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Collecting California in Laguna Beach

January 10, 2010 |  4:32 am

Media Miracle Perched high above the bluffs and crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, The Laguna Art Museum has been the ideal setting for an artist’s haven for decades. Since the turn of the 20th century, throngs of creative types have flocked to this picturesque seaside enclave from around the world.

The museum, which celebrates art that captures the essence and cultural heritage of California, has been a cornerstone of the community since its inception as the Laguna Beach Art Assn. by a group of painters who settled in Laguna Beach in 1918. “We were the earliest cultural institute in Orange County that offered a way for artists who came to Laguna Beach to show and sell their work,” said Bolton Colburn, museum director.

Its current exhibition, “Collecting California,” acknowledges 10 key donors and their significant gifts to the museum’s permanent collection over five decades. Art historian Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, Virginia Steele Scott, Mark and Hilarie Moore and Stuart and Judy Spence are a few of the names of longtime patrons and collectors whose contributions are being honored.

Of the 3,000 pieces amassed since the permanent collection was established in 1941, 83 are on display covering a span of 175 years. The earliest piece is an 1832 oil painting of the San Gabriel Mission by German naturalist and artist Ferdinand Deppe. A more recent piece, “Media Miracle” (1999) by Santa Monica native Kevin Ancell, depicts a final moment before the commercialization of surfing, reminiscent of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.

1832 oil painting of the San Gabriel Mission by German naturalist and artist Ferdinand Deppe   Lynn Coleman’s “Hot Night at the Dogtown Follies” (1976) is a commentary on the early surf and skate culture centered around the Santa Monica Pier.

The variety of pieces epitomizes and further defines the museum’s mission of focusing on the art and artists of California. Works by Raymond Pettibon, William Wendt, Andy Moses and Llyn Foulkes are also on display.

“We approached this exhibit from the standpoint of the donors and were able to put together a beautiful cross-section of California art history,” said Janet Blake, curator of collections, who notes that they haven’t done an exhibit of this breadth, drawn from the permanent collection, since 1993. Since then, the museum has weathered a tumultuous period. It merged with Newport Harbor Art Museum to form the Orange County Museum of Art and later was reestablished after the joint trust was dissolved.

“The Golden Hour, Laguna Beach” (1923) Some of the work on display has never been viewed before, including Ron Davis’ “Four Block Box,” and Tony DeLap’s “Houdin’s House,” an aluminum, paint and glass piece depicting the illusion of a floating lady, an homage to Frenchman Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, whom many refer to as the founder of modern magic. 

A 144-page book published by the museum accompanies the exhibition; on the cover is Frank Cuprien’s “The Golden Hour, Laguna Beach” (1923) of the sun setting on the shore. “It’s an amazing golden painting with striated lines,” remarked Blake. “It's one of those paintings where the color saturates all the way to the sand.

“Collecting California” is on display through Jan. 17.

-- Liesl Bradner

Images: From top, "Mixed Media" (1999) by Kevin Ancell; "San Gabriel Mission" (1832) by Ferdinand Deppe; "The Golden Hour, Laguna Beach" (1923) by Frank Cuprien.

-- Liesl Bradner