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Art & Cake Review: Transcendent at Louis Stern Fine Arts

As a contemporary complement to the historical exhibition “Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938-1945” that independent curator Michael Duncan organized with the Crocker Art Museum (and which can be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through June 19), Duncan has assembled together this smart and lustrous exhibition that explores how the goals of the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) have continued to thrive in a variety of ways through the present day. Like the TPG artists, whose stated mission was “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual,” the three generations of mostly West Coast artists in “Transcendent” share many of the same concerns. Some observe the natural world through a spiritual lens, others create abstract mandalas, and most approach art making as a form of meditation.

Frederick Wight (1902-86) and Lee Mullican (1919-98) were contemporaries of the TPG members, and Wight was even invited by TPG co-founder Raymond Jonson to exhibit at the University of New Mexico. A late-bloomer as an artist, Wight did not decide to concentrate on painting until he was in his seventies, after retiring from a 20-year tenure as director of the art galleries at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was also a professional colleague of Mullican, who was a painting professor there.

Influenced by Arthur Dove and inspired by the Southern California landscape, Wight painted rhythmic, transcendent depictions of nature and the cosmos, sometimes using a palette of intense color, as in Sun (1984), where the magnitude of the sun’s heat is amplified by the explosive interaction of a series of concentric rings rendered mostly in bright oranges and yellows. Mullican was a mark maker who viewed painting as a meditative practice, which he engaged in using a process of building up a surface by painting lines with the edge of a printer’s knife. Influenced by Surrealism, Jungian concepts of the collective unconscious, and observations of patterns in nature, Mullican’s Universal Barque (1969) offers a riveting view of the cosmos seen through an architectural oculus, with everything interconnected by a dizzying matrix of energy that unites the physical with the metaphysical.

Nature has also proven to be a vital source of spiritual inspiration for several baby boom artists, among them Sharon Ellis, Kymber Holt, and Nancy Evans. Ellis, who lives in Yucca Valley—not far from Cathedral City where TPG member Agnes Pelton resided—is well known for her visionary psychedelic landscapes that can range in temperament from sublime to ominous. Fire (2002), the example in “Transcendent,” is one of Ellis’ earlier explorations of climate change, with its swirly streaks of hot oranges and smoky grays contributing to an apocalyptic vision that in hindsight seems prophetic of the recent uptick in raging California fires. As is her custom, Ellis always includes something magical and uplifting in her works, and she expresses optimism here by including a swarm of twinkling lights that suggest fireflies.

Holt shares Mullican’s fascination with nature’s inherent patterns and, although not as abstract as Mullican’s paintings, Holt’s sensuous landscape Seed (2008) possesses a similar energy, with plants, mountains, and ocean waves all swaying and pulsating as if moving to music or governed by a higher force. In another work, the tiny gem Entanglement (2019), Holt presents an inspired poetic conceptualization of intuitive knowledge, portraying it as a web of colored transparent tubing through which we view infinite light in the distance.

Evans’ approach can also be tied to Mullican’s, in that she holds an interest in Jungian archetypes and the collective unconscious. Reflective of her having examined myths, rituals, and symbols from a variety of world religions, her abstract landscapes include unfamiliar images around which we can imagine some spiritual connotation or purpose. The calligraphic markings in San Joaquin Series #3 (2018-19), for example, could be a secret mystical language.

A real spiritual text has in fact been the chief inspiration for mixed media works by Tom Wudl for more than two decades. The central floral motif shown blossoming within a sphere within a network of evenly dispersed dots and lines in One Hundred Trillion Concentrations (2015) is from an ongoing series of meditative paintings based on the Avatamsaka Sutra, a Buddhist scripture that describes enlightenment as a state where everything is at once interconnected and independent within an infinite cosmos. Similarly, an interest in tantric Buddhism and Indian miniatures are among the sources that led the late New York artist Stephen Mueller (1947-2011) to paint geometric mandalas that float slightly off center within atmospheric fields of luminous color bands.

Also functioning like mandalas are the trompe l’oeil white lace doilies that appear in Laura Lasworth’s charming Psalm Cycle series (2004-05), a set of seven small paintings where each doily graces an arch-shaped panel like the ghost of a rosette within a stained glass window. The series is dedicated to one of the artist’s distant relatives, a Benedictine monk who prays seven times a day. To correspond with the prayer cycle, each panel is painted a different background color to reflect the shifts in the hours.

There are three Generation X artists in “Transcendent” and each contributes something unique to the exhibition. Mary Ana Pomonis brings a feminist viewpoint to the conversation in a painting featuring the symbol of Inanna, an 8-pointed star that represents the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, and procreation. Eric Beltz works only in grayscale drawing. He spent countless hours filling in hand-drawn squares with graphite to create circular abstractions that activate optically the longer one stares at them. Khang Nguyen, who is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, paints inventive structures using a cool, calming palette. Influenced by both Eastern and Western thought, his innovative imagery looks at once religious, ceremonial, and technological.

Collectively, the works in “Transcendent” would make wonderful devotional objects for the religious minded as well as the secular, by providing solace and comfort for these chaotic times.

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