John Musgrove isn’t the first painter to fall under California’s spell, and he’s not likely to be the last. Who can blame the guy? The Golden State has a magical combination of luminous color and enchanting architecture with cinematic beauty that owes its livelihood to one key ingredient: light.
That light has inspired a long and lustrous lineage of landscape painting that includes the likes of Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney. They were heavy hitters, embracing an experimental approach to color and subject absent from Musgrove’s conservative San Francisco streetscapes. New Paintings, just open at Brett Wesley Gallery, may not reinvent the wheel, but it proves that Musgrove has some painting muscle of his own.
The hushed quiet of Musgrove’s San Francisco is almost anonymous. People are absent from vacant avenues, suspended in subdued anticipation moments before or after human activity. Power lines crisscross high above curving, empty streets that end in an occasional glimpse of the Pacific, an unseen player lingering somewhere just out of view.
Several paintings reveal themselves to be different perspectives of the same intersection—at dusk, at dawn, after dark. With “Red Car Dawn” and “Westward,” Musgrove does a great job of describing subtle color shifts in building facades, nicely capturing the effect of changing light conditions. While most of the work is tightly controlled, more interesting vistas like “Looking West” shift between painterly restraint and loose, breathy strokes. Exquisitely conspicuous power lines accentuate broad raw shadows with loving care and attentive detail, an eye-seducing combo.
Musgrove’s urban snapshots owe more of a debt to SF painter Robert Bechtle’s streetscapes than to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. The artist withholds unnecessary detail, a reductivist approach markedly similar to that of Edward Hopper. Simplified forms elevate color and shape, providing clarity and psychological precision; soft romantic light and luminous structures ooze California dreamin’.
Musgrove’s urban panorama and smart manipulation of light draw a sharp complement to the photographs of Heather Protz, featured in the adjacent Forms for Thought exhibition at the gallery. Desert light has its own way with color; the CSN photography professor does a marvelous job of sharpening that chroma into focus. “Red,” “LV Horse” and “No” each celebrate a different example of Mojave radiance, but “Checkstrat” is my favorite. A ravaged, blown-out checkerboard tile plummets toward the erratic Vegas skyline. Partially washed out in reflected white, it almost burns your eye—a vision for masochists who love August in the desert.
With so much focus on the streets, don’t let the concrete fool you. Urban landscape may be the primary subject at Brett Wesley Gallery this month, but sunshine is the star of the show.