When I moved to Laguna, I realized there weren’t that many galleries really specializing in Laguna painters. So I decided to make that my niche.
I walk into at midday on a weekday. Two collectors come inside looking to buy or commission a painting. Paul Jillson, the owner, is jumping from one phone call to the next. Business seems to be going well, and by all accounts it is. A week before, the gallery commemorated 25 years in Laguna Beach with the opening of an anniversary show featuring work by all of the artists hand-picked by Paul: Maria Bertran, Jacobus Baas, Bryan Mark Taylor, Tom Swimm, Sandra Jones Campbell, and Brenda Bredvik. The exhibition will be open through May 17.
In spite of the pouring rain that night, the opening proved a special event with all of the artists in town from their travels, not to mention wine and food provided by local, family-owned . According to Bredvik, the evening “demonstrated why our community is such a unique and wonderful place: attendees supportive of the arts included gallery artists and their collectors, board members, local art lovers, friends, and even some new residents and tourists curious to experience the work and join the party.”
A week later, Paul tells me how it all came together in April of 1987 (. . . and so long as we’re talking about artistic endeavors with longevity, that same month The Simpsons debuted as a series of shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show, which I imagine could only have been a good omen).
“I had already been employed by galleries,” Paul says. “I found that I really enjoyed representing artwork, and I wanted to represent art that meant something to me.”
Staying true to that desire has sustained Pacific Edge for a quarter century, during which Laguna has seen hundreds of galleries come and go. Part of that sustainability was lent a hand by the work Jillson began representing only a year after opening; the work of an artist known primarily for his music, that is, the walrus, i.e., John Lennon (. . . or was the walrus Paul? [see “Glass Onion”]). Jillson is one of only two North American representatives of John Lennon’s art, having worked directly with the Lennon estate for 24 years.
(Full disclosure: When I was in middle school I went through a serious Beatles phase that never quite left me, and during that time I remember accidentally coming across an exhibition of Lennon’s drawings at Laguna Hills Mall. As it turns out, it was one of Jillson’s exhibitions. Like many, I had no idea Lennon’s talents extended beyond music, let alone drawings so chaotic, adorable, and thought-provoking. In short, so John Lennon. And so I felt any gallery owner cool enough to get the OK from Yoko Ono deserves some attention in my book. And here we are.)
But Pacific Edge Gallery has always been much more than a hub for Lennon art collectors. The seed of the gallery’s success really has everything to do with Paul’s awareness of what moves him—his ability to test/trust those instincts over time—whether en plein air (Bertran, Baas, Taylor), photorealistic impressions (Swimm), German expressionist-inspired figures (Campbell), abstract landscapes (Bredvik), or contour lined drawings and lyric sheets (Lennon). And lucky/fated for him, those instincts have proven sharply in-tune to that indescribable quality embedded in timeless (if not time-changing) art. As a musician (did I mention Jillson is also a singer-songwriter who released an LP on vinyl in 1979?), he saw it in Lennon, and as a gallery owner, he sees it in the artists he invites in.
“Normally I will watch an artist for several years and see if whatever attracted me initially is continuing to attract me. And to make sure that the artists evolve and grow, because that’s what I like to see. I’ve been doing this a long time and I don’t want to see the same thing over and over, I want to see growth.”
Each artist at Pacific Edge deals in the reality of their own instincts, their own approaches to express however directly or abstractly (or abstractly directly) some genuine impression of reality. For each artist, their creations are just as much about the process of creation as they are about the creations themselves.
(It could be said that the Beatles broke up not because of Yoko and John’s expanding love, but because none of those amazing artists were enjoying the process of making music together anymore, even though the creations remained groundbreaking, timeless, unparalleled.)
The en plein air painters, for example, share a process requiring they give much of their lives to nature, keeping one with the elements for hours on end. Their work could never exist as it does if they didn’t love and live this process.
