Our Student Art Ambassadors Nadia Hayford, Alex Allen, and Manon Wogahn teamed up with students Farrah Su and Murphy Studebaker from the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts to put together this interview with Gordon McClelland, the curator of “Narrative Visions,” the current show at the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University.
Art Ambassadors: What is your background as a museum curator?
Gordon McClelland: I grew up here in Orange, and I studied art- and I’ve done art ever since I was a little kid- and I began just focusing on curating shows starting in the 1970s, and curated shows ever since then. I don’t know how many shows I’ve curated, but it’s been a lot of shows. So I just got used to curating shows, Mark saw the shows I curated and wanted me to curate more shows, and so I just continued to curate shows. There’s three this year, and this one is the first one that opened, and then another one in Newport Beach and another one in Pasadena in September. So I curate a lot of shows. At least a couple a year.
AA: How did you begin working with the Hilbert Museum?
GM: I began working with the Hilbert Museum at the very beginning, as Mark Hilbert and I are real good friends, and I did a show at Pasadena Museum that Mr. Doti came to and we did a walk through and it just kind of evolved out of that whole conversation there. He got really interested in this art, and began the procedure with Mark of building a museum. So pretty much from the beginning I was involved with Mark in developing an idea for the Museum.
AA: How long have you been teaching about California Scene paintings?
GM: Since about 1978. Yeah, about 1978 I started doing exhibitions- mostly in Europe, but some here, too- and then became increasingly popular here after 1985. For the first ten years, actually, there was more interest in Europe than there was here. But since 1985 it’s been all here. I just haven’t been over there doing anything anymore.
AA: How do you choose which paintings from the collection go in the museum?
GM: I- first of all, I had to go through Mark’s collection, because it all needed to be from the Hilbert Collection, and I went through and realized, right off the bat that the majority of paintings in his collection were from the 1930s to the 1970s and fall into the category of California Scene Painting. So I began focusing on that first. And I tried to pick the best paintings out- but not just the best paintings; they have to be- I don’t know how to say it, but they have to work all together. You can’t just pick paintings and put them up on the wall. They have to work together in order to make a larger statement. So that’s what I was trying to do with the selection of these paintings.
AA: Why is it important to have a museum dedicated specifically to California Art?
GM: First of all, there’s really a lot of interesting California art- at least here in California, but also other parts of America, and in Europe as well. And there just hasn’t ever been a museum dedicated to this particular kind of art and it seemed appropriate to do that because there are a lot of people that are interested in it and there are a lot of really great artists that haven’t been recognized as much, and so we just thought that it would great to have a place where there could be rotating exhibitions- eventually- of this type of art. There is the Oakland Museum- they focus on California art- but a bit more modern, is what their emphasis has always been.
AA: What significance do representational paintings still hold?
GM: I think that the narrative value of this art is different from most contemporary art. Most contemporary art- which I happen to like [laughs]- is, different than this kind of art. This kind of art is more story-telling, narrative type of art. It came from a period when people were more interested- this was actually, during the 1930s to the 1970s, this was easily the most popular kind of art in America- so it speaks to a period of time, and to a period of time sociologically, a period of time historically- it speaks to a lot of different kinds of things. So it functions on a different level than, say, non-objective or non-representational painting, which speaks to a different audience and to a different sensibility that people have. So you don’t have to pick one or the other; I think they’re both very interesting. It’s like, you don’t have to like rock ‘n’ roll and not like classical. You can like classical music and you can like rock ‘n’ roll music, too. So, there isn’t really a reason not to like it, it’s just that this particular collection happens to be focused on representational that does include abstraction, because abstraction is a relative form; things are either more or less abstract. Some things are very abstract, and you can hardly figure out what they are, and some things are just moderately abstract, but they are abstract because they’re less representational than other works. So, this collection does include abstract art. In fact, it includes a piece by Stanton McDonald-Wright, who was one of- probably the most famous, other than Diebenkorn and a few people- the most famous non-objective painter that came out of California.
AA: Was it difficult to place the recent acquisitions in the back room?
GM: Initially, [when] he [Mark Hilbert] began collecting, 1930s to 1950s was the original parameter. And then he moved it on up to 1970. And then, about the time he was thinking about doing this museum, we talked about it: expanding it out on both ends to have some earlier pieces and some more recent pieces up until- actually, Mark has bought a number of contemporary pieces that are being painted right now, so even after the year 2000. He has a number of paintings, they just don’t happen to be up right now, but the ones that are in the back room have a much more eclectic collection because after World War II, especially by 1955, the emphasis became on how different you could be as opposed to how similar.
