California dreamin': UVA museum shows western works

In many things cultural, New York City overshadows the rest of the country. But California, that upstart, roller-skate state where the frontier came to an abrupt halt, seems to have a special, almost filial relationship with NYC. That is: the little brother.
There are the Yankees, and there are the Dodgers; there’s 52nd St. bebop, and there’s the Central Avenue sound; there’s the New York School of art, and then there’s, well, a Bay Area Arts Movement something-or-other, right?  In a honorable if humble gesture, the University of Virginia Art Museum attempts to crank the California art scene profile up just a notch or two, and while they’re at it, provide a little Golden State visual association to go with your dreams of trolley cars, smog, highways, and walks-of-fame.
The exhibit itself, “Wizdumb from the West,” is only partially successful, if success means that the exhibit makes a case for a California style, even loosely applied. The UVA Art Museum culled all the Cali works from their permanent collection, and those works seem to have come to the museum in two distinct waves. 
About half the work on display is from the mid-‘60s through early ‘70s, the other half from the late ‘90s. Though steeped in the pop-art influences of the time, the ‘60s-‘70s material does seem related—the works sharre an interest in uncluttered, easy, sunny composition, and an unpretentious informality.
Jean Milant’s untitled “Cloud Series,” for example, locates cloud shapes in the negative space around barely visible, ultralight yellows and blues. At some angles of viewing, it’s nearly impossible to tell the lithographs from blank paper. Robert Bechtle’s lithograph “Ford & Pontiac” also finds plenty of sunshine and wide open space– though in this instance, it also finds a Ford wagon and a Pontiac sedan.  his almost meditatively calm imagery finds its exhibit extreme in Martha Alf’s “Yellow and Black,” in which a roll of toilet paper is deftly reduced to color, form, and shape.
Ben Sakoguchi’s “Yellow Peril,” a parody of a fruit brand label with charged political elements, literally references California. But this is one of the batch of works the museum acquired from the ‘90s, and this batch, while certainly in tune with movements in contemporary art, lacks much of a uniquely regional aesthetic. Still, much of what there is, which includes more paintings, a fair number of photos and photo collage, and sculpture, is still well worth checking out.

 “Wizdumb from the West, Contemporary California Art from the Collection,” runs through December 22 at the University of Virginia Museum of Art.  Rugby Road. 924-3592.

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