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Clarence Hinkle and Peter Bo Rappmund's Unexplored Geographies

Two Laguna Art Museum exhibitions show how both artists are tied to the history of Laguna Beach.

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part review in which Laguna Beach Patch's Ryan Wirick takes a close look at the Laguna Art Museum's latest exhibitions. In the first segment, Wirick examined Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight. Now he casts his critical eye toward Clarence Hinkle and Peter Bo Rappmund.

Additionally, clicking on the timing links in the story below will take you directly to the corresponding segments in a video Wirick produced. You can view the video in full by clicking on the YouTube icon in the box on the right. -->

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You walk into the main gallery and realize the rest of the paintings are all by Clarence Hinkle, someone you may have never heard of before seeing his work in Modern Spirit (read part 1 by clicking here).

And immediately you feel robbed of only just now learning of Hinkle’s masterful range.

You have curator Janet Blake to thank—she’s wanted to do a Hinkle exhibition since she first saw his colorful, expressive work in 1981.

“I would muse about doing a retrospective exhibition on him, but wondered how easily it would be to find quality paintings,” Blake says.

Easy or not, she found what looks like practically all of them.

It takes a special combination of qualities for a painter to create such a vast, varied, and masterful collection, those namely being everything Hinkle was: ridiculously talented, an eternal experimenter, and obsessively in love with painting. American playwright and essayist, Arthur Miller, said in 1933, “Some men love paint … Hinkle, however, is a man in love with painting.”

And from the look of things at the , Miller was spot on.

You see the joy in Hinkle’s expressive brushwork and bold colors, the most abstract of which are his early land and seascapes of Laguna Beach—perhaps this speaks to some quality of Laguna?—like Laguna Shoreline (1921 @4:25), Surf - Hills, Laguna (1920 @4:27), Houses by the Sea (Victoria Drive) (1925 @5:18), Laguna Beach Girl with Orange Parasol (1922 @5:27), Coastline, Laguna (1924 @5:47), and so on. For some reason Hinkle chose to exclude all of these from the climactic 1927 Group of Eight exhibition. Given how playfully modernist they are, you have to wonder why. Did he not take them as seriously as his portraits? Perhaps he felt the world—or he—was not ready for their fragmented abstraction within certain areas of the canvas; for if you border off a rectangle of canvas from any of these paintings, you isolate deliberately whimsical splashes and dashes of color that take on all new meanings, establish new contexts. A kind of accidental forerunner to Jackson Pollock?

Regardless of the reason, such is the predicament of being multitalented and prolific. Hinkle wore several hats, and he wore them all so naturally well. Herman Reuter, artist and co-member of the California Art Club, summed it up nicely: “So well-versed is Hinkle in the painter’s craft that he knocks out still lifes, figure pieces and landscapes with equal dash and understanding.”

In his portraits, Hinkle reaches into the life-force of the figure and allows that mysterious something to dictate the scheme of color, mood, brushwork. In the simply titled Portrait (Mrs. F. W. Hollman) (1914 @6:10), you can appreciate Hinkle’s integration of influences forged during his time studying in Europe, particularly in Holland and Paris; particularly in the Monet-esque suggestion of a garden in the background. In contrast, Quiet Pose (1918 @5:15) has a much lighter, more delicate palette, with abstractions in the form of brighter-shaded splotches that you assume are cast from the sunlight weaving through gaps in the trees overhead. The woman is reading a book in nature, a repeating subject Hinkle explores throughout his lifetime, due in no small part to the fact that his wife Mabel was in love with reading, or at least shown to be in paintings like the dizzying Laguna Beach dreamscape Mabel Reading, Rocks and Sea (1921 @5:10), and the more literal (and more famous) In the Hammock (1925 @0:19), which can be seen from Coast Highway decorating the south-facing side of the Laguna Art Museum.

Among the paintings created during Clarence and Mabel’s time in Taos, New Mexico, at the start of their post-Group of Eight travels in the early 1930s, is Maid of New Mexico (1933 @5:57). In my book, this painting should win the Kindest Face Ever Put To Canvas Award. The subject sits near a window, chin held high, just looking straight at you, eyebrows slightly arched as if to suggest both a wealth of awareness and a Zen-like acceptance that is so infectious, it puts you (or keeps you) at ease. You wouldn’t think for a second dust bowls are—or will soon be—ravishing dried-up farm land all over the Great Plains, New Mexico included. The sunlight in the window may soon be darkened by the dust … but from the look in her eyes, something tells you she’ll persevere.

