You never know where you might find a new museum these days. I was recently down in Orange, California visiting Chapman University when I came upon The Hilbert Museum of California Art which bills itself as “California’s newest Art Museum.”
Take that with a grain of salt as new Art museums seem to be opening every week in LA. Still, the Hilbert is a newcomer and also smart enough that what they exhibit is distinctive. The Hilbert houses the collection of Mark and Janet Hilbert who began collecting ‘California Scene’ paintings in 1992. Currently located in a warehouse building on Atchinson Street near the Orange Metrolink Station, the Museum is slated to move to an 18,000 square foot building a few blocks away in 2019.
The Hilbert’s collection of California Scene paintings belong to what is referred to as ‘narrative painting’ — paintings that tell a story, in this case of California, its places, and its subcultures. Over the years, the Hilberts amassed a collection of some 1000 oil paintings, watercolors, lithographs, and sketches. “We had grown up in California, so we could immediately relate to the images captured by these artists,” Mark Hilbert said in the Hilbert’s press materials. “Since watercolor paints and easels were very portable, many were done on the spot and had that special quality of spontaneity and in the moment realism that we appreciated.”
Let me see if I can explain this distinction better: Edward Hopper, one can surmise, was a narrative painter, as was Norman Rockwell. But they were not California scene painters. On the other hand, California based artists such as Richard Diebenkorn or Sam Francis painted abstract works and so, are not considered scene painters. Finally, one can argue that David Hockney, although English born, has done a great deal of work as a California Scene Painter. But if you find painters such as Rick Griffin and John Severson who were born and lived in California and painting the surfing scene, then you have the trifecta.
Which is my long-winded way of celebrating a very small but wonderful exhibition at the Hilbert, “Making Waves: Rick Griffin, John Severson and California Surf Art” (Tues, Wed,, Thurs, Fri and Sat 11:00 AM – to 5:00 PM until April 7th, 2018.
The exhibit is curated by Gordon T. McClelland, an Orange County Native, artist, and curator who has long known the Hilberts and was, in his own account, “Pretty much from the beginning I was involved with Mark [Hilbert] in developing the idea for a museum.”
McClelland’s own history as a collector goes back to the late 1960s. For many years, McClelland had collected the art from California Orange crates. McClelland, an avid surfer, also collected artworks about surfing. At the same time, he was also doing light shows for concerts in the late 1960s for the White Room and its owner John Gardell who encouraged McClelland to make a business of his collections. There turned out to be a great market for those not only in the United States but in Europe as well. Those orange crate artworks have been very good to him.