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'Damngorgeous: Millard Sheets and His Southern California Legacy' at Oceanside Museum of Art

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Millard Sheets was an artist, so it's somewhat ironic to wish that an exhibition dedicated to the man focused a little less on his art. There are a handful of gems among the 40-plus watercolors, oils, drawings and prints on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art, but Sheets' most enduring legacy is not confined to the page or canvas. He was a doer -- an energetic, productive teacher, mentor, catalyst and facilitator who played a formative role in numerous Southern California cultural institutions.

Sheets (1907-89), raised in the Pomona Valley, won an art competition at the L.A. County Fair as a teenager and soon became superintendent of the fair's art department. During a tenure that lasted more than two decades, he gave heft to the program by staging exhibitions with loans from the Louvre and the British Museum, featuring such artists as Turner, Gauguin, Constable and Van Gogh.

Sheets studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in the late '20s, and even before graduating in 1929 he began to teach there, becoming a central figure during the school's headiest, most fertile period.

In 1932, he was hired as the first art instructor at Scripps College. He stayed for more than 20 years, building up the college's visual arts faculty and shaping its program into one of broad significance. He was instrumental as well in retooling the Los Angeles County Art Institute into Otis Art Institute.

"Damngorgeous: Millard Sheets and His Southern California Legacy" touches on these events only briefly, as background to 60 years of image-making. (The show is accompanied by an adoring memoir written by the artist's daughter, Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle.)

The artist had a reputation as hardworking and prolific. Growing up on his grandparents' farm, he became a keen observer of the natural world, and his paintings often pulse with the tempestuous energy of horses, the balletic postures of tree trunks and the moody beauty of stormy skies. In the 1936 watercolor "Temecula Ranch," he evokes both the isolation and the fortitude of a rural lifestyle by setting the horizon dramatically low, allowing an expansive sky to dwarf the signs of human presence.

Sheets traveled at his first opportunity, after winning some cash in an art competition in 1929. He went to New York and beyond, to South America and Europe. During World War II, he served as an artist-correspondent for Life magazine covering the Burma-India front. One image from the war years is unsurprisingly tougher and darker than the rest of his output, showing the pale corpse of a tank captain laid in the wilderness like an offering.

He continued to travel extensively into his final years (one painting of a Malian village dates from the year before his death), bringing back impressions from Guatemala, Hong Kong, Russia, Mexico, Yugoslavia and Uzbekistan. The particularities of dress, architecture and everyday habits intrigued him, even if he tended to generalize when it came to committing such sights to the page. He translated the unfamiliar into an accessible, picturesque language of rhythm, color and pattern.

Sheets was central to a group of L.A. painters -- including Phil Dike, Rex Brandt and Lee Blair -- who infused the watercolor medium with a new robustness beginning in the 1920s. Painting on location, he combined fluid translucency with passages of dense, bold color and dark outlines. Often, though, the approach lent his scenes a garish heaviness that detracted from their sense of immediacy.

He also came of age during the rise of American regionalist painting, and he helped fuel the movement with studies of local social conditions. "Family Flats," a 1932 lithograph, reads like a vibrant short story about the domestic domain. Zigzagging clotheslines rhyme with stair railings to set a dynamic, bustling scene populated with a rich cast of characters: young women, one cradling a baby, gossiping on the porch and stoop; a toddler about to break free from his mother's efficient clutches; black women appearing to tend stolidly to the laundry; a matronly white observer at the foot of the stairs, keeping watch over all the action.

In "The Tenement," a watercolor from a few years earlier, Sheets animates a shabby neighborhood with barely suggested figures defined by silhouettes left unpainted.

There is a clumsiness to Sheets' depictions of people that sometimes extends to other subjects as well. But there is also a vigor to his style that matches the artist's legendary energy and resourcefulness. "Damngorgeous," the term Sheets reserved for great art, may not always apply to his own work, but it certainly captures the intensity of his devotion to his craft, his students and his community.

Ollman is a freelance writer.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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