Among the Cheese, an Art-World Crime

There's $75,000 worth of oil on Edgar Payne's Tuna Boats, a painting installed modestly on the equally modest walls of De Ru's Fine Arts in South Laguna. Next to it are Payne's works in pencil, with up to $6,500 worth of lead invested in each.

Edgar Payne is muy importante—or, rather, was: the old-timey guy passed on in 1947, the first president of the Laguna Beach Art Association at a time (1920) when Laguna Beach was set to be the next Giverny.

People mill quietly about De Ru's. Payne's 88-year-old daughter sits in the back, signing books. She is selling her collection. There's cheese on a plate in the corner of the gallery, and nothing is more civilized than cheese.

But among the cheese there is an art-world crime because as an artist, Edgar Payne, who sits among the elite of the California painting pantheon, didn't come close to his wife, Elsie Palmer Payne.

Never heard of her? I didn't think so. Elsie lived in her husband's shadow, conspiring against her own genius even after he died. Looking through a book of their work (written by Rena Neumann Coen, mother of the filmmaking Coen Brothers), you'll be shocked by the lucidity of Elsie's paintings—shocked because you can't see them anywhere. And considering the disparities of their careers, I haven't felt an outrage like this since Comedy Central canceled Strangers With Candy. Except, you know, more so.

I asked Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum (an extremely knowledgeable fan of both Paynes; he wrote a book on Elsie in the '80s) how often you can see Elsie's works. The Irvine Museum has a few of her paintings in the collection, he said, and tends to present a work by her in one of its exhibitions about once a year, usually in the “women artists” shows. But they don't have enough Elsie for an entire show. And outside the Irvine Museum? “Hardly ever!” he exclaimed.

Edgar's Plein Air vistas were lumbering, colored so thickly from a forbidding palette that there's little white space to breathe in the compositions. They are claustrophobic. And while Impressionism was the next big thing in Laguna Beach in 1918 (and some people may have even still been shocked by it), it had been done before, you know. But he was also in the middle of a movement that's important to California art's sense of itself. He was self-schooled. And there is a feeling, looking at his canvases, that the grand mesas and canyons he painted will never be conquered. (They were.) He paints as Teddy Roosevelt might have, carrying a large paintbrush.

But where Edgar's works demanded you bow before their masculinity and the strength of their brush strokes (forget Teddy Roosevelt; think John Wayne)—Elsie's were sophisticated and clear. It may be a matter of what's fresh to us here: we're inundated with Plein Air sycamores in Laguna Beach, and Edgar gives us plenty more of the same. Elsie's works are East Coast or San Francisco mod. They're lithe and lonely as Hoppers, as flat and stylish as Gauguins. Hung in the same gallery, Edgar's works would feel like the crusty old guard—when they're at their best, that's generously translated as “timeless”—and Elsie's would be the best of American between-the-wars bohemia, looking forward.

In fact, Edgar was a charter member of the Society for Sanity in Art—an arthritic group that was just all kinds of pissed-off about Cubism and Fauvism and other atrocities. Elsie was not. Though never sucked into abstraction or Abstract Expressionism, she had no quarrel with the new guard. Her tastes were adventurously modernist; they were brightly colored and fresh. When she painted grand landscapes, her lines were sinuous and sexy. When she painted people, their eyes were pained or knowing, frank or weary. Thrifty Drug Store in the 30's shows a packed lunchroom filled with vibrant working men and women. Behind the counter, her eyes as big as Clara Bow's and her arms as iron-cabled as Rosie the Riveter's, a waitress mops the surface and looks at you. When Edgar paints people, they're small smudges in the corner, the better to show off the grandeur of the Canyon de Chelley.

Back at De Ru's Fine Arts, things are still nice, and I'm feeling a little ashamed of myself for blaming this perfectly nice, dead man for the fact that his wife isn't commanding Tina Modotti's prices or Frida Kahlo's belated respect. I look at his sketches. The blunt, thick pencil strokes echo the choppiness of his oil brush. Some are clumsy, yes. But others, like Sierra Peak, are high and alpen and horribly impressive. Natural Monuments shows beautiful sharp, cleft obelisks rising high from the floor of a Southwestern canyon. Studies of Mesas looks like something his wife would do: each study is layered atop the last, with copious amounts of white space between their uncluttered silhouettes. It's nice, especially for the people at De Ru's, who have the opportunity for some hella commissions. Hell, don't blame the people at De Ru's. At least they're selling books of Elsie's works, even if the wall space is taken up by the $75 grand big guns.

“The Drawings of Edgar Payne” from the artist's estate at De Ru's Fine Art, 1590 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-3785. Through May 31. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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