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Bakersfield Confidential: The Bakersfield Museum of Art

"Volcanic Basin and Range," by Laddie John Dill, at the Bakersfield Museum of Art
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A piece by Dennis Hare, part of a retrospective at the Bakersfield Museum of Art
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As this Dennis Hare pastel sketch on a paper bag shows, the artist is a big promoter of beach volleyball.
John Rabe

The  handsome, 20-year-old Bakersfield Museum of Art is perfectly situated in the town’s Central Park, which includes a walkway along a fast-flowing stream, full of ducks and geese, called Mill Creek. On its far shore stands the United States Courthouse, with some paintings of its own. This de facto campus, a long walk from downtown, may be the most attractive green space in the city proper. It is well worth a stroll in itself.

("2011 Bakersfield Museum of Art Sign" Skyman9999/Wikipedia Commons)

So what kind of art museum does Bako possess? A very decent one, but not one that suggests a long local artistic tradition; no donated heirloom Utrillos or Picassos here. Unlike Monterey and Laguna, Bakersfield has apparently attracted few artists in the past.

Most of the permanent collection consists of solid works by modern California painters, mostly from the last 20 years or so. They include crowd pleasers like Dennis  Zieminski’s “Giant Orange,” a glowing, glaring portrait of a pre-World War II California juice stand, as well as some surprises — like a gorgeous egg tempera landscape called “Abandoned Olive Trees” by nonagenarian late-blooming Martinez surrealist Sylvia Fine, and a 1950 expressionist satire of the capitalist marketplace: “Buyers and Sellers” by maverick Daily Worker illustrator William Gropper.  Most of the rest of the permanent collection seems to me to be on the conservative side. 

But there’s also a very interesting and unusual show going on there right now by San Bernardino County painter Dennis Hare: his first retrospective. His work falls into two categories — what he calls “figurative assemblages” and “abstract assemblages.” The two overlap — basically, Hare does subdued-colored abstract compilations of found objects like tires, toys, fabrics and many other objects.

He also creates what might pass for conventional, figurative paintings in bright intense colors that include interacting groups of people, whether children at play, men in hats waiting in a union hall or folks just waltzing on the shore. The found-object canvases demand some intellectualization from us — like his "Route 5," with discarded objects from along that interstate stuck to the canvas. The figurative work, however, seems more to jump out at the viewer — and bring them in.

(Dennis Hare, from the artist's official website)

Hare brings an unusual resume to his work: for decades, he was a serious beach volleyball player, a top-rated pioneer in that activity. Then he had his first serious look at a Van Gogh painting. Although he’s assiduously self-taught as a painter, it’s said that his involvement in the sport brought him to great familiarity with the human figure, as his earliest work — fast sketches of volleyball matches — shows.

He uses the palette knife virtuoso-style, piling on the bright colors in thick layers. Oddly, his conventional work seems to me more original somehow than his abstractions.  He’s worth a trip to Bako to see, along with two other smaller shows: Kusan Ogg’s “Rev Zero” and an absorbing three-artist display of drawings by Scott Hassell, Anne Marie Rousseau and Pamela Diaz Martinez.

And then there is the park with its river rambles, its geese and its wild ducks. Even the nearby new low-income housing is attractive, more like something you’d find in a New England town than you might expect from a small-city California community redevelopment agency.

The well-designed museum building also contains expansive classrooms for art students from age 3 and up. If Bakersfield doesn’t yet have its own school of painting, it’s certainly taking the right steps toward creating one.

Be sure to check out the rest of Marc's "Bakersfield Confidential."