So these artists that you’re seeing, most of the ones in this room, they were a school of painters, and you can see that their art relates together. In other words, they kind of had this focus of a way to do art, and they were as creative within those boundaries as they could be. And they were very creative, and that’s why people are interested in it. Now, after 1955, which is most of the stuff in that back room, the emphasis became on how different you could be, not on how similar you could be, and so people began to want to develop their own style that was identifiable. That’s why the art in the back room, in the recent acquisitions, is much more eclectic in its selection than the stuff that’s in the rest of the room. And that’s actually why I created that room! It was to show that he was heading in a couple of other directions. He wasn’t just only going to have this particular kind of representational art, but that he was open to adding paintings to the collection which were more abstract, or were more surreal, or had Synchromism, like in the case of Stanton McDonald-Wright, and cubist influences. So, as long as the subject matter is identifiable, the term representational is kind of ambiguous, because in the way that he’s using it, it is just that you can recognize the subject matter.
AA: What is your favorite painting in the museum?
GM: I don’t think I could say which is my favorite one; I have favorite one’s for different reasons. My favorite watercolor would probably be the Emil Kosa watercolor over there: After the Ride. And I would say of an oil painting, probably the Barse Miller of the merry-go-round at Lincoln Park. Those are probably- maybe- my two favorite ones in the show. But that’s just a personal favor. Yeah, there’s other ones that I really like, but, you know, I would guess I would pick those two. The small one over there of Paul Sample is a very wonderful painting, I think, that meets all of the requirements for a great painting; it has some mystery to it, it’s designed beautifully, the actual application of the paint is beautiful. I don’t think that I like one better than that, either.
AA: What hopes do you have for future exhibitions?
GM: That’ll of course be up to the director of the museum, but if I were able to do more curation here, I think I would do some focuses on the artists that worked in the animation business and in the film industry and try to make a link to those artists and the people that worked in California during this particular period of time. And I think that it would be nice to do a show on the works of the 1950s where they developed a style of abstraction that is really pretty unique- especially the watercolor painters. So I think those would be two great shows. I can actually think of a whole bunch of interesting shows [laughs] that I would like to do. But we’ll see when the director gets in and what they want to do, because of course, that’s their call.
AA: What dialogue do you hope to create between this collection and the public?
GM: Well, I would hope that people would be able to come in and see a kind of art that speaks to them. In other words, when they look at a painting, they can say, “I don’t know exactly why this is engaging to me, but I like it,” and they begin to engage in a form of visual learning. Most people read and they watch TV and they do things, and now because of the computer, people are becoming more visually oriented, and it’s my hope that they’ll come in, and they’ll start engaging with the paintings and- especially in this show- that they’ll engage in the narrative aspect of it, the story-telling aspect of the painting, that they might relate to things in their life. I’m hoping that they’ll be able to look at the paintings and discern that they’re creatively produced, and that they will not be intimidated. The museum- the way that we created the walls and everything in here, and the feeling of the museum- we did not want it to be an intimidating experience. We want people to come in and feel comfortable in here. And hopefully you have these ambassadors and people who are friendly and who will help that happen. [We] just want it to be a nice experience for people not being intimidated. Most museums are pretty intimidating when people go in; they feel like they don’t know what they’re looking at. This kind of art, I do believe that people will look at it and they relate to it pretty easily. So that was our hope.
AA: What do you hope students will learn from the museum?
GM: First of all, I hope that the students will be able to come in and look at the paintings and have some insight into what life was like in a previous time, and how it might relate to them now. I’d like the art students to be able to look at it and see it doesn’t matter how you paint. They could come in and look at these paintings and understand that each one of these people developed a painting language that’s really beautiful and that once you develop a painting language, that becomes like your signature. And it doesn’t matter whether you paint non-objective or you paint representational, or how you paint. So you can learn, the art students can learn, from actually just looking at the application of the paint, and the design and all that- which would be applicable to anything. I think the history students could come here and they could look at this painting and understand that these stories that are told in these paintings play an important role in the history of California and how it developed. I think sociology students could come in here and they could see there’s parts of the culture that have developed here, you know, that are represented in these paintings.