That same year, Hinkle painted Untitled (nude, Laguna Beach studio, Gigi Parrish) (1933 @5:41), a portrait of actress Gigi Parrish (1912-2006), wife of writer, illustrator and painter Dillwyn Parrish (@4:59), who at the time lived in Laguna Beach not far from Hinkle’s home. The style here, heavy on line and contrast, is much more indicative of Parrish’s background in illustration, and could very well be viewed as evidence of Hinkle’s technical freedom and constant, playful experimentation. Gone are the wild brushstrokes and garden scenes with the face as the window to the painting’s elusive truth, here the subject’s face is turned away, as Gigi sits nude on a couch peeking at the day through the curtains. There is a soft glimmer of sunlight in the gap in the curtains, a subtle glow her only barrier between private and public worlds; private and public identities.

Knowing Gigi and Dillwyn divorce not long after this painting brings a new order of meaning to her alluring curiosity about the outside world. She would go on to marry journalist and screenwriter John Weld, and from 1949 to 1965, they would publish the Laguna Beach Post.

At one level or another, all of Hinkle’s paintings maintain an implicit narrative awaiting your realization. He attributed this, in part, with the “the play of warm and cool colors,” a technique found throughout his work, including most of his landscapes, portraits like Portrait of a Chinese Boy (1938 @6:30), winner of the 1938 California Award for Portraiture, and still lifes like Still Life with Pomegranates and Blue Glass (1944 @4:51). Yet, even though Chinese Boy is a very personal depiction of one of Hinkle’s friends and students, Shelly Dong, to your surprise, somehow—somewhere in Hinkle’s bravura brushwork, another testament to the painter’s mastery of diverse subjects—the inanimate objects in Blue Glass insinuate in your mind a question-laced narrative far more enticing.

Arthur Miller hit the nail on the head when he said of Hinkle’s ceaseless search and evolution, “While many others find a manner, stick to it and make sales, Hinkle changes because he is forever trying to get at the roots of the painter’s art.”

Such changes are perhaps no more evident than in Hinkle’s later watercolor works, which Reuter described in 1949 as “a spontaneous, skilled record of something that worked on the painter’s emotions—a moment’s monument.” Santa Barbara Pier (1940 @4:14) and Street in Ojai (1950 @5:36) are riveting examples of this. Utilizing the wet-into-wet technique, these were quickly rendered on location with limited strokes of pigment. The latter depicts the historic post office building, a 65-foot bell tower, or campanile, which seems to blend with sky and street as if the bells are vibrating the structure into a blurry-edged Heaven-Earth conduit.

Lastly, Hinkle’s watercolor Self-Portrait (1958 @5:26) stares out at you through heavy-framed glasses and deep-folding wrinkles, as if you are his past—the subject of his late-life contemplations. You imagine Hinkle remembering those moments when he raised the bar of his own creative expression, going back to his experimentation with color and patterns in An Oriental Arrangement (1915 @6:21),  with its woven grid of purples and greens that make you think you’re peering through Chinese beaded curtains—a textural effect of vibratory resonance reimagined in Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1921 @6:13). You imagine, going back further, the Hinkle of 1958 eyeing himself half a century earlier in the oil-rendered Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat (1900-1901 @4:39), wide-eyed and wrinkle-free, having yet to grasp the extent to which his artistic impulse would combine with countless serendipitous events and cement his legacy in the minds of innumerable artists to follow.

For had Hinkle never visited Crocker Art Gallery as a child and began to take seriously the idea of art as a vocation, had he never met the noted impressionist painter Henry Ryan MacGinnis while visiting his aunt and uncle one summer, had he taken to heart his parent’s lack of encouragement, he may have never thought to start sketching while hiking in the Sierras in his late teens. He may have never felt confident enough to realize, embrace, hone his gifts, fallen in love with painting, helped found the Group of Eight, not to mention influence new generations of artists to develop their own way, two of which were Millard Sheets and Phil Dike, who went on to co-create .

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It wouldn’t be much of a stretch, even, to expand Hinkle’s circle of influence enough to include Peter Bo Rappmund, whose three films—Psychohydrography (2010 @1:07), Vulgar Fractions (2011 @0:39), and Tectonics (2012 @6:49)—are showing on the lower level of the museum. Being as Frederick Schwankovsky, like Hinkle, lived in Laguna Beach and was a member of the Laguna Beach Art Association in the 1920s, while teaching and showing work in Los Angeles; and, like Hinkle, . Unlike Hinkle, who taught at Chouinard Art School from 1921 to 1935, Schwankovsky taught at Manual Arts High School, where he left a strong impression on a particular student—a student named Jackson Pollock. And Pollock, as it turns out, was a major influence on the later works of avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. And Brakhage, as chance/fate/free will would have it, wound up teaching at the University of Colorado, where he inspired a particular student—a student named Peter Bo Rappmund—to pursue filmmaking instead of what his parents preferred (i.e., piano or business).

