Bummer About the Double Standard

Photo by Jack GouldIt's a lovely thing, money. With enough money, one can go to charity galas in a really bitchen car and receive all kinds of nifty gifts just for showing up (one memorable fiesta last year gave out Siamese fighting fish). If you have enough of it, you can make your own museum and let the townsfolk enjoy it for free, as Joan Irvine Smith did. Hell, if you really have the bread, you can make your own town.

Joan Irvine Smith's Irvine Museum is a sweeter place than one would expect from all those piles of dough, despite the fact that it's in a suite of offices on the 12th floor of a round, gleaming, marbled tower in the heart of Irvine's round, gleaming business district. A sign in front asks politely that visitors turn off their cell phones, and the executive director himself will validate your parking. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the place was packed with old biddies nattering happily among themselves, some dutiful daughters attending them, and some shuffling old men. I like old people —and dutiful daughters.

What I don't generally like (besides Finish Fetish, Abstract Expressionism and potato bugs, that is) are exhibits that make hay of the fact that the artists are all women. These shows generally seem so damn peppy, as though they're a federally funded project to raise women's self-esteem, but they usually end up unwittingly condescending, an affirmative-action program for the girls. Isn't that great what the little ladies can do? Give them a hand, folks! John Wayne, rest in peace.

Also, unfortunately, the work often just isn't very good. No matter how many times a show full of weavers and quilters insists they're just not getting respect because sexist society relegates weaving to “women's work,” the sad fact remains that people just don't want to see blankets.

That said, the Irvine Museum's “A Woman's View” is better than most. The works come primarily from the permanent collection and from Smith's private collection; a few works are on loan from others. Sure, it's often annoyingly pretty. A big chunk of it is even precious. And some of the works—like the exhibit's sole Mabel Alvarez—are extremely minor works by gifted and beloved artists. But not every work needs an apology or a pink label.

Let's start with the worst so we can end on a happy note. The most cloying of the works belong to Jessie Arms Botke; unfortunately, she also seems to make up the bulk of the exhibition. An unending procession of birds—here is the sulfur-crested cockatoo; yon are flamingos—is painted rigorously and realistically. Some are pretty, like Wisteria, whose white peacock looks like a Deco bride trailing a delicate train. But it's too pretty, standing in an arbor of lavender wisteria blossoms that should be stenciled onto the ceiling of a midrange Italian bistro.

Her flamingos are delightfully Deco, evoking Hollywood of the 1920s and '50s (but thankfully, there is none of the '80s—heyday of yet another teal-and-pink-flamingo craze—about it). And one set of peacocks—Beau Brummels, get it? —is effective on its background of flat Byzantine gold.

But Botke goes on and on and on for fucking ever. Most of her flyers are so Laguna-decorator they would gag the folks at the Sawdust Festival.

From there it gets much better. Alice Coutts' Indian Girl With Cat and Dog is one of those sentimentalized, child-as-gigantic-headed naifs. It's very sweet. Rosa Bonheur's Highland Cattle from 1876 is hilarious. It's beautifully painted, with clumps of grass with trompe l'oeil whizzes the McCloskeys would envy. But there in the middle are some cows staring right at you. It's positively zany. Moo!

When a man paints the sentimental or the emotional—let's take the fabulously squishy, neo-Victorian Thomas Woodruff as an example, who paints frolicking kitty cats—it's generally seen as going against type; he's being brave enough or passionate enough to reveal himself thusly. When a woman does so, it's mostly judged as foolish pap. God save us from paintings of babies and butterflies. Unfairly enough, when women paint hard-edged, cerebral themes, they're judged as trying too hard to be mannish and ambitious, or, like Lee Krasner vis–vis Jackson Pollock, as the interesting but lesser companion of a brilliant man. Ouch. That smarts. With Coutts and Bonheur, the extenuating factor seems to be how long ago the works were painted. There's always room for Jell-O, and there's always room for kitsch.

Eleanor Colburn's Bathing Baby is lovely, mostly because it isn't about the baby at all. Instead, it's all about composition, as the woman bending over the washtub is reduced to lines. Here is her blond-bunned head. There are her billowing sleeves. It's almost Japanese, despite the clutter of geometrical objects fighting for attention in the background.

Marion Wachtel's landscapes start strong, with supple sycamores and oaks twisting into the sky (more than a little like Guy Rose's). But after about a dozen of these, you begin to wish Wachtel would change it up a little bit. Her watercolors begin to seem gray as one tires of the SoCal landscapes she pounded out over and over, like a band whose every song sounds exactly the same. The Offspring, delightful as they are, come immediately to mind.

The very best of the exhibition belongs to Modernist Donna Schuster. If there's any justice at all, Schuster should soon receive the kind of retro interest accorded her contemporaries Mabel Alvarez and Agnes Pelton. In the front room of the museum, her On the Beach wrests the attention from all the other paintings. Despite the hackneyed title—overused for all manner of Laguna scenes of gamboling children and post-nuclear attacks—the painting is as fresh and beautiful as a smile. It's a simple composition: a long-necked, wholesome redhead who looks like one of the original Coca-Cola ads sits on a bench on the beach, holding a vivid-blue Japanese parasol. She looks embarrassed to be the subject of so much attention. Los Angeles Harbor is an almost Fauvist scene of choppy, squiggly boats in blues and yellows. It's a strong-willed painting, big and bold. And Girl in the Mirror has the creaminess of a Renoir and the impasto of a Monet while foreshadowing the loneliness of a Hopper.

Oh, and by the way: all those painters I've cited as comparisons are men. I doubt you will ever see a contemporary man's paintings compared to works by Artemesia Gentileschi or Frida Kahlo. Bummer about the double standards. Lee Krasner would be spitting mad about now.

“A Woman's View” at the Irvine Museum, 18881 Von Karman, Irvine, (949) 476-2565. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through May 19.

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