. The sun has already set and it is nearly dark, but in this painting the coming night brings not foreboding but a sense of peace and the promise of shelter.

The two rural women with downcast eyes standing at a half-door in Albert Barrows' Doorways give the impression of having just shared a confidence, or perhaps a condolence. A third women in a pink coat, her back turned to the other two, adds a hint of narrative mystery to the pensive scene.

In the vibrantly colored Ravenlocks, a woman in a blue shift, her lap covered by a red blanket, sits serenely in a sun-dappled garden. Despite the fairy-tale title, Ravenlocks is very much a real woman--yet a second look at the painting makes one wonder if her radiant glow comes from health, or from fever. The artist, Anne Bremer, died young of leukemia some three years after completing the work.

The influences of Mexico and the Southwest are present in images of Indians, adobes and desert scenery. The rich earth tones of Alfredo Ramos-Martinez' mural-like Mexican Women recalls the works of his contemporaries Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco.

There are also several imaginative still lifes that show the eclecticism of this group of painters. Bold color and simplicity of line distinguish Katharyn Hole's Green Apples, which depicts a bowl of glossy apples, a sapling in a square planter and a red book, all arranged on a strip of blue-and-white ticking and nestled on the seat of a wooden chair.

Exhibit curator Ann Harlow calls this exhibit a "time capsule of California art," and the term could not be more apt. Artists working plein air in the early part of the 20th century must have been positively intoxicated with the artistic possibilities of California, as west as west could be. The luscious curve of unsullied Monterey Bay coastline that fills Eugen Neuhaus' triptych Monterey Bay 1921; the clean, light-drenched waters of Granville Redmond's Marin County; the play of shadow that caresses the hills of William Wendt's landscape Wandering Shadows--these immaculate images leave one with a bittersweet pang for a California that was once so achingly beautiful an artist could consider it holy.

California Paintings 1910-1940 shows through April 8 at the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. Curator Ann Harlow gives a slide-illustrated lecture discussing the exhibit's major artists on Monday (Jan. 22) at 7pm; $2-$4; 429.1964.

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From the January 17-24, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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