Donald Munro

Still time to enjoy Lazzari’s movement, color at Fresno Art Museum

Margaret Lazzari’s “Across the Valley” is one of 40 works on display at the Fresno Art Museum through Jan. 3.
Margaret Lazzari’s “Across the Valley” is one of 40 works on display at the Fresno Art Museum through Jan. 3. Special to The Bee

I’m not usually one to recommend going wild in an art museum, but this time I want you to put a different spin on things.

Start off your visit to the Fresno Art Museum’s beautiful show devoted to painter Margaret Lazzari by standing smack in the middle of the first gallery facing north toward a gorgeous 8-foot-wide canvas titled “Tidal Zone.” Lock your eyes on the swirl of colors before you. Then, continuing your sight lines on the horizon, spin.

You can turn as quickly or slowly as you’d like. (Your strategy might change whether you’re alone in the room, in which case I’d say go at it with the speed of a kindergartener, or part of a crowd, which might cause you to be a bit more circumspect.) Revel in the sweep of images before you as you rush by such works as “Ascent” and “Aqueous,” both throbbing with color, and the aptly named “Red Landscape,” as you make a full circle.

There’s plenty of time to look at each work afterward, of course, but you get something else (besides a little dizzy) viewing the show this way. By injecting a little motion into the experience as a viewer, it’s a good way to get into the kinetic rush of gorgeous color in the 40 works on display.

Lazzari, a prominent scholar at the University of Southern California and a prolific working artist, has a style in this survey of recent work that you might call “comfortable abstractionism.” Although the acrylic paintings are mostly abstract, most have something to grab onto for the more literal-minded among us, whether a horizon line in a landscape or a swirl of water in a tidal pool.

“These paintings are not landscapes, although some of them organize themselves more literally than others,” Lazzari writes in the handsome exhibition catalog. “Rather, they are about the space around us, which metaphorically references the space within us.”

In other words, her work is about us as humans lurching and dithering through a vast, complicated and, yes, colorful world.

In the past several years, the Fresno Art Museum has been on a turbulent financial journey, thanks to the Great Recession, as most who follow such things know all too well. One constant over the decades, however, has been the museum’s Council of 100 distinguished woman artist program. Each year since 1988, one artist has been selected for a full-scale exhibition. The program, supported by council members, excludes artists within a 100-mile radius of the museum, which means that many out-of-town artists have gotten exposure in Fresno who wouldn’t have otherwise.

The museum’s new executive director and chief curator, Michele Ellis Pracy, is committed to the program. There is a nice consistency in knowing that the museum’s commitment to female artists continues, a carryover from the era of prominent feminist artist Judy Chicago in the 1970s.

At the same time, Ellis Pracy – who took over in March – promises a robust new era for the museum, and she’s certainly been busy in recent months inculcating herself into the community and finding new ways for the museum to become part of people’s lives. In that regard, the energy in the Lazzari show is a nice match for Pracy’s enthusiasm. (She co-curated it with the museum’s Kristina Hornback.)

I almost let the exhibition get away from me. It actually opened Sept. 26, but a tremendously busy fall, both professionally and personally, kept me occupied. Still, there are a few more weeks to visit before the show closes on Jan. 3, and I recommend it.

One of my favorite works has a decidedly local connection: Lazzari’s “Across the Valley.” It’s a landscape view depicted with thick, finger-wide brushstrokes. The clouds? Thick slashes of greens, yellows and purplish-orange. The foreground? Perhaps a field, maybe even the swirl of a city, realized in earth tones and chaotic purples. The only part of the painting that offers an anchor in reality is the ridges of Valley foothills outlined in thin smudges of red. (Used as I am to traffic mobile apps these days that depict slowdowns in red, my brain first registered: There’s a big jam on the Grapevine.) The painting captures the earthy vitality of the region.

Another fascinating work is Lazzari’s “Enhanced Diagram,” which arose out of the artist’s interest in her daughter’s doctoral work in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. (Lazzari has logged lots of car hours making the drive through the central San Joaquin Valley on her way from Los Angeles to visit her daughter at school.) She took her daughter’s dissertation notes and rendered them in paint. The effect is like looking through a magnified bubble into a green-fuschia world containing the basic building blocks of life.

And then there’s her entrancing “Blue Gray Early Sky,” almost entirely abstract, but with enough of a representational tether to keep the viewer close to Earth. Like the rest of the show, the hues are warm, creamy, exhilarating. Go ahead. Spin if you want to. Let yourself fall into the color.

Margaret Lazzari

Art review