Ever since childhood, I wanted to draw and paint. The most precious present for me was paper and color pencils.
One of three en plein air painters in the current show, Maria Bertran has been with Pacific Edge since the beginning. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Maria has wanted to draw and paint ever since she was a child.
“My father was very supportive and taught me the basics for appreciating the many beautiful pieces of his art collection,” she says. “I consider this my biggest influence for my creative impulse.”
Bertran arrived in Laguna Beach in 1981 and got to know the area with her feet on the ground, traversing the landscape, setting up her easel, mixing the paints. Jillson fell in love with her work at the , and ever since, her art has brought to the walls of Pacific Edge flora-popping coastlines (Big Surf Montage Park, Day of the Dolphins, Morning at Main Beach), ancient doorways (Old Distillery Doorway, Path to the Cabanon), walkways (Old Path to St. Saturnin) through lavender fields (Luscious Lavender) ... not to mention her in-studio still lifes (Vintage Hat). But for me, her en plein air works are the most intriguing, how they retain an energetic imprint of the artist’s experiences in nature, carrying forward a tradition which at its core illuminates the potential of a kind of shared artist-Mother Nature perception.
“For me, painting is a creative activity derived from the interpretation of what I see without gimmicks, formulas or technological instruments.”
Bertran spends 4-5 months of each year painting the landscapes of France, Italy, and most recently England. She works entirely on location or from live subjects, infusing her impressionist work with the vibrant colors of her native culture.
“I will endure the elements, feel the vibrations of nature, and so be able to capture the beautiful light, skies, shapes and colors in a matter of 2-3 hours.”
I found myself particularly drawn to Doorway with Flowers. It reminds me of my own travels in Europe: all the ancient stone doorways with hand-made doors so prominent you can feel their weight in your eyes. And you stand there imagining all of the people who have walked through it over the last few centuries; doorways leading to structures now too-often long abandoned. Perhaps such is the case here. The delicate red and violet flowers bobbing in rare simultaneous bloom cast a shadow over the door. The shadow, ironically, seems to serve as an element of optimism: evidence of a life-force playing contrast to the cold, stone edges and the heavy, unmoving door.
“When I first saw those old doors with fading colors, roughed surfaces, worn hinges and cracked walls illuminated by a warm sunlight and delineated shades, I knew that with my paintings of them I could transmit my feelings,” says Maria. “How many lives have passed through those doors? Is there another light behind them?”
Let’s hope so.
I seek to expand my painting experience searching for scenes with a natural beauty that the viewer might miss in their rush through everyday life. This could be as simple as the reflections in water of fishing boats tied to a dock, a wave breaking against the rocks, or clouds floating across the sky. The more I paint, the more I see this beauty around me.
Born in the Netherlands, Jacobus grew up surrounded by the land and skyscapes made famous by the Dutch Masters like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Ruysdael. He started painting in high school in the early '60s. After graduation, he traveled around Europe visiting museums, and wound up returning to the states where he began a career making jewelry. For years, his unique designs made him a successful goldsmith, but all of that transformed in 1994 when a friend of his convinced him to try en plein air painting on a trip to Santa Fe. For Baas, a door long held shut was instantly and irreversibly swung open.
“It was like discovering a new world!” says Baas. “I came back that year to Laguna, put them up in the Festival of Arts. And I started selling them, and it just started snowballing from that point on.”
Like many of the classic Dutch landscapes, the colors in Jacobus' paintings are rich and muted at the same time, and yet his work feels refreshingly new, which is as much a testament to his emotional connection to the moment as it is to his raw talent for the craft.
In his more tropical settings, such as North Shore Trades—the dramatic swaying of the palms, the lonely, inviting yellow surfboard, the clouds traversing the sky—the synergy between setting, the spontaneity of the process, and the Dutch-inspired palette, make for an alluring complexity that is, and could only be, unique to Jacobus.
Nature and childhood memories are my biggest influences.
