In the entire state, is there a more prestigious-sounding name for an art venue than the California Museum of Fine Art? Hearing it, one may imagine a sprawling complex in Balboa Park, Golden Gate Park, or even adjacent to Disney Hall on Grand Avenue. But this new home for the visual arts is located here in the South Bay, a few doors down from the post office in Old Torrance.
“This used to be a retail clothing story,” Brian Higa says of the completely renovated building, which he purchased with his wife, the artist Dali Higa. Dali not only paints, she’s the director of this budding enterprise.
If you’ve never heard of, let alone been to, the California Museum of Fine Art, don’t assume you’ve been out of the loop. A week ago there was no outdoor signage on the building and the inaugural exhibition still hasn’t opened to the public. But that changes tomorrow – Friday, March 8 – with a reception that goes from 4 to 9 p.m. and includes a ribbon-cutting, wine and appetizers.
From Hangzhou to Paris
Officially, it’s still winter, but on this particular afternoon it feels like early summer. I’m sitting around a table at the front of the gallery with Brian and Dali, Charlene Nishimura, and Dan McCaw. Charlene is Brian’s sister; she handles press and publicity, and makes a grueling commute from Burbank. Dan is an elder statesman of artists, loves to expound at length about the meaning and benefits provided by the arts, and along with his two sons – John and Danny – is among the seven artists whose work is being featured. The other painters on view (besides Dali Higa, Dan, John, and Danny McCaw) are Max Turner, John Asaro, and Millie Greene. Most of the paintings are representational, but leaning towards a kind of smudgy or smoky expressionism.
Although the initial hanging seems to thrust the McCaw clan into the spotlight, an overview of the museum would have to begin with Dali Higa, whose pictures – often small groups of people or idyllic scenery – are reminiscent of Cezanne as filtered through Eastern eyes. They are heavily impastoed, and yet serene, meditative, and quite detailed.
I’m guessing that Dali is prolific, and that she puts in long hours when she picks up her brush. Upstairs in the gallery where she has her working studio there is one work on her easel that is nearly finished, with others leaning up close by in various states of completion. As Charlene says, “Dali’s a true entrepreneur; everything she touches, she just makes it work.”
Having now lived in the United States for about 20 years, and currently residing in Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes Estates, Dali Higa is from Hangzhou, China. Although she grew up during the repressive Cultural Revolution, Dali’s father was a history professor, her mother taught music, and both of them wrote and painted. Her siblings are artists as well. When she was seven, Dali began receiving lessons in calligraphy. Clearly, hers was a family with aesthetic pursuits.
She did not, however, go straight into art school, but took the corporate route, diving into the competitive marketplace, later starting an import/export business and also a pharmaceutical company.
Despite financial gains, Dali says she continued to feel pulled towards making art. After all, it was certainly in her blood. So she cashed in her chips, as it were, and went to Paris for two years: “I lived across the street from the Musee d’Orsay.” And what better place on the planet is there to study firsthand the masterpieces of the French Impressionists?
Naturally, she traveled to other European countries while she lived in Paris. Dali points out that she had had business clients all across Europe, and no doubt these connections came in very handy.
Even now, Dali travels extensively. As we walk through the gallery she points out the various countries depicted in her paintings – this scene’s in China, in India, Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and so on. But clearly she retains a fondness for French culture, and – because this writer has four aunts still living in and around Paris – it’s a sentiment I share.
“Paris is one of my favorite cities,” Dan says. “I love the energy of a big city. It awakens something in you – the sights and sound and textures, the people…”
A nourishment in the very air, that all artists need, and Dali was fortunate to be able to absorb it in full for a couple of years.
Calling their own shots
Thinking that the California Museum of Fine Art would be lining up one bugle-calling show after another, I took the wrong tack. I kept asking what was coming up next, who they’d be showing and for how long, the sorts of things one inquires of your usual art venue. But this is not your usual art venue.
“I think what they want to do is separate themselves in a sense from a gallery that you can come to every day,” Dan says. What he sees is an emphasis on special events that would take place three or four times a year (perhaps like the lecture he’ll be giving there on March 23; details below) that could lend “a little bit more prestige or credibility than just a gallery that’s open every day of the week.”
