Major Collection of California Narrative Art Reopens in Orange County

ORANGE, Calif. — The Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University, home to one of the largest collections of narrative art from the Golden State, has finally reopened its doors to the public after a three-year, $12 million redesign and expansion that tripled its square footage. Founded in 2016 with a donation of over $7 million in California art from Mark and Janet Hilbert, the museum focuses on local art and culture from the late 1800s to the present.

The museum’s collection comprises more than 5,000 works and prominently features California Scene Painting, a West Coast form of American Regionalism that developed from roughly the 1920s through the 1960s. It includes pastoral scenes of everyday life and breathtaking seaside vistas as well as dynamic depictions of the state’s rapidly growing urban spaces and freeways. Alongside these quotidian visions of California life, the Hilbert also focuses on artwork from the film world, highlighting work by artists and animators at Hollywood studios.

“We’re at the unique nexus of fine art and cinema art,” museum director Mary Platt told Hyperallergic. “This is what made California unique in the 20th century art world.”

The new redesign, led by architecture firm Johnston Marklee, not only expanded the museum from 7,500 to 22,000 square feet but also divided it into two buildings separated by a courtyard framed by an elevated structure. This structure showcases Millard Sheets’s 1969 mosaic “Pleasures Along the Beach,” which previously adorned a Home Savings and Loan branch in Santa Monica before it was removed and painstakingly restored by Brian Worley, who was on the team that fabricated the work over 50 years ago.

The Hilbert re-opened last month with nine exhibitions anchored by its permanent collection, a chronological presentation spanning the 1880s to the present. Examples of California Scene Painting by Fletcher Martin, Emil Kosa Jr., Millard Sheets, and other notable practitioners are updated with contemporary depictions of California life by Frank Romero, Sandow Birk, and Danny Galieote, whose masterful “Beach Bevy” (c. 2020) pays homage to Michelangelo’s unfinished “The Battle of Cascina.”

The group show A Matter of Style: Modernism in California Art showcases a heterogeneous selection of mid-century artists working in a range of styles. Featuring visionary artist Agnes Pelton, hard-edge abstractionists Helen Lundberg and Karl Benjamin, and striking wood engravings by Paul Landacre, the exhibition portrays a multiplicity of California modernisms rather than a single strand. Among the highlights is a whimsical scene, “Untitled (Fantasy)” (1950s), by Kosa Jr., a well-known California Scene Painter and Hollywood studio artist who created the 20th-century Fox “searchlight” logo and a matte painting of the dilapidated Statue of Liberty for Planet of the Apes (1968). Platt surmises this might have been a concept sketch for the 1959 sci-fi film Journey to the Center of the Earth.

“Artists were at the film studios Monday through Friday, but on the weekend, they would paint to their hearts’ content,” Platt said.

This artistic breadth is also explored in solo shows focused on Norman Rockwell, Millard Sheets, and Mary Blair, the Disney artist and animator who worked on Alice in Wonderland (1951), Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953), and the visionary Disneyland ride “It’s a Small World,” which debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens.

Platt says representing the OC is an important part of the museum’s mission, so two galleries will have a “hyperlocal” focus dedicated to an artist from the area, beginning with the late Emigdio Vasquez, whose oil paintings depict pachuco culture, rendering zoot suits, lowrider cars, pool halls, and night clubs in painstaking detail. His painting of a bowl of menudo portrays the traditional Sunday meal in many Mexican and Mexican-American households with the reverence of an Old Master still life. Notably, a gorgeously restored mural by Vasquez, “El Proletariado de Aztlán” (1979), is located just blocks from the museum.

As the museum is built around the Hilbert’s collection, it also features exhibitions on their other interests, such as Navajo weavings and mid-century radios, tangential subjects that offer complementary windows onto material culture. 

Although the OC may not be associated with high culture in the popular imagination, the area boasts several arts institutions, including the Orange County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum, and the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. Rather than rivalry, Platt sees only opportunities for collaboration between the reopened Hilbert and neighboring art spaces: “We’re all working together to make the OC an art destination.”

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