—Bryan Mark Taylor
When Bryan Mark Taylor was eight years old, he made the decision to be an artist for a living. He and his father were on their way back from a fishing trip in Idaho, when, somewhere between Idaho and Utah, Bryan’s goal-oriented father asked, “If you could be anything you wanted to be, what would it be?” To which Bryan replied, “I want to be an artist.”
Lucky for the now-well-accomplished painter, teacher at the Graduate School at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and multiple award winner (including “Best of Show” at the 2009 Laguna Plein Air Invitational and “Collectors Choice” at the 2010 Laguna Plein Air Invitational), his father had the good sense of enrolling him in an after-school art academy.
Since then, Taylor has developed his own style, influenced by realists like Sargent and Zorn, California impressionists like Payne and Wendt, as well as abstract artists like Diebenkorn and Thiebaud.
Newport Alleyway is a prime example of Taylor’s originality. Instead of the obvious coastline angles he could have focused on, Bryan gravitated to an alleyway scene, sensing something profound in the seemingly mundane. You can’t even see the beach. For anyone who has ever wandered the alleyways of Newport looking for a parking space, you know this is the heart of the city, in a way: crammed alleyways of asphalt, clean concrete, bicycles and power lines. The tranquility of the scene comes from the lack of cars, as if the adults are all at work. All you have to do is grab the bike and ride down the alley to the sea. The proximity to the ocean is hinted in the blue-hued curtains of atmosphere illuminated between the buildings, between Taylor’s eyes and the buildings.
“Effects of light, atmosphere, weather conditions, seasons, as well as rhythmic movement of clouds, waves, or a busy street continually fascinate me."
Though the image in Newport Alleyway may be anchored in Bryan’s time spent in the actual place, as you move in tighter and isolate small patches of canvas, you can find treasures of deliberate abstraction, distorted perhaps by the limitations of memory (for Brenda Bredvik, these patches could very well be blown-up into their very own abstract landscapes ... see below).
Bryan tries to do most of the painting on location, but oftentimes nature has other ideas (rain, wind, a perfect view from the center of a busy street, or a slope too steep to paint from). In such cases, Bryan will finish the piece in the studio either from photographs or sketches. But even when employing the tool of photographic reference, what remains essential for Taylor is the time he spent under the sun taking in the scene with his own skilled eyes.
“As I look back over any given year, perhaps more of my time is spent painting in the studio than on location,” explains Bryan. “However, it is my time spent outdoors observing Mother Nature directly that ultimately inspires all of my works."
Certainly all three en plein air painters carry forward a tradition literally grounded in the experience of nature and travelling, but the same could also be said for the unique processes of the other three painters at Pacific Edge Gallery.
There’s a lot of ways to become an artist. Certainly formal training can be helpful. But self-discovery is a great way to work too. There’s really no right or wrong way to do it.
Self-taught artist Swimm translates his paintings from photographs and sketches that he takes as he travels the world. The results are stunningly hyper-real and impossible to mistake. If from a distance you think you are looking at a touched-up photograph, that’s probably one of Swimm’s lightscapes. Upon closer inspections, however, you can start to see the impressionistic influences of Gauguin, Cézanne, Monet, and Van Gogh. After staring for a little longer you might even notice some Norman Rockwell, maybe even some Warhol.
“I grew up on the East Coast, so I saw a lot of great art in the New York museums,” says Swimm, who from early on wanted to be an artist.
“It was always a dream when I was a child, but I really didn’t know how to achieve it. I didn’t quite get a sense of the reality of making it happen until I moved to California.”
Like Bredvik and Campbell, Swimm had a successful first career in graphic design before delving into full-time fine art, which perhaps speaks to their integration of photography and abstraction into their processes. In Swimm’s case, he uses the technology to capture a split-second instant, freeze a moment not only in time, but in light. The painting then takes on a life of its own through Swimm’s memory of the place, layered with his memory of taking the photograph or drafting the sketch.
