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New Hilbert Museum's ambitious goal: Represent all California art in last 100 years

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp®

William Jekel, "San Pedro Street at Night" The Hilbert Collection

In an unpretentious but attractive part of the City of Orange’s Old Town, right across Atchison Street from the local Metro Link Station, there is a brand new art museum. It’s called, after its donors and patrons Mark and Janet Hilbert, the Hilbert Museum of California Art.

The Hilbert is associated with Chapman University, and proposes to represent all of California art over the past century. Right now, it is largely devoted to the style called California Scene Painting.

What makes a California scene painting? The museum says the genre is based on the work of earlier California water colorists, “highly creative and imaginative in their individual approaches, but always produced works based on subject matter that is easy to recognize.”

To me, the missing word here is “evocative.” This scene painting puts you in someplace enjoyable where you have been or would like to be. Much of what’s being shown at the Hilbert, skillful as it is, is fundamentally pleasing and reassuring, even uplifting; pictures to relax into over an icy glass of good Scotch after a hard working day. Nothing disturbing like, say, a grinding, tragic coastal shipwreck by these artists’ Monterey contemporary Armin Hansen, with its implications of the transitory.

But many do more than that. Whether it is William Jekel’s  delightfully Hopperish “Night” street scene of  World War 2 San Pedro or Phil Dike’s contrastingly upper-class 1934 “Regatta,” the sense of place is powerful, as it is with the works of other well-known artists like Dong Kingman, Lee Blair, and particularly Millard Sheets.

The featured piece of the show is Sheets’ twilight view of the original San Dimas Red Car station, the complexity of whose lighting is worthy of a Rene Magritte street scene. Sheets completed the study shortly before the station burned down in the 1930s. What seemed most emotive to me were the paintings, like this one, that benchmark our loss of a more human urban environment. Two more: With its shattered green hillsides, Ralph Hulett’s landscape of Bunker Hill in the earliest stages of its 1960s demolition feels like a lost urban pastoral. So does Russian-born Mischa Askenazy’s immaculate rendering of the peaceable and doomed Chavez Ravine.

French-born Emil Kosa Jr.'s delicate depiction of the Hollywood Freeway downtown interchange’s eradication of a huge swath of  humble urban landscape has an emotional power no number of old black and white photographs can muster.

It’s interesting that many of the artists on display had day jobs at the big studios. Hulett, who also created a line of stylish greeting cards, started out in California as an animator working on Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Kosa’s decades as another kind of scene painter—a studio illustrator--eventually won him the industry’s highest prize: a 1963 Oscar for his special effects on the blockbuster Burton-Taylor film “Cleopatra.”

But if you want to see what was in their hearts and souls, that’s what’s on display now at the Hilbert, and it's an hour's train ride from Downtown LA.

The Hilbert Museum of California Art: 167 N. Atchison St, Orange CA 92866; Open Tuesday thru Saturday, 11am – 5pm; closed Sunday and Monday.

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