[For example,] there’s trains in here. California wouldn’t be existing if there hadn’t been a train system. And, it’s what linked America to the rest of the world all the way up until World War II, when airplanes came in. So, I think that you can see in these paintings the importance of trains and train stations as a form of public transportation and how important it was before people could afford to have cars. And so, those kinds of sociological things are important. Also, the cultural ones that have the Hispanic communities painted in them, and [the paintings with] Chinese Chinatowns and different communities in them. So there’s just a whole bunch of implications that are interesting to me; I’m interested in history, I’m interested in sociology, I’m interested in art, and to me, it’s all one thing. It’s all blended together. It’s all important because I think that it all gets back to people and communication; visual communication and so forth.
AA: How is the museum interesting for film students, specifically?
GM: First of all, if you’re a cinematographer, you have to learn how to frame your shots so that they’re interesting and they’re creative. And every one of these artists had to think that through, too. So, every painting has been already- just like you would do as a cinematographer- these have all been framed. And these people have thought a lot about how they were going to compose the actual scene that they’re painting. And most of these people used a lot of the same things: dynamic symmetry, they used the golden section, they used all of these different vehicles- compositional vehicles- that cinematographers still use today. So this isn’t, like, new information; this goes all the way back to Euclid- as far as compositional ideas. And so I think that they can come in here and they go, “Oh! Look at how this person deviated from the form. They started with the form, deviated from the form, and look what an interesting composition they came up with.” So I think that that’s really relevant to people in cinematography.
The people that are in animation film, they can come and look [at colors]. When you’re making animation film, you have to have a color sense. So somebody has to be a color stylist in the film, and you have to consider all the colors. So they can come in here they’ll look at these and- first of all, a lot of this paint isn’t even made anymore. This was made by people- this guy ‘Pontanger,’ in Pasadena, hand-ground all these pigments and made these paints. So, they don’t make paints that are these colors anymore. You would have to mix them all to get anywhere near this color and they can’t put as much pigment in paint anymore because some of it’s poison and there’s restrictions on how much pigment you can put in. There were no restrictions then. These people were buying pigment and mixing it with gum Arabic and painting these paintings. That’s why they look really different. The colors look really different than they do today. So, I think that that can be inspiring to people in the film industry. [For example,] if you look at anime, and you look at the color- like, every time I look at anime films that my son would play I’d go “Oh! They’ve been looking at Mary Blair.” She was- and she’s one of the artists here- Mary was just this amazing colorist, and she was a color stylist at Disney, and she designed It’s a Small World. You know, there’s a painting of her in this exhibition by her husband Lee. And so, I think there are, to the animation students, there’s probably thirty or more artists in here that worked in animation film, and these are the fine art paintings that they did.
In fact, Lee Blair- who has several pieces in here- told me that he got excited about animation because they were moving watercolors. It’s like “Wow! We get to create paintings that are moving all the time.” So, he was really excited about the fact that- and all of them were excited- about the fact that you were creating art that moved. And so that’s why Salvador Dali and all those surrealists came over here; because they, you know, saw “Wow! You know, these guys are gonna put us out of business!” A guy’s head falls off and rolls down the street and he puts it back on- they were so surreal, these cartoons, when these people saw them, it was like “What!?” You know, it was just these great ideas and crazy ideas. So I think that these guys were inspired by animation, and animation inspired them. Working in animation inspired them. So there’s always been a link.
AA: What will people find most surprising about California Scene paintings?
GM: An artist that I really like, Bradford Salamon, he just had been painting in California his whole life, and wasn’t really aware of the number of really wonderful painters there were and how talented they were. So these exhibitions have served to really inspire him as an artist. And I’ve talked to really a lot of artists that have come in and seen these.
Then, just people who are walking in off the street seem to be able to engage really quickly because they go, “Oh! There’s a painting of Angel’s Flight in Los Angeles. I used to ride that when I was a little kid.” And they share that with their children or their grandchildren or whatever. So, they go “Oh! There’s a painting of Palos Verdes. That [one of the] woman standing on the bluff in Palos Verdes. Palos Verdes doesn’t look like that anymore.” And they didn’t realize that before there were houses all over that area, that it was a Japanese farming community. And so that painting represents a time when there was a Japanese farming community in Rancho Palos Verdes. It was all a Japanese farming community and Japanese fishing villages. So, I think that the paintings do help give people an opportunity to share with their children things from their past, and it triggers memories. When people see these paintings, it triggers memories. I mean, now I’m talking about people that are [laughs], you know, over fifty, or something like that. But, those people can share those memories with their children, which, you know, there may have not been any other way to elicit those stories out of their parents because they just would never have had the opportunity or the reason to bring up that story other than the fact that they looked at this painting and it would trigger all of these memories.