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“Poems Without Words” – Curation as an Art Form

The exhibition, “Poems Without Words,” opening at the Irvine Museum on April 6, running through August 10, will include 42 California impressionist paintings, which the director/curator refers to as visual poetry. Or as Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch (46-120 AD) wrote, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” The artists to be exhibited include Franz Bischoff, Anna Hills, Joseph Kleitsch, Guy Rose, Edgar Payne, Granville Redmond and William Wendt.

In advance of the opening, the museum’s Executive Director Jean Stern, who curated the show, waxed poetic in an interview. He talked about how the tones, moods, colors and forms in the paintings can evoke emotions in viewers.

Q: Please explain how this exhibition is unique and different from the Irvine Museum’s other shows over the years.

Stern: This exhibition will feature many paintings of California, which — because they are borrowed from private collectors — may not have ever been available for public viewing. We will also display works from our own collection that have not been shown for the past several years. We strive to offer works that have not been seen in our museum, as well as exhibit paintings that, over the years, have proven quite popular with our visitors.

Q: What style of paintings will be in the exhibition?

Stern: Most of the paintings are landscapes with a few figurative works and several still-lifes. We will display three wonderful bird paintings by Jessie Arms Botke. As an Art Deco artist, she often used gold leaf to heighten the effect of her elegant works. As many impressionist artists came to California for the landscapes, that subject makes up most of the museum collection.

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Q: Your metaphor that the paintings are like visual poetry is fascinating. Can you describe one of your favorite paintings?

Stern: The theme of the exhibition is that painting is poetry with brush and paint. The feelings of delight and sensuality from reading a well-written poem can be experienced in visual terms from a masterful painting. One example is “The Pool at Sundown” by John Frost, painted in 1923. Here, the careful balancing of form and color convey more to the viewer than any written description of the painting. The artist seduces the viewer with soft, gentle natural light. That light in nature would be fleeting, but here it is preserved forever and can be experienced anytime the painting is viewed. There is the subject, structure and rhythm, but the content and message are encountered all at once, and immediately upon looking.

Q: Since poetry can elicit emotions, can you explain how a few paintings in this show can elicit emotions, reminiscences, feelings of joy, sadness and/or longing?

Stern: When one looks at “In Laguna Canyon,” by William Alexander Griffith, painted in 1928, the tone and the mood are immediately absorbed by the viewer. The artist uses color and form to reach the emotions of the viewer. Because the visual approach is immediate, a great amount of emotional material is engaged. “Mystical Hills” by Hanson Puthuff, painted circa 1925, reaches the viewer through the gentle treatment of contrasting light effects and the use of specific colors. The subject is the beauty of sunlight breaking through clouds, but the tone is strongly dependent on the colors used by the artist. The blues of the mountains are there to set a scene of gentle calm, and are contrasted with the yellow of the sunrays and with the landscape scenes that are illuminated by the rays. The setting is beauty and quietude, with the suggestion of the imminent end of the day.

Q: How long did it take you to curate the “Poems Without Words” exhibition? Did others help in obtaining the artworks?

Stern: Our exhibitions are planned months in advance. This amount of time is needed to choose the works from our own collection and to locate pertinent paintings from private collections. Having been involved with the visual arts for over 60 years, I am able to locate specific paintings that I feel will enhance the exhibition. My family of art dealers is also important in helping us locate important works in private collections. And my lifelong friends, Ray Redfern and De Witt McCall, also longtime art dealers, greatly aid in the search for art that normally could only be seen at dinner parties in private homes. My own experience as an art dealer in the 1970s and 1980s allows me to call former clients and request the loan of specific works that I have sold to them.          

Q: How long does it take to hang the show?

Stern: The museum closes for a week or so between exhibitions to allow us to de-install the last exhibition and then install the incoming show. Having produced over 80 exhibitions in the 27 years since we opened, we have professional, experienced art movers and installers do the job.

Q: Do you decide in advance where you will hang the pictures, or do you decide as they are being hung?

Stern: I must admit that one of the most difficult parts of putting an exhibition together is deciding where a particular painting will hang and what artwork will go next to it. Some paintings are so intense that they overshadow anything hanging nearby. We usually display each of these next to another intense work or on a wall by itself. These decisions are made by myself and by Dora James, our curator of education. She is important to this phase, in part because she writes the curriculum for our educational programs. Each exhibition must flow in an orderly manner to allow our docents to properly educate the many school children who visit our museum, as well as the numerous adults who tour our shows.

UCI Irvine Museum Collection
18881 Von Karman Avenue, Ste. 100
Irvine, CA 92612
949-476-0294
http://irvinemuseumcollection.uci.edu/

Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Upcoming exhibition: “Poems Without Words”
April 6, 2019 to August 10, 2019