The results often rival the mind to make sense of the situation, for they insert you into a scene so realistically rendered, at least from a few feet away, you feel a quality of an en plein air experience, and yet, the details are far too photo-precise, singling out a microsecond; certainly not enough time for someone to paint the orange and white fish in Koi Colors as they pass by, spreading light-reflecting ripples on the water's surface. The use of oil only further deepens the paradox, for how can a microsecond be captured with such a slow-drying material?
A less obvious example is Mission Archways, where the sunlight washes out the bricks on an angle nearly perpendicular to the Earth. An empty bench welcomes you in, but not to sit down; not with the flowers frozen beneath the archway at the end of the passage. You want to walk to the flowers, but you never quite make it beyond the horizontal light as it washes you out with the bricks. In the foliage perhaps you see Monet, in the purple smudge in the shadows above the archway a hint of Van Gogh. While the outline of the bench and bricks suddenly remind you of Norman Rockwell's illustrations.
Afternoon on St. Charles Ave. is a close-up shot of two empty rocking chairs, presumably on the front porch of one of the hundreds of mansions adorning the oak tree-lined avenue of the same name in New Orleans. There is a sweetness and sadness to this painting. On the one hand, there is an idyllic expression of Americana reminiscent of Rockwell, but on the other hand the rocking chairs are empty, unmoving. Have the chairs themselves become props in the decadent lives of those detached from community? Or is it just a sticky hot mess of an afternoon and the owners are inside? Or have the owners died, the mansion turned into an apartment complex, and is the painting commenting on a kind of death of the American dream?
There is no wrong answer, I suppose, albeit it would be wrong to ignore the loneliness of the scene, in spite of the cheerful sunlight.
I grew up in a household where there was a lot of imagery. The photographs I probably first became interested in were the ones under the bed in my mom and dad’s bedroom, which were in an old box that I could pull out and wander through. And though I never really asked who was what, I sort of let them tell me stories.
—Sandra Jones Campbell
Campbell’s paintings usually start with an accidental discovery. She creates visual narratives based on people in photographs that she finds in vintage copies of Life magazine, old annuals that she collects from the '20s, '30s, and '40s, antique markets in the U.S., Italy, and France. Inspired by German Expressionists like Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Otto Dix, Sandra’s work is less about making a political statement and more about a nostalgia effect through the expressions of human emotion, interaction, and community.
"They’re a little bit narrative in their paintings,” Sandra says about the German Expressionists. “And I feel because of my interest in figurative work, I always lean to storytelling.”
Sandra’s paintings are shaped by pieces of disparate history reconstructed into new contexts, which can then be experienced as something new—unlike the photographs themselves, which undoubtedly look aged. Such a process requires an ability to work without restrictions. Sandra rides the whims of spontaneous inspiration wherever they may go, which is one of the reasons she works with acrylics.
“They dry so quickly, so I can just keep working and working.”
When in doubt, she can always go sifting through photographs until a story grabs her.
“I don’t know which comes first, the idea for a painting or the fact that I might see a photograph,” she says. “I have large drawers that are filled with photographs and sometimes on my way looking for something else, I stumble across a photograph and go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ So I pull it out and put it aside, or it completely takes me down a different road.”
Her process elevates these forgotten pictures with their priceless expressions into a new dimension of sustained nostalgia.
Take Making Fluffy Comfortable, for instance. This middle-aged businessman is home after a long day, and here he is captured sweetly trying to prop up his pet to sit up on the couch beside him. Other paintings draw from photographs that are obviously posed, such as Prize Calf with Dairy Queen and Pink Drinks. Yet even though the expressions are posed, there is a certain kind of honesty conveyed when someone poses for a picture, as if subconsciously communicating something to the person holding the camera.
In effect, then, when you stare into Campbell’s work, you become the person holding the camera, and instantly the reliance on photographic technology—the very technology that got you to this moment—ceases to matter. What remains are these genuine expressions and the stories they have to show.