You walk downstairs into ex•pose, a new contemporary art program curated by Grace Kook-Anderson that focuses on one emerging or mid-career artist at a time, with an aim to spotlight a diverse range of artists working in all mediums. By the time you walk into the dark room where three film projections run simultaneously, you could swear decades have flown by. The fragmentation of society from nature—psyche from peace—has only duplicated ad nauseum over the years, to such an extent there has arisen in many marginalized geographies a ceaseless entanglement of the natural and the synthetic upon which humans have grown simultaneously dependent and unaware of such entanglements—what they really look and feel like; and their long-term implications.

Rappmund’s films are born out of his lifelong interest in the periphery of society (for his exhibit to be in the windowless lower level of the museum is all the more fitting for the subject). Through a focus on the relationship between nature and manmade borders, storm drains and aqueducts, Rappmund shines a light on those other places outside the arbitrary safe zones that society seems to establish through land acquisition and paperwork, and in an overlapping way, through safe zones of the mind made possible by a lack of information or ignorance about, for instance, where our food and water comes from, what happens to our waste, how our out-of-balance-with-nature standards of civilization is playing out beyond the mental and physical safe zones of society.

Growing up, Peter’s father worked for the government, and they moved around a lot from state to state, suburb to suburb, which filled Peter with a great deal of boredom that needed perpetual remedy: “This urge to seek the marginal comes from childhood when my dad would take me on long walks through overgrown green belts and hidden runoff channels. Growing up in the suburbs, these places seemed sort of ‘other’ to me, and as I got older I began to hang out in them more, understanding how integral they are to grasping our place in the world.”

There is a moment in Psychohydrography where people are shown walking down the concrete channelized drainage system (@ 1:54)—formerly the free-flowing LA River, formerly Porciuncula River, or The River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula. You imagine one of these silhouettes as a teenage Rappmund finding both a remedy to boredom and certain peaceful isolation.

One thing Peter discovered in making Psychohydrography is that buildings along the LA River tend not to have windows facing the river (whereas a naturally flowing river would be a reason to live there, as was the case for Native Americans in present-day Glendale before Spanish settlers arrived). In Los Angeles if you live alongside the river, at least architecturally, you pretend it isn’t there. Similarly, the geography along borders, particularly along the US-Mexico border explored in Tectonics, is typically unpopulated and out-of-view from the nearest city (at least on the US side, whereas in Mexico towns are often built right up against the border).

In each of Rappmund’s films there is an ongoing synergistic dialogue between his background in music and his background in photography, an impasse bridged in no small part to his time studying at Cal Arts. In this respect, Peter has developed his own synthesis of Carleton Watkins-style frontier photography, being an itinerant observer of peripheral geographies and their socio-political-technological developments, and the creator of a non-linear editing process that places emphasis on the revealing of an emotional truth, rather than linear documentary-style narratives.

Sitting in one of the chairs, the three films in ex•pose reveal themselves as visual-audio narratives from beginning to end, animated by tens of thousands of meticulously selected and ordered digital photographs. What separates this process from video time-lapses is that each frame is considered individually rather than in the context of movement. Several of these stills are and on display, such as a map detailing spots along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border in Tectonics (@6:34), the sextant featured in Vulgar Factions (“sextant” is a tool that was used to survey the West by determining latitude and longitude @6:59), the LA aqueduct descending from the Owens Valley into Los Angeles (@7:20), the southern border extending out into the Pacific Ocean (@7:38).

These stills are “presented as frozen evidence,” says Rappmund, “giving the viewer an opportunity to see the process from inception to completion. This enriches both mediums and opens up avenues for discussing the cinematic.”

Some of the most intriguing aspects of the films are moments when sequences of stills are isolated and looped, only to cut to a different sequence, only to have the image complicated/interrupted by sounds, change tempo, then jump back, ebbing and flowing like when a composer revisits a melodic theme over and over, building the arrangement.

“When I sit down to edit a new work,” Rappmund says, “I think first about things a composer would be preoccupied with: tone, silence, duration, energy, motifs, phrases, etc. The process starts even earlier when I am in the field. I consider the same things as I am watching the world unfold in front of the camera, so the elements are constantly with me as tools for creation.”

The goal is to create works of clarity, to be literal, to take the viewer on a journey; give the viewer a sense of scale and understanding without being overly didactic or dogmatic. His films contain no intrusions of conclusive points of views—his films don’t even have title sequences.

Psychohydrography shows the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, the aqueduct system, the channelized LA River ending at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach, from a whole systems perspective, at once a synthetic intrusion onto the landscape that has dried up Owens Lake, and a grand technological achievement that benefits millions everyday. In Vulgar Fractions and Tectonics, borders are shown in light of their naturally occurring (the Missouri and Rio Grande rivers) and straight-lined/political, arranged borders (the rest of Nebraska and the southern United States west of Juarez, respectively).

