“June Wayne: Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

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Merry Widow (State I), Next of Skin Series
1980
Color Lithograph printed by Edward Hamilton
21 1⁄8″ x 29″
copyright: The June Wayne Collection, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts
Photo: courtesy Pasadena Museum of California Art

Renowned for her founding of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, and for her trailblazing role in the Los Angeles art world in the ensuing decades, June Wayne had a remarkable career that spanned 75 years, and a range of mediums. That career is the subject of an engaging new survey exhibition titled “Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries.” Curated by Betty Ann Brown and Jay Belloli, this compact retrospective delivers an all-too-brief sampling of Wayne’s varied artistic output, innovation, and influence. Wayne is credited with rescuing fine art lithography in the US from obscurity and fostering its resurgence starting in 1960, when she established Tamarind with support from the Ford Foundation. But her own artistic career is less well-known, and extends far beyond the successes of Tamarind. Laid out in five galleries, in approximate chronological order-and roughly corresponding thematic groupings-the survey begins in 1936 with two paintings influenced by WPA artists and concludes with her late prints and styrene paintings, the last of which Wayne completed in 2011, the year of her death.

As a precocious young artist of 18, Wayne experimented with Social Realism, and her two oldest surviving paintings reflect the difficult economic realities of the time. A gap of twelve years in the chronology between 1936 and 1948 elides the intervening artistic growth; the catalogue summarizes her introduction to several European surrealists in New York from 1939-42, and her subsequent exposure to a group of Post-Surrealists in California. When the show picks up again in 1948, Wayne’s Kafka series is in full swing, reflecting Surrealist influences. The Cavern (1948) reveals a mix of painterly and graphic qualities and is somewhat reminiscent of Rothko’s early Surrealist work. Wayne soon distilled her painting into the strongly graphic characteristics that suggests an early affinity for printmaking. Cryptic Creatures (1948) and The Chase (1949) translate almost directly to her black-and-white work, with the former bearing a striking resemblance to one of the earliest lithographs represented in the show, Kafka Symbols II (1949).

Wayne’s Justice series (1953-1955), based on the Kafka story, “The Trial,” and the artist’s actual experience on a jury, and her subsequent John Donne series (1956-1959), based on Donne’s love poetry, take a metaphysical turn, and her imagery from this period is mysterious and literary. She began using atmospheric effects, which, combined with the anonymity of the figures, enhance the mystery of her subject. The Donne series conveys images of love, death and cosmic union, and it is with this series that the story takes an interesting turn. Wayne’s LA printer refused to work on the Donne series-he reportedly considered the images pornographic-and, not finding another printer capable of collaborating with her, Wayne traveled to France to work with master printer Marcel Durassier. The dearth of capable collaborators in the US led her to establish Tamarind.

It seems absurd to think of the John Donne series as prurient, especially when viewed now. The images feel kindred to William Blake’s or, in the 20th Century, Rico Lebrun’s, and though they are sensuous, they are only briefly suggestive of erotica, but are not remotely pornographic. Two of the prints, The Anniversarie and The Sunne Rising (both 1958) situate the lovers in an ambient nebula-like ground. These early prints prefigure her prodigious output of cosmic imagery and suggest a microcosm/macrocosm motif.

Wayne’s artistic production seems to oscillate between poetics invested with social, political and metaphysical content and technical brilliance. Although the Donne series is considered less significant than her acknowledged masterpiece, the Dorothy series, created from 1976-79-which essentially laid out a pictorial biography of her mother’s life-the former brims with poetic potential while Dorothy, invested though it is with feminist politics, feels more literal, in spite of the formal and technical innovation.

In the 1970s, after Wayne ended her tenure at Tamarind, she began working in tapestry, collaborating with the French manufacturer, Gobelins. Wayne’s tapestries are, in many cases, reiterations of previous themes, or in some cases, images enlarged from specific works. The early lithograph, The Target (1951), is reproduced on a large scale in, La Cible (1971), with remarkable results. The tapestry seems three-dimensional (especially with one eye closed, as Wayne remarks in the accompanying video).

Two 1980 color lithographs from Wayne’s Next of Skin series, A Little Nothing and Merry Widow explore images of women’s undergarments. Wayne is said to have admired the engineering of women’s undergarments and was interested in how the publicly unseen intimates shaped, literally and figuratively, the public image and perception of women. It was fertile ground for exploration, especially in light of Wayne’s advocacy of gender equity and ongoing gender equity concerns. The color density, the incisive clarity and the implicit feminist discourse in these works leaves one wishing for more. And this is also true of the entire exhibit: one wishes to see more comprehensive examples of Wayne’s varied stages, to appreciate the scope and the connections between the seemingly disparate parts. As is, the exhibition provides a welcome overview of a significant Los Angeles art world pioneer, and her diverse creative output.