by Susan B. Larsen
Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery
April 10- May 13, 1984
Foreword and Acknowledgment
Among the paradoxes of recent history is our perception of the 1960’s as a time of political and social upheaval supporting a restrained, Apollonian art. Minimalism with its pristine form and desire for visual and conceptual clarity had a significant impact
on both coasts while the smooth, mirrored surfaces of Pop Art reflected but did not necessarily confront the heated controversies of the era. Cool art for an overheated world may have served as a visual and emotional refuge fulfilling a need for minimalism’s controlled, selective sensuous experience and physical certitude. Pop Art made us even more aware of a psychological and physical media-scape which held life’s most vivid experience at arm’s length. As that period recedes in time and memory and becomes the province of cultural historians, it seems that two things are happening. The clichés of the period gain in authenticity even as a wealth of new information serves to contradict or at least counterbalance them.
Many experienced and remember the healthy, if short lived, renaissance that Los Angeles enjoyed during the 1960’s. Recent attempts to document and reconstruct the period have centered around the efforts of a few galleries, the Ferus,the Landau, Dwan and Wilder and the advent of major museum programs such as those of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the poignant tenure of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art with its high hopes and brief but important period of national prominence.
A number of individual artists, also part of that renaissance, did not fit into the mainstream, their origins largely unexplained, ignored or forgotten. The expressionist, figurative style they practiced has gained new interest and prominence with the revival of figurative art on the international scene, prompting a reexamination of the work of several remarkable individuals. One of the mainstays of the Los Angeles art community from 1961 to 1970 was the Ceeje Gallery at 968 La Cienega Boulevard named for its co founders Cecil Hedrick and Jerry Jerome. Ceeje and its artists were out-of-phase with much of Los Angeles art of the time but it achieved a degree of prominence and affectionate regard for its “humanity, humor and iconoclasm.”1 The work shown at Ceeje was predominantly figurative, the artists cross-section of Los Angeles ethnicity, un-cool, self-expressive and unpredictable.
Exhibitions at Ceeje were carefully installed with attention to the needs of the artist and audience, yet the gallery had a festive, improvisational character and Hedrick and Jerome assumed a posture which was not authoritative but frankly experimental. Then as now, the work shown at Ceeje was vital, enjoyed by sophisticated and unsophisticated audiences but placed solidly outside the mainstream by Los Angeles critics, curators and collectors, hence misunderstood and as it turns out, undervalued.
This “working man’s gallery”2 neither fashionable nor highly profitable at the time, helped to sustain such gifted artists as Eduardo Carrillo, Charles Garabedian, Roberto Chavez, Joan Maffai, Ed Newell, Lance Richbourg and others during a period of high hopes and expectations realized by only a few. For the vast majority of Los Angeles artists, including most of those at Ceeje, several more decades of struggle and development lay ahead once the Los Angeles Renaissance had abated.
At the outset Ceeje seemed to have an identifiable style and spirit which announced itself in the 1961-62 season with the exhibition “Four Painters: Garabedian/ Chavez/ Carrillo/ Lunetta.” Henry Seldis, senior critic for the Los Angeles Times, noted the exhibition’s “disturbing eroticism” and believed the artists were casting a nostalgic glance toward Mexico.”3 Confusion reigned concerning the ethnicity of many Ceeje artists. The Mexican surnames of Chavez and Carrillo were prominent but both were born in the United States and while proud of their ethnic origins they were as typical of the population of Los Angeles as any of the artists who showed at Ferus or Landau. Lunetta, Italian-American, and Garabedian, Armenian-American, were also long-term Los Angeles residents but were grouped with all the other Ceeje artists in one colorful ethnic blur. Hedrick and Jerome often heard the remark, “Oh, you’re the gallery that shows Mexican artists.”4 A more precise observer would have noted the remarkable ethnic range of Ceeje which represented a variety of young contemporaries residing in Los Angeles, including many ethnic minorities and women. The freewheeling, iconoclastic nature of Ceeje was evident in that first four-man show and subsequent exhibitions brought Lance Richbourg, Joan Maffai, Ed Newell, Aron Goldberg, Ben Sakoguchi and photographer Edmund Teske into prominent positions within the gallery.
