Most folks who aren’t into abstract art say things like, “my kid could have done that—and better!” Or maybe, “this one looks like dog vomit.” At the very least, they might utter the words I overheard an older man say as he momentarily poked his head into the Margarette Lawson exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum, “I don’t get it—and I don’t want to.” The first two remarks, however, I said myself.
I am, in fact, a fan of abstract art, and yet as I wandered through the puzzling display at RAM aghast at the complete treachery that lay before me, I felt duped. The RAM website, you see, contains the only three interesting pieces in the show, and they really are quite lovely in person—rich earth tones of rust, browns and beiges, jutting up one way, smoothly sliding down another. Quite well put together, really. But the rest of the exhibit made me want to smack someone across the chops. Maybe even Lawson—except that I have no idea who she is.
The museum provides only a smidgen of biography on the artist, merely stating that she was once an amateur (we aren’t sure she ever progressed), who attended UC Davis when it was all radical and cutting-edge artsy—like most campuses in the ’60s, one gathers. She spent time in the Sacramento Valley, and then “realized her vision.” I’ll buy that—for a dollar—as most of her decent work clearly depicts rock formation abstractions, which aren’t so abstract that we can’t tell they’re rock formations, of course. The Internet provides no biography on Lawson either, so I had to wonder whom the heck she slept with to get a show at RAM. It’s not nice to make sexual references about the deceased, however, so let’s just proceed to the “artwork.”
Lawson’s “independent spirit,” touted by the RAM literature, is about as accurate as a description as saying Reader’s Digest publishes S&M stories. Most of Lawson’s multimedia work, composed of sand, torn paper, linoleum and paint, is lazy, unrealized, and obvious. “Eye on the Motherload,” for example, is all swirly in the middle, like, say, a womb, and drips down, what might be the birth canal, and then—whoa! An eye! Eye + Womb = Title. “Gold” is very, well, orangey golden, and “The Sea Moves” is warped paper (like rippled water!), glittery and bubbly. In a shocking departure from the title, “The Rain God’s Gift” looks like someone dropped a can of chili con carne on the floor and left it for about three weeks—except much less appetizing.
But that’s not all. To mystify things even further, the adjacent room contains a series of Lawson’s portraiture, landscapes, and well, there’s not enough room to list all of the themes. The lack of cohesion is so profound, in fact, that I feel obligated to suggest one to RAM—how about “Everything But the Kitchen Sink”? All good, except was that a kitchen sink I saw in there somewhere? I certainly saw a large canvas of giraffes eating leaves done in blues, a somewhat interesting terraced landscape of yucca trees in a canyon, a very traditional mission, and an almost so bizarre it’s cool self-portrait of the artist. Still, someone was clearly on acid when they included the positively dreadful purple/pink/lemon painting of a unicorn—this is indeed what you’d see if you took a very bad tab of something. Not yet recovered, my eyes stumbled upon the dismal and dark fighter planes pictures that had me wanting to immediately call my mother and make her promise that if I suddenly, inconveniently died, she would never haul out the plethora of crappy grade through high school paintings I did for public display. If only Lawson had made the same pact.
In the midst of the horrendous room, however, there is one painting that’s worth a nod: the supremely eerie “Family Billboard” from 1987, a haunting, pop-art inspired piece of retro ’80s style juxtaposed with a traditional turn-of-the-century family portrait. Now this was good.
As mentioned before, the “Earth Series #9,” “The Red Door,” and “Beyond Tradition” abstractions are exceptions—and I pass along these titles, because you should see this show. Not just so you can appreciate the four interesting works—but mostly so you can make a mental note of how never, ever to curate a show. Never.
Inner Dialogue: The Artistic Vision of Margarette Lawson at RAM, The Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside (951) 684-7111; www.riversideartmuseum.org. Thru July 5