Rappmund describes a time when his car broke down in the bordertown of Juarez. A truck approached from the distance. Given that the town was on lockdown from all the violence, it might’ve been a bit more than problematic for the filmmaker, but instead he found himself helped out in his time of need. He spent a week in Juarez and saw firsthand the blossoming of community and humanity in spite of the lockdown. It is a reassuring story that gives context to a situation far too dynamic, multi-faceted, and divisive (or made to be?) to ever survive the mainstream media’s ratings-grabbing filter of auto-sensationalism.

Captured in Tectonics is little more than what is actually there on the ground, as just about every frame contains in it the border’s presence in its local context: the scenic beauty, the debris, the structure (or lack thereof) … the indefinitely-barricaded La Linda International Bridge, remnants of failed attempts at crossing the desert (mass graves, crumbling anonymous headstones), a feeling of being totally alone juxtaposed with the Tethered Aerostat Radar System constantly observing the border from the air. In Arizona, a giant banner made up of small American flags spells out “BORDER.” Inside the flags are letters expressing the need for increased border security. One note reads: “You cannot have too much border security…”

Rappmund aims to create works that feel partial only to an implicit wholeness, like a sculpture—contained in its own totality. “I want to help lead the audience into something larger than just a physical study. I try to move into the metaphysical by way of attempting to illuminate ideas in their entirety.”

In this respect, you will not find the telling of polarizing stories in his films, so much as the showing of the seeds of ideas—the start of a dialogue which transcends the simplistic truthiness often taught on TV. “It is more important to me that my work raises questions than gives answers,” he says. “And that the audience has time to make up their own mind. I always try to present more than one view.”

In the spirit of dialogue, the following is an excerpt from my conversation with Peter Bo Rappmund:

Ryan Wirick: Your work shines a light on these peripheral subjects that are often deliberately ignored or apathetically accepted by most citizens.

Peter Bo Rappmund: I think about these things all the time. I was in the super market yesterday contemplating how strange it is to be able to buy butchered meat pre-packaged, with it all sitting neatly there in rows, shrink-wrapped and ready to consume. I don’t even know what part of the cow I’m eating. How bizarre. It is a cliché to say, but we have truly lost touch with nature… completely. Even if you camp every once in a while, I don’t think you are in tune with nature. Even if you surf every morning and live in the waves, you are not in touch. Maybe if you were doing these things to survive, you would be, and that’s different. Everything is commodified, from food to time. And, of course, art. Ignorance of borders, food, water, etc. is just another part of this. It is meant to be hidden, and it is so. I hope to get people at least thinking about these things for a second. I think it could make a huge difference if people are willing to take the time.

Wirick: So many problems in the world appear to stem from the acquisition of land and resources through force, and then the act of protecting those stolen possessions that really belong to the whole planetary system. Have you any revelatory perspective through which to see a future not ruled by such an unhealthy, service-to-self mentality? I suppose the first step to solving a problem is to recognize that something is wrong, which I think your work suggests …

Rappmund: Yes, to get people thinking would be a miracle. You hit the nail on the head, though. Perhaps (Scientology founder L. Ron) Hubbard is right, and we really aren’t of this world—we certainly don’t treat it as such. Unfortunately, I think things may get worse before they get better. It seems to be human nature to need to hit rock bottom before things ever start to make a turnaround. There is a reason dystopian fiction/visions are so popular right now.

To live out of balance with nature is almost unavoidable, especially in overbuilt, overpopulated desert climates (e.g., most of Southern California), but to remain unaware of (or apathetic about) the elaborate mechanisms that enable us to live this way—many with inevitable expiration dates—precludes us of the foreknowledge needed to prevent rather than succumb to, solve rather than ignore, the great challenges of our day (unless Peter is right, and hitting rock bottom is the necessary precipice for sustainable progress).

In the context of the other two exhibitions, Rappmund’s work confirms the Group of Eight’s belief that the truth of human emotion is of greater significance than the artist’s objective observations. Although, similar to Hinkle’s lifelong passion for plein air, portraiture, and still-life painting—even while embracing modernist techniques—objective observation is often central in realizing those truths. (After all, are an artist’s realized truths any less a part of nature than the ocean?) In a more fundamental sense—certainly a geologic sense—Rappmund’s films imply the idea that—whether we are in-tune with it or not—everything becomes (and so everything is) a part of nature, all of our consumption, all of our waste, all of our structures, paintings, films; they are but temporary time capsules for how far civilization on Earth has come, and more importantly, markers for how far it has to go.

... and you ask yourself, “What now?” 

 

The exhibitions of Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight, Clarence Hinkle, and Peter Bo Rappmund run through October 7th, 2012 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive. 949-494-8971; www. lagunaartmuseum.org. Click here for information on a walk through of the ex•pose exhibition with Peter Bo Rappmund on September 16th.


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