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Major Collection of California Narrative Art Reopens in Orange County

ORANGE, Calif. — The Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University, home to one of the largest collections of narrative art from the Golden State, has finally reopened its doors to the public after a three-year, $12 million redesign and expansion that tripled its square footage. Founded in 2016 with a donation of over $7 million in California art from Mark and Janet Hilbert, the museum focuses on local art and culture from the late 1800s to the present.

The museum’s collection comprises more than 5,000 works and prominently features California Scene Painting, a West Coast form of American Regionalism that developed from roughly the 1920s through the 1960s. It includes pastoral scenes of everyday life and breathtaking seaside vistas as well as dynamic depictions of the state’s rapidly growing urban spaces and freeways. Alongside these quotidian visions of California life, the Hilbert also focuses on artwork from the film world, highlighting work by artists and animators at Hollywood studios.

“We’re at the unique nexus of fine art and cinema art,” museum director Mary Platt told Hyperallergic. “This is what made California unique in the 20th century art world.”

The new redesign, led by architecture firm Johnston Marklee, not only expanded the museum from 7,500 to 22,000 square feet but also divided it into two buildings separated by a courtyard framed by an elevated structure. This structure showcases Millard Sheets’s 1969 mosaic “Pleasures Along the Beach,” which previously adorned a Home Savings and Loan branch in Santa Monica before it was removed and painstakingly restored by Brian Worley, who was on the team that fabricated the work over 50 years ago.

The Hilbert re-opened last month with nine exhibitions anchored by its permanent collection, a chronological presentation spanning the 1880s to the present. Examples of California Scene Painting by Fletcher Martin, Emil Kosa Jr., Millard Sheets, and other notable practitioners are updated with contemporary depictions of California life by Frank Romero, Sandow Birk, and Danny Galieote, whose masterful “Beach Bevy” (c. 2020) pays homage to Michelangelo’s unfinished “The Battle of Cascina.”

The group show A Matter of Style: Modernism in California Art showcases a heterogeneous selection of mid-century artists working in a range of styles. Featuring visionary artist Agnes Pelton, hard-edge abstractionists Helen Lundberg and Karl Benjamin, and striking wood engravings by Paul Landacre, the exhibition portrays a multiplicity of California modernisms rather than a single strand. Among the highlights is a whimsical scene, “Untitled (Fantasy)” (1950s), by Kosa Jr., a well-known California Scene Painter and Hollywood studio artist who created the 20th-century Fox “searchlight” logo and a matte painting of the dilapidated Statue of Liberty for Planet of the Apes (1968). Platt surmises this might have been a concept sketch for the 1959 sci-fi film Journey to the Center of the Earth.

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