It's long been said that every revolution has its victims, and that adage played out in a dramatic way for the California Art Club in 1947. Since its 1909 founding, the Pasadena-based organization had been instrumental in putting the state's Impressionist and plein air painters on the map.
The mid-20th Century ascendance of modernism and abstraction called figurative painting's validity into question. At the L.A. County Art Museum in 1947, jurors rejected all representational pieces out of hand and public protests followed, covered by Life magazine.
For the high-art mandarinate, only abstract painting, then pop art, then minimalist painting was worthy of serious consideration. By the end of the 1960s, the fine art establishment had pronounced painting itself as dead. Conceptualism flourished, whereby ideas themselves were the artistic content (not so that they didn't need to be photographed and videotaped). Though the CAC survived for subsequent decades, its ranks — which once held pioneers like Franz Bischoff (1864-1929) and Edgar Payne (1883-1947) — had dwindled to a small number of hobbyists.
Because of its history as an organization that admitted women at its founding, hosted the first African American art exhibit in Los Angeles, and supplied skilled manpower for a David Alfaro Siquieros mural, current executive director Elaine Adams thought the CAC was too important to let die. She joined in 1993 with her painter husband Peter when the CAC had 70 members.
The group had no permanent home and all of its historic documents had been pilfered. She put her business background to work to address the larger problems. "Museums and galleries wouldn't take representational art seriously," she says from her Pasadena home. "And we had to start rebuilding the club's history, and with it, California's art history."
After a 70-year absence, the CAC returns to Exposition Park with its 102nd annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition at USC Fisher Museum of Art on June 2nd.
Adams considered the quality of painting and sculpture coming out of the CAC and worked to improve it. "We had a lot of amateurs who painted trite subject matter," she recounts. "We had to cast around for artists who could work above the level of outdoor art fairs."
The CAC features rotating shows in its permanent gallery at the historic El Molino Viejo in San Marino. In addition, themed painting shows by the historic CAC members, known as the "Pasadena Art Colony," are on view at Marston's restaurant in Pasadena.
Experienced painters from former Eastern Block countries and China have lately swelled the CAC's ranks. "Somehow they find out about us," Adams says.
Painter Ignat Ignatov typifies the new demographic. He studied at Bulgaria's Art School in Triavna and learned to paint in the realist style. A portraitist and figure specialist, he uses a free brush stroke than can focus to sharp clarity for anatomical details. "Every portrait is an exploration of the sitter," says the 35-year-old Ignatov. "There's a spontaneity that comes from the painting process; something no other media captures."
He arrived in the U.S. at age 19 with just a backpack and found work as a woodcarver for a furniture company, a skill that was part of his training. Through local art classes and school, Ignatov heard of the CAC and joined in 2000.
"I met so many great artists there," he enthuses. "I think camaraderie in art is so important to artists and the CAC is a wonderful place to connect with others who share the same passion."
The CAC currently has more than 3,000 members — some from out of state — and nine chapters from San Diego to Sacramento. The club offers classes, workshops and demonstrations, mounts exhibitions, hosts panel discussions and stages "Paint Outs" — plein air painting outings open to the public. CAC hosted 23 art shows last year, a fact that carries a special measure of gratification.
Yet Adams insists that she doesn't see the Gold Medal show at USC as a vindication of sorts.
"The vindication happened years ago," she said. "Museums and galleries now come to us and bid against each other when they want figurative art and historic California work."
What: "102nd Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition"
Where: USC Fisher Museum of Art, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through June 23. Closed Mondays.
--KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.