Charles Garabedian at age thirty eight was the oldest of the four artists showing at Ceeje in 1962. All were recent graduates of UCLA’s lively art department and had a great deal in common, but Garabedian’s maturity gave even his early work a depth and complexity of emotion which would distinguish his art. He was a remarkably awkward painter, as aware as anyone of the lapses in his drawing and the distance he had to go to close the gap between ambition and result. Garabedian appeared to accept this in good humor indeed to feed off of his awkwardness as in the inventive and self-parodying work “Self-Portrait as a Carpenter” (1964) exhibited at the Ceeje with its roughhewn, strangely constructed frame. William Wilson observed that the artist seemed to “tell us he sees himself as an awkward craftsman who dreams beyond his ambition.” Wilson went on to describe the work as “strikingly ill-made.”5 It must have seemed so to the artist because Garabedian repeated the image of himself as an obsessive carpenter in his own Family Portrait which shows the artist building a grand but unfinished structure to house his wife and daughter.
We see garabedian as the protagonist in another of his early paintings shown at Ceeje, the Self-Portrait With Cabinet (1964). Here the artist stands in a theatrical pose, armed like a Roman gladiator with palette and brushes, dressed in a wrapped garment, either toga, smock or bathrobe, eyes blazing with excitement. It is absurd and wonderful at the same time, full of disturbing aspects such as the empty cabinet’s wide open doors, the artists hairy chest and exaggerated physiognomy, his disconnected thumb and undulating shoe.
Although their work might have been unrefined at the time, the young artists of Ceeje would never have characterized themselves by the timid word, “emerging.” Instead, they burst on the scene full of confidence if not yet fully armed commanding their turf if not yet sure of it. Their work was figurative but they were not realists, preferring the world of dreams and fantasy and filling their images with thoughtful, speculative poetry. One of the most gifted was Ed Carrillo whose beautiful draftsmanship and completeness of vision allowed him to blend pictorial fragments into incongruous continuities. Cabin in the Sky (1965) with its rambling red walls, sharp-cut tunnels and abrupt shifts from fanciful, evocative architecture to pure landscape, has the compelling reality of a dream retold by an impassioned dreamer. Carrillo’s work indicates an awareness of De Chirico and Bosch but his light-filled canvases and radiant, saturated color are uniquely his own. There is a mysterious but benign, almost pastoral tone to Cabin in the Sky with its giant seashells, the etheric shadow of a rabbit and full-lipped flowers creating abrupt spatial shifts against a background of architecture and landscape. It is an ambitious and successful work with a genuine spirit of self-exploration and revelation, an aura of naiveté which only serves to strengthen the impact of his vision.
Architecture plays a central role in many of Carrillo’s painting including Pearly Gates, (1965) an almost symmetrical two-part compositions with layered and bisected strata of masonry, carefully poised still life objects and disjunctive passages of landscape. Two round-headed arches fix the parallel axes of his work,one opens into a verdant field with prominently silhouetted trees and a distant mountain range , the other with its red and white striped columns gives way to a canal with docks and a distant mountain view. The two landscapes are impossibly discontinuous yet provocatively similar. In the foreground even more marvelous and impossible things occur. A red spiral contoured mound like an ancient Middle Eastern site appears in miniature echoed by a blue mastaba placed far to the front. On the other side of the painting we enter a big green pool of water. Carrillo’s vivid, self-contained colors suggest the conceptualized stylization and perceptual fragmentation of a primitive in whose work exactitude of parts mitigates against any smooth integration of the whole. However, the effect is to enhance has ability to evoke a works of the marvelous, the vivid and deliberately fragmented, all aspirations of early Surrealism. With Evolution (1962) his vision becomes darker and more narrative as death dances on the upturned feet of an acrobat and a birdlike creature lurks in a jungle setting full of tangled and threatened foliage.
There is nothing timid or commonplace about the lush floral imagery Joan Maffei whose paintings seem to press outward from the boundaries of their frames and project an otherworldly glow into the surrounding atmosphere. Symmetry and clarity of contour are important to her style, also vibrant evocative color asserting itself against darkened backgrounds. Moonflowers (1962)
is a fine and typical example of her work, an animated still life of invented flora pulsating with life. It is as though we are observing the silent, nocturnal erotic life of plants and thereby discovering a new and mysterious beauty. In 1961, just prior to her involvement with Ceeje, Maffei went to India on a Fulbright grant and that experience may have affected the emotional tone and color of her art. Viewing her work, one thinks also of Rousseau’s clearly delineated plants and flowers, the jungle in Yadwiga’s Dream with its resplendent undergrowth and compelling primitivism.