Another way for Sandra to cultivate ideas is to play the piano, which she has found “takes my brain to another direction.” In fact, several of her pieces wind up incorporating her passion for music.
“That’s why you see some social scenes where the woman’s sitting on the piano and the guy’s playing the piano. There’s a little cabaret in me.”
In one of her social scenes, Reflecting on a well-rounded Red, the subtext of music appears to influence the contortions of the geometric harmonies: the curve of the blonde woman’s head in the center matches the arch of man-number-one’s cheekbone, his fingers resting against her arm; or the arch of the glass of red wine above her head, the stretch of the man-number-two’s neck as he finishes off his glass, his chin resting against the blond woman’s hair; or how the love triangle is framed by two nearly identical women, the arches of their noses continuing the invisible flow from the glass of red wine, a flow that leads the eye down to the identical women’s elbows, up their forearms to their glasses of red wine. The woman on the right is looking through her glass, but you can’t tell who she’s observing and why.
You start to wonder what’s going to come of this scene. The painting could be interpreted as one of the character’s memories, filed under “the last thing I remember last night.” Regardless, I know this painting is working because I find myself a little buzzed just thinking about it.
I was worried about being a fine artist because I was always told by my practical parents that you have to get a job and all this stuff. So I went into graphic design and I had a career for like 15 years. That was a great career, and it was really fun, but I always wanted to be a fine artist.
Even more than Campbell’s figures, Bredvik’s landscapes are a total immersion into the abstract. Her works reveal a meshing of influences ranging from her passion for swimming and surfing in the ocean; flowers in her garden; her 15-year career as a graphic designer, creative director and art director; Bay Area figurative painters like Nathan Oliveira, Joan Brown, and David Park; and the more blatant influence of Richard Diebenkorn.
“That one is, to me, pretty obvious,” says Brenda on Diebenkorn. “He abstracted the landscape in such a way but still maintained the California light. I always like his pallet. He was always using forms in a geometric way, so to me the abstract paintings are just kind of a natural progression from that, when he just decided to drop recognizable subject matter.”
Imaginary Summer approaches such an unrecognizable quality. At first glance it is only a few basic shapes, but on a deeper level it is the artist’s playful plea for some sunshine (a solar ray dance-paint?) during the dreary and overcast excuse for a summer that was mid-year 2010.
“In 2010, we had the crappiest summer, and I just live for summer with swimming and surfing. And I was so bummed out. So I painted Imaginary Summer, where it’s blue sky, and one little puffy cloud, and perfect flat blue water, because it never looked like that all summer, and that’s what I really wanted, so that’s my imaginary summer.”
In other words, the painting isn’t even about a landscape, it is about the feelings of loss, longing, and hope.
This is perhaps what I love most about Brenda’s work, and it speaks to the potential (and the gamble) that lies in the process of abstraction, and that is its ability to pull at the mind and heart in a way never before experienced. Staring at Purple Palm, for example, I am not able to project any sort of outside expectations onto the piece. Without access to a comparative relation (I’ve never seen a purple palm before, have you?), there is only direct relation, and so I have no choice but to see into the piece on its own terms, without the limiting apparatus of preconception.
In other words, the art may resemble a landscape, or, as in the outlined surfer in 59th St., a figure—but it is really about the raw emotions that guide Brenda’s cathartic process.
“My work is constantly evolving, which is good and bad. For me, art is about the journey, so I tend to build on my last group of work, and I build on things in my life. Generally what I’ll do is have an idea, and I’ll take a certain concept and just kind of run with it.”
59th St. came about in response to the turbulent economy, and the chaos and insecurities that have infected so many of our lives.
“Things have been very chaotic the last few years,” explains Brenda. “So I have incorporated lines and shapes that are very chaotic. And then I just sort of carve out something around them. So I’m trying to impose order on it.”
