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Art Facts: a vanishing architecture, an obsolete dream



Chicagoans don't think about southern California in June. Palm trees, cloudless skies, and a reliable sun don't beckon now the way they do during the stone gray days of winter. So it must have been in March or April, when there was no sign of the sun, that some of our pale and grouchy predecessors joined the westward trek in the first decades of this century. "We sold them the sun," said one early Los Angeles developer, "and threw in the land."

On the semiarid California land these developers built tidy boxlike, single-family houses of wood or stucco, with small front porches, that would keep you cool in the day's heat and warm in the chilly desert night. The basic design came from pattern books from a British adaptation of the Indian bangala. Given the hospitable California weather, basements and furnace pipes could be eliminated, making bungalow building an inexpensive proposition. By the 1920s, the first version of "California Dreamin'," by George Devereaux, was on the charts:

In the land of the bungalow

Away from the ice and snow

Away from the cold

To the land of the gold

Away where the poppies grow

Away to the setting sun

To the home of the orange blossom

To the land of milk and honey

Where it does not take much money

To own a bungalow

For about $1,000, any shivering midwesterner could own 360 days--give or take a few--of sunshine and a tiny piece of the Golden State.

By the early 70s, the numbers of bungalows on the streets of Los Angeles were rapidly diminishing. By then, the sun had become cheap and the land increasingly dear. Multiunit stucco boxes that accommodated millions of newcomers during the 50s and 60s had squeezed out many bungalow neighborhoods. The popular California dream was no longer about owning a comfortable and inexpensive home, but about driving Porsches and living in a megabuck house with a hot tub.

Artist John C. Padgett picked up the drift of this shifting dream, painting bungalows that are wedged between apartment buildings, that are surrounded by street signs, billboards, and telephone poles, or that butt up against widened thoroughfares. He depicted these modest, disappearing dwellings in the humble and ephemeral medium of watercolors and framed them with weatherworn scraps of wood. His technique is clean and sharp--almost hard edged--and his houses appear bleached and flattened by the peculiar quality of southern California light and monochromatic sky. The careful details of flowerpots, window sashes, and shadowy porches give dignity to the ordinary and make one wish to go inside and look around.

The use of the ordinary as a subject of art was new in the late 60s and 70s. As it flourished, a hot debate followed about the artistic merits of realism and photorealism, compared with those of abstract painting. Padgett, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, learned to make things look real as he learned how to draw. His talent and the ideas of that time produced a body of work that, from a distance of 15 years, makes the debate seem irrelevant. There is technical mastery and conceptual depth in these paintings of a vanishing architecture and an obsolete dream that time has only enhanced.

Padgett's California houses are on exhibition at the Quinlan Gallery, 1906 N. Halsted, in a show entitled "Habitations/Mind, Memory, Spirit." Also featured are watercolor works by Chicago architect Walter Netsch and small-scale constructions of paper and wood by Ohio artist Toi Ungkavatanapong. The show continues through July 6; the gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 1 to 7, and Sundays from 1 to 5. Call 281-9299 for information.

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