Discovering Rico Lebrun in Mexico at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts is a thrilling experience in the way that the best introductions are: eye-opening and ultimately rewarding. At the same time it is a little confounding too because the work is unfamiliar and it shouldn’t be. These are large paintings of tremendous, muscular force that are as passionate as they are perfectly constructed. That the work was made over sixty years ago and largely overlooked is bewildering. To paraphrase Jack Rutberg, “Only in L.A.”
Rico Lebrun was born in Italy in 1900 and came to this country when he was twenty-four after accepting a job designing stained glass in a factory in Illinois. In a very short time he was in New York City where he had a successful career as an illustrator. Lebrun returned to Italy to study frescoes and when he resettled in the United States later he dedicated himself completely to his fine art. He had an auspicious start; almost immediately Lebrun received a commission for a fresco and was subsequently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship based on the drawings for a proposed mural. The following year they gave him another one, the second of three Guggenheim Fellowships he earned in his lifetime. When he relocated to the West Coast in 1938, he first moved to Santa Barbara but eventually settled in Los Angeles where he taught at the Chouinard Art Institute and the Disney Studios. Lebrun achieved many accomplishments during his life: gallery representation and teaching positions on both coasts, mural commissions, solo exhibitions, museum shows and fellowships. Three years after his death in 1964, the Los Angeles Museum of Art gave him a retrospective but there have been scant opportunities to see his work since then. Rico Lebrun In Mexico seeks to rectify that.
As a participating show in Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, all of Lebrun’s work in this exhibit was made during and in response to his time spent in San Miguel de Allende. In 1952 he was teaching at the Instituto Allende but he continued to work on most of these images well after his return to the States. In his Mexican journals, (themselves very poetic) Lebrun marvels about the local markets and customs perhaps because they echoed elements of his youth in Naples. Inevitably it seems as though the stimulation of the Mexican culture influenced his artistic vision too because his work began evolving. His earlier work was often steeped in classical drawing and religious themes, the best known being the Crucifixion, (1947-1950) still on view at Syracuse University, New York. But the early fifties heralded a time of immense change in painting with the abstract expressionists dominating the conversation and Lebrun was not immune to the lure of abstraction. The work in this show represents a departure from most of his figurative work as he experimented with abstract forms to a greater extent than either before or after his time in Mexico.
What is most striking about the paintings that were inspired by San Miguel de Allende is the vitality of the work. The locale and the influence of Picasso and Goya (whom Lebrun was known to admire) are strongly felt, particularly in Mexican Meat Stall, completed in 1954. This painting has something of the feel of Guernica to it, not only because of the reference to bulls, but also through the expression of anguish. Lebrun uses angular shapes and bold colors to conjure death while an improvised grid depicts the meat stall and focuses attention on the brutality inherent in the butcher’s trade. However, apart from the representational aspects, there is an energetic quality that transcends the slaughterhouse. Loose brushwork, paint drips and decorative elements all contribute to a liveliness that betrays the harsh reality of the subject matter. Lebrun’s use of collage to make quick, expedient changes bring exuberance to the work that aligns with the abstract expressionists. Standing at eight feet tall, even the size of Mexican Meat Stall contributes to the impact of this impressive work, allowing for an immersive experience.
In Mexican Street In the Rain (1954) Lebrun again uses paint and collage in an oversized format to great effect. Here he conveys the experience of a sudden deluge with jagged shapes descending from stylized storm clouds. Lebrun uses vertical bands to accentuate the tumultuous downpour while irregular shapes convey chaos brought about by the wind. In the text from his journal that accompanies Mexican Street In the Rain, Lebrun writes in his journal:
“Bells had been clamoring for rain: then it came, violent, and with such malevolence that it changed fields into rivers and washed all the corn into the gullies. Shutters, tents, market stalls and chairs, batlike skirts and flying tresses of scuttling women flapped and slid through the tall arches of solid water spouting from terraces on both sides of the streets. The walls were huge maps of mottled pomegranate, chocolate, ice blue, and almond green, and the sidewalks of Queretaro stone looked like slabs of freshly cut bacon.” *
It is this fervor and sense of discovery that Lebrun captures so effortlessly. His response to his environment is palpable and the painting captures his enthusiasm. In Magdaline and Centurion (1955) he shifts more toward the figurative but the characters are still very abstracted. Constructed in the same modular method as the other work, Lebrun relies on the juxtaposition of multiple elements including patterns and collaged shapes. By the time he made this painting he was already back in Southern California and working on a series about the atrocities of the holocaust so perhaps the figure and humanist themes were beginning to infiltrate and affect Magdaline and Centurion as well.
Mexican Gate is a somber, melancholy painting that seems more related to Lebrun’s drawings than the rest of the colorful works in this show. Hardly monochromatic, it is nevertheless more muted compared to Mexican Street In The Rain or Mexican Meat Stall. The lack of contrast makes the shapes more prominent and as they shift from foreground to background they become intertwined like so many limbs. The iron forms look almost skeletal, more organic than what one expects from a man-made thing. During this period Lebrun wrote about how he increasingly saw the relationships between the landscape and the figure and that perception is beginning to take hold in “Gate”. It also has a depth that is not as present in the other paintings as if to call attention to the space that the barrier seeks to constrain.
Lebrun’s drawings in the show fall into two categories: those that directly correlate to his paintings and those that served more as visual notes or observations of his Mexican experience. The black and white ink drawings displayed beside his paintings seem to be preliminary compositions and it is a pleasure to see the simple sketches, but it should be emphasized that the paintings in this show are very loose themselves and much of their interest is in the way Lebrun allows us to see his creative process unfold.
Throughout Rico Lebrun’s life he worked in series, often returning to certain imagery and humanist themes. Recurring subjects included his Crucifixion cycles and Mary Magdalene drawings, and upon his return from Mexico, his series devoted to the atrocities at Buchenwald. Foremost was his interest in figure. The two years that Rico Lebrun spent in Mexico produced work that in many ways was atypical for the artist. He didn’t abandon the figure entirely, but seemed to absorb the lessons of the country that would transform the way he thought about art. In 1959-1960, five years after his return from San Miguel de Allende, Lebrun wrote:
“I have recently painted a new version of it (the Crucifixion), and this is a bird of a different color-and a bird of many colors, because suddenly as a legitimate reaction to the period of the Crucifixion, after having been in Mexico and seen what Mexico is like and remembering what I am supposed to be as a painter, I have come to the idea of adopting splendor rather than gloom. I don’t say that I am going to pick up gay anecdotes out of existence, but my job now is to do the tragic in a splendid way.” **
This sentiment beautifully addresses the transformative experience that traveling can instigate. Visually and culturally it must have been liberating for Lebrun because his two years living in Mexico became a time of great experimentation. The paintings that he created there and the ones he completed upon his return to Los Angeles are vibrantly colored, lively, and abstract; loose but fully resolved. And although his work did not continue in the same vein, he applied the essence of his newfound splendor to his work for the remainder of his life.
*In the Meridian of the Heart: Selected Letters of Rico Lebrun David Godine Press, 2000. Page 3
** Rico Lebrun quote found in Syracuse University exhibition catalogue: Transformations/Transfiguration Ellen C. Oppler 1983. Page 31.
Lorraine Heitzman is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written about the local arts community for ArtCricketLA and Armseye Magazine and is currently a regular contributor to Art and Cake. In addition to exhibiting her art, Ms. Heitzman has her own blog, countingknuckles.com, and her art can be seen on her website lorraineheitzman.com