The visual compression and intensify that Maffei gives to commonplace subjects is evident in Portrait of Carlo (1966) in which a small boy with cowboy gloves riding a bicycle is transformed into a figure of awesome, almost mechanistic vigor, a startling, even frightening presence. Maffei’s imagery had feminist overtones even before the term was widely used, as in
I Told You So (1966), a painting so frankly sexual and emotionally searing that it eclipses many of the polemics and semi-clouded clichés of much recent feminist art. Her tondo formats, shaped frames and radial imagery exist to support the thematic content of her art, not as a conceptual strategy, feminist autobiography or as a physical advance upon the “objectness” of painting.
Assertive, shocking creations of nature are also to be found in the paintings of Ed Newell whose sharp-edged graphic outlines suggest cartoon characters gone astray even while his painter’s command of tone and wash bring them back again into the domain of art. His hybrid canine and feline icon loom large in the landscape like some 20th century counterpart of the icon-cats of ancient Egypt. In works such as Goddess (1959) they confront us, larger than life, clearly dominant and frightening. Newell’s work is aesthetic but impolite, fantastic to the point of excess, compelling and deeply memorable.
If their is a single significant style practiced by the core group of artists exhibiting at Ceeje, it must be the carefully wrought, homegrown Surrealism practiced by Carrillo, Maffei and Urmston. Others such as Bilker, Chavez, Garabedian, Lunetta and Richbourg had strong surrealist overtones to their art but their handling of pigment and preferences for asymmetrical and complex compositions set them apart from the obsessive, static centrality typical of the previous three. Urmston’s The Great Love Affair is an ambitious painting both thematically and technically. There is something reminiscent of Cranach’s painting of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the way Urmston’s male figure awkwardly covers himself and gestures to his mate, his hand movement a fascinating mixture of an ecclesiastical and a conversational gesture.
Numerous paintings exist within the larger composition, the framed with its Eden-like landscape and coiled serpent and the thrice-folded four-part painting placed on the table with its Biblical evocations of violent storms and strange primordial creatures. Almost everything about the painting suggests its sources in the Northern Renaissance so that the cubist construction of the figures themselves comes as something of a surprise. It has often been said that the art history program at UCLA had a genuine impact upon this generation of artists. As in Urmston’s The Great Love Affair this was not by direct imitation but a wry yet respectful feeling for themes that are timeless and multifacted.
If the artists of Ceeje were not immediately taken up by Los Angeles collectors and placed in national touring shows, they made the most of their position as outsiders and iconoclasts, frankly reveling in it. Self-parody was a common element in their art and to it they added a healthy ration of humor evident in the title of their 1964 exhibition “Six Painters of the Rear Guard: Garabedian/ Richbourg/ Urmston/ Bilker/ Chavez/ Carrillo.” implicit in their title and the work itself was a rejection of the kind of evolutionary abstract progressivism advocated by critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Field. Los Angeles critic Henry seldis remarked of the exhibition, “Their work ranges from the lightly satirical to the nearly blasphemous.”
Perhaps the most memorable opening of an exhibition at Ceeje took place in the late autumn of 1965 when Lance Richbourg showed a cycle of paintings entitled “The Wild, Wild West.” The title was the same as that of a popular television program but Richbourg’s iconography was much more violent, intense and satirical than anything in the media, including Western films, comic books and popular novels which fed the subject matter of his art. On opening night a crowd of people streamed into Ceeje Gallery, many in Western costume and some in the pugnacious spirit expressed in Richbourg’s painting. At one point someone entered the gallery on horseback, causing an abrupt confrontation between art and life.
Richbourg’s vigorous, solidly three dimensional figures also rode on horseback, fought, made love, drank and died in his paintings, his themes a caricature of the romantic, fictional American West. His protagonists had the heavily muscled bodies of figures by Benton and the brilliant, at times lurid, color of films or magazine
illustrations, but Richbourg was not satisfied with replicating Western clichés in subject or style. As Henry Seldis observed quite correctly, the work is “related and removed from Pop Art.”7
Richbourg’s heros often enacted their life and death scenes in the presence of painted dreamscapes as a cowboy’s life seemed to pass before him in his final moments of agony. In One Eyed Jack (1965) a three way shoot out is so tightly and precisely staged in a moonlit barroom that it suggests art imitating art. The real irony and surface braggadocio of Richbourg’s subject matter is so interesting as to almost divert attention from the excellence and vigor of his drawing, so fulsome and personal in style that it lends its own special vitality and rhythm to the work. Richbourg’s desire to depict the mythic, historical and fictional West is all the more surprising if one considers that Southern California in the 1960’s was more often characterized and experienced as a land of sun, surf and beaches.