“Also,” Brian adds, “the motivation is not just profit. We’re not here just to sell paintings like a lot of galleries. We’re here to pick what we feel is the best art, regardless.” In other words, they can showcase what they choose and keep it hanging for as long as they’d like.
“It’s kind of a museum-gallery hybrid,” Charlene explains. “I think it’s a great venue because you have international artists coming here; and they’re also a non-profit, so they want to be involved in teaching and giving back to the community.”
This talk of “international artists” is where it gets interesting. The museum – presumably through Dali’s contacts – has close ties with artists in China. In short, an exhibition that focuses on Chinese artists is in the offing and that sounds pretty exciting to these ears. It also resonates with what the newly-opened El Segundo Museum of Art proposes to do, which in their case is to sponsor visiting artists from overseas (mostly from Germany), and thus in a larger sense the South Bay may yet muscle itself as a prime destination for people seeking fresh forms of artistic expression.
“The beauty of art is not in its similarities but in its unique differences,” Dan says. “When it excites the imagination and it opens our eyes to something that we didn’t think about, it gives us back something more than when we came here.” He sees exciting possibilities for the new museum: “As long as there’s curiosity and there’s energy and interest in this it’ll keep growing.”
“I also think you need different perspectives,” Brian says, and by that he’s referring largely to international perspectives. “We’re tapped into the base and the trends that are happening abroad, in China especially, which is emerging, and that might be the biggest market in a few years for art.
“So we’re not restricting ourselves to what everybody else does,” he continues; “we’re opening ourselves to international input as well as local. But obviously decisions (for what will be shown) are made based on a different perspective, not just established perspectives – whatever that is. There should not be any established perspectives on art anywhere.” He pauses to disparage the artificial networks that hype artists and promote name recognition, or branding, at the expense of perhaps lesser-known but worthier, more compelling artists.
Dan concurs. “A lot of galleries seem to be drawn to feeder schools, the feeders that come out with MFAs and especially contemporary art… It’s not necessarily that it’s good art, but they have an MFA.”
“Or they have it from some recognized school,” Brian says.
“A lot of times with contemporary art it’s a merchandising element,” Dan says. “If you have an MFA it brings more credibility for the gallery to sell that piece of art.”
“Not every jazz musician has a degree from a prestigious university,” Brian says, “and not every Ph.D. can play.” In athletics and music, he notes, it’s pretty clear who the better players are. “With art it’s a little less obvious because you’re depending on an expert to tell you ‘This is the best person’ or ‘This is what’s best.’
“With music and with athletics it’s a very honest profession, and I think that with art it’s a little less honest. It’s all about who you know and who you’re connected to, and what person is going to brand you so that they can gain something materialistic from selling this painting or promoting this artist or doing a show. I think it’s all part of the politics of the art, and we want to separate ourselves from that.”
It’s an interesting stance, or aesthetic if you will, because one does have measuring sticks for both music and sports. A sour note can be discerned, and if a baseball settles into the catcher’s mitt instead of sailing over the left field wall, we can see that, too. But with art, it’s all over the place and the rules – like writing on the sand at low tide – are constantly being erased and rewritten. Some art clearly holds water – a Raphael, a Vermeer; other art holds water but didn’t use to – Manet, Van Gogh; and for some art we still can’t be absolutely sure – Warhol, Koons, Hirst.
Listening to Brian Higa, one may detect a certain caution as the museum finds its footing. The current body of work is decidedly modest, restrained, muted; it’s high-quality art but it’s also not avant-garde to the extent that anyone will confuse it with Eli Broad’s collection. My guess is that the California Museum of Fine Art will keep a low profile and restrict the hours it’s open to the public, but I also think that it has the potential – especially if it eyes visual artists from abroad – to evolve into a reputable outpost for viewing little-known artists with observable talent. As for more cutting-edge work in Torrance, so much of which is debatable but most of which at least prods us to rethink our boundaries, there’s the Torrance Art Museum. Without a doubt, there’s room for everybody to toss their hat into the ring.
‘So we’re not going to spend a lot of time on marketing and promoting the shows,” Brian says. “When we see the opportunity or something that presents itself and is worthwhile, we’ll have a show. We don’t have a particular schedule.”