The figure of the surfer came from a photograph a friend of hers had taken after surfing at 59th Street in Newport Beach, but the treatment expresses Brenda’s empowering conviction to overcome the chaos. Like many of her figures, 59th St. seems to offer a glimpse of Brenda’s underwater perception as a swimmer and surfer, as if rising to the surface after going over the falls and all you see is whitewash.
Considering how much time she spends in the ocean, I can see why Brenda explores extreme close-ups. The ocean is otherworldly, and it shapes how Brenda views the world.
“Instead of having a landscape which is kind of a macro view of the topography, I went to a hyper close-up, a micro view of a giant flower, which I still see as a landscape, but I see it as a close-up view rather than far away.”
Even while gardening at her house, a part of her is in the water. It is in her personality and presence; she enters into her landscapes and paints them from the inside-out.
All I ever learned at art school was about Van Gogh and stuff. They didn’t teach me anything about anybody that was alive now. They never taught me about Marcel Duchamp, which I despise them for. Yoko’s told me about Duchamp and what he did, which is just fantastic. He got a ... bike wheel and said, “This is art!”
(Oh, to think of what the Beatles’ White Album might’ve felt/sang/laughed like with Duchamp as an influence ...)
Let us not forget the invisible seventh artist at Pacific Edge Gallery, the Nowhere Man himself: John Lennon.
One of the standout new releases is On Cloud 9 (limited to 300, plus artist proofs; color added by Yoko Ono Lennon). The drawing depicts John and Yoko sitting in a cloud, in the nude, finally having attained the peace they once sought together with their bed-ins. It is the only released drawing of John’s to feature his acoustic guitar. Every print is signed by Yoko, a bittersweet expression of love and honor, to be sure.
Lennon, who attended the Liverpool College of Art in the late 1950s, mentioned his time there during his famous 1971 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine (famous for his open discussing of drug use, his problems with McCartney, his detest for much of the Beatles music, his defense of Yoko and her art, etc.). At one point he describes how Yoko challenged him to expand his perceptions of art, which made him feel disappointed with his art school experience.
“You say, ‘When you hear Yoko’s music’ or something, I had the same thing, I had to open up to hear it. I had to get out of the concept of what I wanted to hear; to allow abstract art or music in. She had to do the same for rock & roll. It was an intellectual exercise, because we’re all boxed in. We’re all in little boxes. And sometimes something has to come into your life and rip your ... head open for you to allow something else in."
And that is what Pacific Edge offers the potential to accomplish. Case in point, there are several collectors of Bredvik’s abstracts who also collect more representational work by other artists in the gallery, even though at first glance there appears little-to-no aesthetic overlap. But with a little imagination, I can see Brenda’s abstract landscapes serving as a setting for Bertran’s still-lifes, or an abstract flower could be taken as a micro-view of an out-of-focus flower in one of Baas’ landscapes.
The boat in Swimm’s Perfect Day could very well already be bobbing about in Brenda’s Imaginary Day in the form of a single brushstroke. Brenda’s Purple Palm could be taken as the palm tree in Maria’s Path at Montage Park, as seen through the magical shades of Campbell’s Pool Guy. You can imagine the women in Sandra’s pool scenes listening to John Lennon, or you can overlap the handwritten lyrics to Imagine with Taylor’s A Walk In The City Park. You might even imagine the couple of tiny figures in Baas’ Morning Stroll on the Beach as the boy from Lennon’s Beautiful Boy, walking with his father along the water’s edge, catching up. The possibilities are without end.
So, whether you show up for the Lennon art, the en plein airs, the abstracts, expressionist figures, or hyper-real impressions, regardless of what got you through the door, be sure to stick around for ... whatever rips your head open.
25th Anniversary runs through May 17 at the Pacific Edge Gallery, 540 S Coast Hwy #112, 949-494-0491; pacificedgegallery.com. Open Mon.-Tues., 1-5 p.m.; Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; and during First Thursdays Art Walk.