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Opposite day artists: 'The Snowy Day's' Ezra Jack Keats at Skirball, June Wayne at PMCA

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Off-Ramp contributor Marc Haefele reviews "The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats," at the Skirball Center through September 7; and "June Wayne: Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries," at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through August 31.

Two different Los Angeles area shows. Two artists with parallel backgrounds who evolved very differently. Both very worth seeing. Ezra Jack Keats and June Wayne were both born in the 1910s, both were child prodigies from humble parents and were largely self taught, both were involved in 1930s WPA mural projects and did defense-related design work during WW II.

But otherwise, how the different their visions and careers turned out.

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Just over 50 years ago, little children’s book was published about a boy exploring the fresh snow of a winter day. It was illustrated in assemblages of bright primary colors and the pages were filled with pale glowing snowflakes much like the spatters in a Jackson Pollack painting. It was called “The Snowy Day” and its hero was a little child in a bright red snowsuit.

Catching as it did the pure wonder of a little boy in nature, it became a modern juvenile classic. Another aspect of its celebrity was that its protagonist was a black boy. Hard to believe it now, but even in the Kennedy era,  this was a revolutionary manifestation.

("The Snowy Day," 1962. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.  Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.)

“The Snowy Day” was the creation of an accomplished professional artist in his mid 30s, Ezra Keats, who happened to have no children of his own.

Keats'  career had ranged from blocking Capt. Marvel comic strips to studying studio art in Paris after World War II. He’d been a very successful magazine illustrator. But what made his fame was his gift to mine the magical charms of the low-rent world of his impoverished New York childhood — with its rusting stoop railings, alley cats, overflowing trash cans, and marginal businesses — and to share them with children of all backgrounds.

The Skirball Center’s Ezra Jack Keats exhibit shows how his great children’s books nested comfortably within the larger frame of his work, which included his deft and evocative literal renderings of the buildings, streets and neighborhoods of his beloved city ... filled in his books with his remarkably rendered characters, young and old, human and animal.

One exhibition section, "Coming of Age in Brooklyn,” particularly demonstrates Keats’ (born Katz) lifelong adoration of his humble origins, from “Snowy Day” to the “Louie” books that appeared 20 years later, and which are the most autobiographical — telling how a talented  and undersized child learns to prevail in tough times and places. In the last of these, “Regards to the Man in the Moon,” Keats draws himself, brush-in-hand among his creations, like a delighted parent among his own brood of joyous children.

This is an extraordinarily child-friendly exhibit with plenty of interactive areas in which the young can draw, play or even just sit and read Keats’ books. But there is so much going on in Keats’ work (check out that haiku collection he illustrated) that even adults will be bedazzled. It’s a cliché to say this is a show the entire family can enjoy. But that is exactly what “The Snowy Day—the art of Ezra Keats” is ... and when it comes to art shows, at least, that is a very rare thing.

In contrast to Keats’ private world of urbane humanity, June Wayne’s works, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, evoke an entire cosmology of visions, wide ranging from the surreal to the minimalist realistic, from the astronomically vast through the personal and intimate, right down to the microscopic.

("The Tunnel," 1949. © The June Wayne Collection, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts)

Wayne's work evolved almost decade by decade in her rich long, life (she outlived Keats by 26 years). And much of it reflects, in one way or another, the Los Angeles that was so long her home.

The PMCA exhibit is  a fine show that touches almost all the bases in her long and diverse career.  There are the weirdly sensate early Kafka series, not so much scenes from Kafka and thoughts Kafka inspired in her. To me they look like the mural frescos of an alien civilization (I mean that as a high compliment). There is a wide-ranging collection of her historically-significant lithographs (her famous Tamarind Workshop revolutionized the art of lithography in the U.S.).  She founded the so-called “Joan of Art” colloquium on women in art during the feminist years, and long had her own show on KCET in its salad days.

She was a hanger-on at the JPL’s space program and loved the DNA work of Frances Crick and others, much of which she incorporated in  her lithographs.  She said: “I’m more interested in what is going to happen than what has happened already.” And for her last 40 years, her personal brand of "futurism” suffused her work. On the other hand, the intimate also penetrated her artistic consciousness — two almost trompe l'oeil lithographs of lady’s underwear in the “Next to the Skin” series, for instance. Most affecting of all is the “Dorothy” lithograph series, really a tribute to and history of her mother — a pioneering pacifist and businesswoman — in pictures and selected prose segments.

Then again, even as she was speaking to the future, Wayne also dove into the past, by learning the medieval techniques of tapestry, several fine examples of which are on display at the PMCA show.

("My Self," 1985. © The June Wayne Collection, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts.)

And then there are the explicit, even whimsical, pieces in which the message comment sits lightly in its artistic context—as in the lithograph “Whoopers” on endangered species and  the 2006 “Sects in the City,” a droll, collage-like digital graphics print, warning of religion in politics. The latter computer rendering shows how even in her 90s, toward the end of her life, Wayne was still exploring the frontiers of visual representation in her never-ending search for new ways to express her multitudinous sensibility.

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