Other artists at the center of Ceeje’s activities were Roberto Chavez, Louis Lunetta, and Ben Sakoguchi, each creating an entirely personal structure and syntax for himself. Chavez’ work had a brusque, painterly directness , as in Group Shoe (1962)
his group portrait of Garabedian, Chavez, Carrillo, and Lunetta, a moving depiction of the strong, plainspoken qualities of character they admired. Lunetta balanced the natural decorative beauty of his art against his desire for strength of form and subject. A three-year stay in Ghana and his serious study of Asian art and culture contributed to the intricacy of his frieze-like figural compositions, complex all-over patterns of imagery and his preference for nonwestern subject matter. His was an unlikely counterpart to the art of Richbourg or Chavez but one could see and understand that lunetta’s work came from an earthy, almost primitivist aesthetic which found beauty amidst the ruggedness of man and nature. Ben Sakoguchi’s dense, kaleidoscopic paintings gathered the potent and unforgettable images of the 1960’s and also the ordinary, trivial ones top form a tapestry of sensory impressions and memory deeply evocative of that time. Sakoguchi’s work chronicles the cool glamour of the period, our fascination with the cultural life of European cities, the rapid-fire assault of media images which became not only a daily but a minute-by-minute occurrence in urban areas such as Los Angeles. The fashions have changed a great deal since then and Sakoguchi’s hard-edged style of rendering is also typical of the 60’s, but his record of the visual and social landscape is one of lasting interest and value. So complete and accurate was Sakoguchi’s grasp of his own perceptual field that he even seems to include fragments of paintings seen at Ceeje, as in the rambling brick walls so typical of Carrillo and the splendid jungle flowers of Maffei.
There were several among those exhibiting at Ceeje who did not project a realm of fantasy but preferred to find other subjects in the real world of tangible objects. Aron Goldberg’s still life compositions appeared at first to be images of quietude and serenity. Upon closer examination, his table top still life images in calm grays, tan and other soft tones contained the severed parts of animals as a mealtime offering served up on familiar pieces of crockery. In a recent reminiscence of Ceeje, Goldberg stated that it was his desire and one he shared with some of his contemporaries to “see the world as new-made, full not of artifacts of culture, but objects of desire and fear.”8 It was typical of them to find aesthetic and emotional value in subjects and visions commonly held to be grotesque, humorous or inconsequential.
Maxwell Hendler showed several small still life compositions at Ceeje in the early ‘60’s. These everyday tabletop worlds of cracker and cereal boxes, plates and jars were so lovingly and painstakingly rendered that they anticipate, at least on this coast, much of the innovative style and content of photo-realists art and do so with a resonance of feeling seldom found in that style.
Ceeje even had its own counterpart of Henri Rousseau in the colorful persona of retired Italian pastry chef, Marcel Cavalla, who enjoyed the camaraderie of many of the artists in the gallery. Self-taught and eager to depict the burgeoning population and changing environment surrounding his residence in Bunker Hill, Cavalla filled his canvases with topographical detail, daily events and personal fantasies which transformed and animated everything he painted. He proved a popular addition to the gallery. In 1962, his first one-man show sold out. That very week the editors of Life magazine were doing a story on the rash of sell-out exhibitions and Cavalla ended up on the pages of Life in the company of newcomers Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.
Any gallery, while devoted to the exhibition of works of art and to the development of the careers of its artists, is ultimately the creation of its owners-directors. In the case of Ceeje it was a collaboration between Cecil Hedrick and Jerry Jerome. In an effort to find a national audience for their artists they opened a second Ceeje Gallery in New York in 1966 at 19 W. 57th Street. It lasted two seasons. Their lively curiosity and generous spirit was evident in the program of Ceeje and, happily, they have retained that enthusiasm for their artists and for those of our own time as well. It is to recognize their role in the artistic life of Los Angeles and to enable us to look again at the marvelous, irreverent, thoughtful and important art produced by their artists that this exhibition is being held.
1. William Wilson, “Garabedian at Ceeje,” Los Angeles Times, April, 1965
2. Interview with Cecil Hedrick and Jerry Jerome, Agua Dulce, California, October, 1983
3. Henry Seldis, “Four Painters at Ceeje,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1962
4. Interview with Cecil Hedrick and Jerry Jerome.
5. William Wilson, “Garabedian at Ceeje.”
6. Henry Seldis, “Six Painters of the Rear Guard,” Los Angeles Times, April, 1964.
7. Henry Seldis, “Lance Richbourg at Ceeje,” Los Angeles Times, October, 1965.
8. Aron Goldberg, “Reminiscence of Ceeje,” unpublished manuscript, 1983.