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May 4, 2003
Art Pick of the Week

Abstract perfection
By Victoria Dalkey, The Sacramento Bee Art Correspondent

"5.1.92" is among more than 30 works by Frank Lobdell on display through May 31 at b. sakata garo.
You would think that Frank Lobdell, the Bay Area's pre-eminent abstract painter, would be a more familiar name to Sacramentans. Active in the Bay Area since the 1950s, he has shown both nationally and internationally over the years yet has seldom, if ever, ventured into the Central Valley.

An exhibit of his prints at b. sakata garo, running concurrently with a survey of his paintings and works on paper at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, offers a rare opportunity for Sacramento art lovers to see an extensive body of Lobdell's work.

More than 30 of Lobdell's etchings, printed at David Kelso's made in California press, are up at the Sacramento gallery through May 31. Ranging from graphically rich black-and-white images to intensely colored compositions, they provide a good introduction to the quixotic imagery that the 82-year-old Lobdell has generated over the last 20 years of his 50-year career.

Though he is primarily known as a painter, Lobdell has created a significant body of work in printmaking, including these works from his long collaboration with Kelso, whose incisive printing technique was well suited to the tensile linear quality of Lobdell's work. Employing a range of techniques in black-and-white and multiplate color etchings, the prints are wonderfully rich graphics whose generally small scale gives them some of the intimate and improvisational quality of Lobdell's sketchbook images, which are also on view at the Legion of Honor.

From the beginning, Lobdell's work was informed by a process in which undirected mark-making generates unconscious imagery that takes on a life of its own. While his early works were grave and heavily weighted with dark emotion, his works since the 1980s have been lighter in spirit, characterized by intense color and quirky forms that work their way around the compositions in antic paths that recall one of Rube Goldberg's cartoons of wacky machines.

Using a vocabulary of invented forms derived from such diverse sources as kilim rugs (woven Turkish carpets), Celtic knots, prehistoric fertility figures, American Indian art and Eskimo totems, among others, he gives us precarious balancing acts that posit a blithe spirit of high comedy in an irrational universe. Recording daily jousts with the process of subconscious image generation, he titles his works with dates only, foiling any attempt to ascribe easy or convenient symbolic or literary meanings to his inventive imagery.

The results, which form a kind of visual diary of the unconscious, are a joy to behold. They range from intense black-and-white images, such as "7.3.87," in which a kind of abstracted figure made of white lines takes center stage amid blocky areas of bold graphic markings, to "7.20.91," a joyous play of surreal, ricocheting, Picassoid forms that seem to reach out in all directions at once on a luminous ground of intense yellow-green. In "8.8.92," a small white figure with a double moon face rides a diagonal as if on a skateboard while balancing a trio of acrobatic figures that swirl up in a warm brown spiraling space.

While the black and white works, from the delicate theater of forms that make up "1.12.87," to the complex gray tones and angular composition of "1.15.87," are compelling, the intense color and charged imagery of orange forms against a rosy background in "5.1.92" speak most volubly of the sheer gusto of Lobdell's liberated late work.

To see the antecedents of that vision, you will need to visit the Legion, where two exhibitions of Lobdell's work showcase approximately 50 paintings, prints and drawings, as well as 14 of the artist's sketchbooks dating from the late 1940s to the present.

The exhibition begins with a recent acquisition of the museum, "31 December 1948," a painting that was informed by Lobdell's experiences in World War II.

While the seemingly wholly abstract image represents in part an attempt to come to terms with the work of Clifford Still and other abstract expressionists who were teaching at the California School of Fine Arts at the time, images of singed and blackened hands emerge from the red, yellow and white passages of paint. They relate, according to the museum's didactic wall text, to a traumatic event Lobdell experienced when he and his fellow soldiers came upon a barn filled with the smoldering corpses of prisoners who had been burned alive by retreating German soldiers.

In subsequent works he continued to explore the dark side of human experience in agonizing images of abstracted figures that hade a Goyaesque grotesquerie, among them the scrofulous black and white ascending figure in "March 1954" and the soaring crucified specter of "April 1957." While strong, saturated color came into his work in the 1960s, particularly deep reds encompassing the tarry blacks of his earlier pieces, his spirit continued to seem freighted with sorrow and anger. His anti-war sentiments emerged again in another painting recently acquired by the museum, "Summer 1967 (In Memory of James Budd Dixon)." Though the painting was started before Dixon's death, its somber and mordant quality lent itself to an elegiac tribute to a former painting and teaching colleague who at the time seemed doomed to be forgotten by history.

One of Lobdell's most ambitious paintings, it has obvious referents in Picasso's great anti-war painting "Guernica," not only in its predominantly black and white palette but also in the figurative forms of legs with enlarged feet that occupy the far left and right sections of the painting and the central figure wrapped in a womblike bundle of darkness. That figure whose blood-red hands are raised up relates, perhaps, to Goya's famous painting "Saturn Devouring His Children" and serves as the focus for the rage and sorrow implicit in Lobdell's response to the Vietnam War.

These imposing earlier works overshadow to some extent the later paintings in the show and leave you unprepared for the Matissean explosion of intense, saturated color and joyous antic forms of the museum's "Untitled, Summer, 1989." This is a sublime painting nonetheless, with its deep blue rectangle broken by shadowy forms surrounded by a brilliant yellow ground around which linear, dancing, Chinese red figures roil in quixotic postures of release.

A special feature of the show is a series of figure drawings done between 1959 and 1974, four of which have recently been acquired by the museum's Achenbach Foundation. They demonstrate that Lobdell stands in the ranks of Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff (with whom he participated in drawing sessions from 1959 to 1964) as a strong figurative draughtsman. One has only to look at these powerful drawings, which range from a lyrical line drawing of Diebenkorn drawing the model to raw and wrenching images of the female figure, to sense his mastery.

Frank Lobdell: Etchings and Aquatints

Where: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through May 31

Information: (916) 447-4276

Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning/ The Sketchbooks of Frank Lobdell

Where: California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, free admission for all on Tuesdays, through May 25 and June 15 respectively.

Tickets: $5-$8.

Information: (415) 863-3330