California’s real history—not the abbreviated one we were taught in elementary school in which nothing existed before Junipero Serra showed up—is told in “California Mexicana: Missions to Murals, 1820-1930” at Laguna Art Museum (LAM). Part of the larger “Pacific Standard Time (PST): Latin American and Latino Art in LA,” the paintings tell the story of Alta California, its violent move from Mexico to the U.S., its burgeoning identity as the Golden State, and the mighty influence of Mexican artists on Californians.
Spurred by a novel published in 1500, Spanish conquistadores longed for California, an island ruled by the warrior queen Calafia. But she didn’t seem to be represented in any of the hundreds of paintings in this bilingual exhibit. Not in 1822’s Games of the Inhabitants of California or the battle paintings in the War, Gold and Statehood section. She wasn’t among the snorting horses, lassoed cattle and mustachioed women of the Ranchos & Vaqueros era. Nor in José Agustin Arrietta’s 1870 Still Life, with dead chicken, goblet, gourd, avocado, olives and tasty vegies.
Curators Katherine E. Manthorne and Alberto Nulman borrowed from far and wide, thanks to the PST grants, filling the entire first floor of the museum and part of the second. While only a handful of the paintings come from LAM’s permanent collection, two were among my favorites.
Mission San Gabriel (circa 1832) by Ferdinand Deppe is the museum’s oldest possession, painted when the independent Mexican government stripped the missions of their land. We see a panorama of the idealized mission world we visualized as kids, with its rulers and Indian workers, a palm tree in the foreground and snow-capped mountains beyond. Fifty years of neglect later, the novel Ramona launched the Mission Romance era, when the dilapidated buildings of the missions became hot destinations. Calafia is definitely not in the row of mini-brides at Mission San Juan Capistrano in Confirmation Class (1897).
Dorr Bothwell’s Translation From the Maya places the artist’s sources front and center. A hand, a plant and a coiled, fanged snake are partially depicted in abstracted form in front of a white slab, the objects continuing beyond the confines of the slab in a style unique to the artist. Simultaneously, we see the artist’s love of Mayan-inspired design and its transformation into her own style.
Bothwell lived to the age of 98, traveling the world to study indigenous art and design. During the Depression, she painted murals for the Federal Arts Project in LA, her work greatly influenced by Mexican muralists. “California Mexicana” makes clear how los tres grandes—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco—impacted the work of artists in both countries from the 1920s on, with their exceptional skill at “distilling history into key encounters between individuals.”
Translation From the Maya hangs in the Cross-Border Modernism room, along with works by los tres grandes and their collaborators and protégées. Looming over Women of Oaxaca and Spring in Coyoacan is a near-life-size replica of the main wall of Rivera’s Allegory of California, his first U.S. fresco. In it, a giant figure presides over the state’s abundance. Finally, Calafia herself—updated with the face of an athlete; Rivera’s model was Olympic tennis medalist Helen Wills Moody.
Happily, a record number of kids, mostly fourth graders, have visited the exhibit, according to Cody Lee, director of communications. So the next generation will truly know their California history. Another PST exhibit, “Dan McCleary: Prints From Oaxaca,” also closes Sunday. Don’t miss either.
“California Mexicana” and “Dan McCleary” at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; lagunaartmusuem.org. Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closes Sun. $7.