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April 16 - July 16, 2005, at Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

“Tame Palms,” 1982,
oil on canvas, 36 x 40”.

"Toward Morning," 1984,
oil on canvas, 48 x 60".

"Pacific," 1983, oil
on canvas, 48 x 66".

“Meditation on Mating,"
oil on canvas.

Frederick Wight was a modernist polymath. A champion of 20th century art as well as a traditional painter of portraits and landscapes, Wight had a diverse career as novelist and art critic, art educator, curator and for two decades, from 1953 to 1973, Director of the art gallery at the University of California in Los Angeles.

As much as Wight served as a proponent of the arts, he was also a gifted painter, and when he retired from his position at UCLA, his energies were directed toward his art. The works on view here are from that period of his artistic production. They are large, highly individual landscapes of Southern California that both reflect the plangent light of the area as well as the artist’s individual reading of the geography. The paintings have great personality and are idiosyncratic in the way that they organize visual space, light and color.

“Toward Morning” is definitely local, depicting a row of palm trees going off into the distance as morning light peeks over the snow-covered San Jacinto mountain range. On either side of the palm trees descending yellow-white lights point toward dawn from the darkest green corona of night. These rows of lights are ambiguous. They are, most likely, reflections on a windshield from a driver’s perspective looking through the glass and driving towards daybreak. They could also be UFOs or souls ascending with the dawn.  Naturalism deftly balanced with spirituality may elicit a double take on the part of the viewer.

Wight has been characterized as a “luminist” painter, and there is some accuracy in such a designation, not for the degree of realism but for his formal use of light and aerial perspective. A good case in point is “Pacific,” which seems to depict the chromatic alternation of waves emblazoned with white sunlight as they make their way to a dark shore. The crown of a large palm tree in the foreground stands in for the spectator, overlooking what appears to be Santa Monica Bay. A painterly grid in the luminescence of the ocean, however, also suggests some light-struck suburban plain. The sun seems to descend behind a distant range of purple mountains. Loosely rendered paint worked in swirls lends a kinetic quality to the subtly colored panorama. Light conveys atmospheric effects that oscillate between naturalism and the spiritually sublime.

Wight’s preoccupation with design and form is also striking in the painting “Succulent.” Here a potted Jade Cactus rests in the foreground with a restive conglomeration of green ovals standing at attention. But in the background, oblique slashes of light and shadow defy and subvert this quietly circular conclave. It’s a very calmly stated but firm reflection of shapes at war, a battle of geometries, all within the context of a still life.

“Tame Palms” is another landscape in which sidereal light breaks out into a surprisingly organic form. An anomalous explosion of cellular light is poised in the noon above two palms, one close and one distant. It’s the kind of light you see when you squint slightly and stare at the sky. Here, the natural world seems to be the starting point for an exploration inward to the mind and perception itself, a peculiar but possibly widespread response to light and air in Southern California.

Wight revels in highly individual applications of brush and paint to the modestly titled “Garden.” With an air of great spontaneity, the artist has nicely balanced natural simplicity with a fiercely complex abstraction. This formal conjoining becomes thematic in the colorful “Meditation on Mating,” two parallel pillars of yellow-green light in the sky are reflected brightly in the red and blue surface of the water below. To underscore this duality, two dark islands or peninsulas in the lower foreground seem to move towards one other stealthily in the blaze of light.

It would be surprising if complex intellectual grace and subtext were not to be found in the work of an artist of Wight’s stature. As a painter of the natural world, Wight offers simple beauty. Yet at the same time, his landscapes manage to incorporate so much modernist thinking within their vibrant, coercive arenas of form and color.