Rock stars, Rockwell under one roof at Fresno Art Museum

The Fresno BeeJune 4, 2014 

Mick Jagger wears flimsy polka-dot pants and a white, laced-up vest that looks like a cross between a macrame plant hanger and a corset. It's 1972, and the Rolling Stones are on their big U.S. tour. Jagger sits backstage on a bench getting his makeup done. In a moment of obvious candor, he's been captured by the esteemed rock photographer Ethan Russell with eyes open wide, head tilted up slightly, as a makeup artist applies eyeliner.

Those big, vacant eyes prompt speculation: Is Jagger thinking about tonight's show? About last night's party? About his place in rock 'n' roll history? We'll never know.

Now contrast that image with another created in 1972: Norman Rockwell's "Welcome," part of his limited-edition "American Family" series of lithographs. A picture-perfect young family — husband, wife, toddler — stands at the threshold to their new home. The man leans over to place a simple welcome mat outside the front door.

How will this family change in the years to come? Will their lives be as idyllic as this optimistic image suggests? Will that young child grow up liking the Rolling Stones?

Again, we'll never know. It's fun to ask those questions, though.

Rock stars and Rockwell might seem worlds apart. But in its eclectic collection of summer exhibitions, the Fresno Art Museum has managed to corral both under the same roof. While it might be risky trying to force connections between the two shows, it's intriguing that both images were made the same year: views of two very different Americas, if you will.

And though it might sound crazy — if you look at the Jagger makeup photo, titled "Makeup," in a certain way, there's something about the fluidity of the gesture made by the makeup artist, and that almost beatific look on Jagger's face, that brings to mind the powerful lines and crisp emotional pull of a Rockwell painting.

Here's a rundown on the museum's five new exhibitions, which run through Aug. 24.

"Ethan Russell: Best Seat in the House." The Jagger photo, titled "Makeup," is one of several behind-the-scenes images of the Rolling Stones. In one, Jagger meets Chuck Berry. In another, Keith Richards exits the "Starship," the famous plane that flew rock bands around the world, with the cheery Stones "tongue" logo painted on its side.

Russell, who at age 22 parlayed a chance assignment to photograph Jagger into a 40-year career, is the only photographer to have shot album covers for The Beatles, the Stones and The Who. He had amazing access to some of the biggest names in rock. The museum exhibition — which is drawn from a show held last year at Carmel's Winfield Gallery — features photographs of dozens of famous artists, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Linda Rondstadt, Phil Everly and Jim Morrison.

Russell shot the "Let It Be" album cover for The Beatles and was there on the rooftop for their last performance in London in 1969. (Russell's angle of the concert in "The Beatles' Last Performance" is different than other well-known documented images of the scene.)

Most striking about this show is the intimacy the photographer was able to achieve with his subjects. Aside from the album covers, most of the time these rock stars seem to have grown so comfortable with Russell that they forgot he was there.

"Rock On: Photography of Tom Gundelfinger O'Neal and Jason DeBord." This companion show in an adjacent gallery adds to the breadth of the museum's summer rock experience. O'Neal is a contemporary of Russell, and his photos of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (including a series for the "Deja Vu" album cover in which the members dressed up in an eclectic mix of costumes, including David Crosby as Buffalo Bill Cody) add to the star power.

DeBord, meanwhile, represents a new generation of rock photography. His concert photos, shot digitally, highlight such contemporary groups as M83, Coldplay, Imagine Dragons and the Arctic Monkeys.

"Norman Rockwell: Lithographs from the Permanent Collection." During the 1970s, the artist produced these five portfolios of lithographs — in limited runs of 200 — with the Circle Gallery. Included are illustrations from "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "School Days" and "The American Family."

The museum acquired the portfolios years ago, and while they've been exhibited in various forms, this is the first time all have been displayed together. Also displayed are several other unrelated Rockwell works that entered the museum's collection over the years.

One fascinating thing about Rockwell is how timeless his images can be — even as they're firmly rooted in a particular time period. His 1972 "Cheering," from the "School Days" portfolio, shows two men and a boy in winter coats and hats in support of a sports team. The attire might seem old-fashioned, but the intensity — and the gesture of the boy waving his red flag — could be found at any NFL stadium today.

"Annette Corcoran: Fantastical Form." Corcoran, a Pacific Grove artist, combines her love of bird-watching with ceramics. Her collection of colorful non-functional teapots is exquisite.

"Wilderness: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act." Members of Fresno's Spectrum Art Gallery collaborated in this show with their images shot in areas protected by the landmark federal act.

If you go

Fresno Art Museum summer exhibitions, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 24, 2233 N. First St. fresnoartmuseum.org, (559) 441-4221. $5.

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com or @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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