Finding the purple tree
The main gallery of the California Museum of Fine Art has easy-on-the-eyes lighting and dark brown, solid wood floors and exposed overhead beams. It feels spacious and I like its spare, uncluttered feel. To me, the room is truly conducive for viewing art. But now we’ve moved upstairs to the conference room, and against the walls on two sides there are bookcases lined with art books. My eyes light up – the titles, at least, jump straight into my arms. I’m reminded of the artist Eva Kolosvary-Stupler, and the library of art books that she has in her home with Harvey Stupler.
One good thing that Brian and Dali Higa have in their corner is the loquacious painter Dan McCaw, who of course has been sitting in on this conversation from the beginning. He has been painting for 50 years, he says, and he and his two sons own a building, also in Old Torrance, which they use as their own art studio.
As for Dan’s art, it brings to mind the quiet atmosphere of Édouard Vuillard and his contemporary Pierre Bonnard, with what seems like a Richard Diebenkorn use of painterly swaths and a nod to the extenuated figures of Alberto Giacometti.
Referring to the new venue but speaking of the arts in general, Dan has some poignant thoughts about how all of us can benefit:
“Anytime you bring something cultural to a community you’re going to raise the consciousness of that community, and the more they eliminate art in schools there have to be some venues for young people to come and see there are different ways of thinking, and when you do that, you see many interpretations: That type of thinking feeds into science, it feeds into that critical thinking [of] being able to create free associations.
“Art is not just about coloring pictures; it’s about expanding [one’s] consciousness, about broadening somebody’s perceptions. When you do that, you find the individual can pick things that are closer to their own spirit, and in doing that you create uniqueness. Most people want to be heard in some way; they want to be able to express something or search for something that they themselves [can identify with]. And the arts allow [us] to find that thing that maybe you’ve lost. I don’t think that art gives you anything you don’t already own: I think it awakens something in you, just brings it to the surface. And that’s the importance of bringing art into a community.”
Dan McCaw is adamant in his belief that art enables us to find our essence, but he also emphasizes that going through life we conform, consciously or otherwise, in order to fit in with our peers and with society in general. Later in life, he says, we may attempt to fulfill – through financial or materialistic means – some of which we abandoned in our youth.
“I think that people search for those things they gave up as a child,” Dan continues. “I call it the purple tree. I have a kind of philosophy about when a child becomes very creative and venturous and curious, and if somebody doesn’t react to what he’s doing – his mother, his parents – then he changes until he sees the reaction in them – and we start to do that all through our lives. By third grade when Johnny is praised for painting a tree trunk brown and the leaves green, our purple tree starts to lose its value.
“In order to be accepted and fit in, we start to change, whether it be in jobs or society or relationships or school, we try to fit in for validation. I think that if we’re not allowed to somehow voice who we are, or find out who we are, [that]’s a frustration we carry with us through our lives.”
In a way, then we need to come to a point, a realization, that helps us find our way back to the mentality that allowed us to first envision our purple tree. And this is what exposure to art can encourage, if we allow it to, of course. And this will also allow for, and encourage, improvisation and spontaneity. There’s not just one correct way of doing something. Or, as Dan puts it:
“It’s like driving a car. Some people spend their whole life just keeping a car in the middle of the road. The whole point of the car is to take you on a journey. The whole thing with art is to learn the principles and fundamentals, not to let them imprison or chain you, but to give you the tools to say what you want to say or take you where you want to go.”
And beginning tomorrow a new journey awaits us.
The California Museum of Fine Art is located at 1421 Marcelina Ave., Torrance, and it opens tomorrow (Friday), beginning with a Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting at 4 p.m., followed by a 5 p.m. ribbon-cutting by the Palos Verdes Chamber of Commerce. A reception continues until 9 p.m. with coffee and dessert, wine and light appetizers. Following the opening, the museum hours are Monday, March 11 to Wednesday, March 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursday, March 14, from 10 a.m. to noon; and Monday, March 18 to Friday, March 22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Additional viewings by appointment. Artist Dan McCaw gives a lecture on Saturday, March 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. Donation, $10; proceeds to the Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles – South Bay. (424) 262-0189 or go to californiamuseumoffineart.com.