When I point at and say, I like that painting, the one suffused with sulphury light, the golden warm of San Diego’s presunset hour, the painter, William Glen Crooks, replies, “Oh yes, that one. Now that was a California moment.”
That is Portico. It’s a four- by six-foot painting that depicts the semishabby, four-door entrance to an apartment house, built in the Craftsman style. Its four doors, side-by-side, are numbered 1,2,3,4 in italics. Each dixir has latticed windows at the top and each has its own character: 1 is opened, 2 has a wreath and a bamboo curtain behind the windows, 3’s green window curtain is drawn, and 4 picks up the glare of a near-setting sun. Doors 2 and 4 sport floor mats of different sizes; several rectangular mailboxes are off to the left and a potted plant on a curved-leg stand is on the right. Across the entire golden-to-yellow surface — or is it that the surface is being goldened by the sun? — courses a modulating, glaring light.
I ask Crooks how he found this image. In Coronado one day, after lunch with a friend, he went into a CD shop while his friend waited outside on a bench. When Crooks came out, he noticed his friend staring at an apartment house across the street. “Don’t bother me,” the other said, “I’m having a California moment.” Before them was Portico, bathed in a glowing, hyper real light. Crooks returned at the same hour the next day to photograph it. Perfect, he thought: One door is partially open. Suddenly a man appeared and shut the door. “It had to stay half-open,” Crooks says. He knocked and begged, “Excuse me, mister, but I’m a painter, and I need to photograph your front porch here with your door open, so would you mind?” The man gave him that look of “so who isn’t la-la these days in California” and obliged.
From photograph to canvas and with a bit of tweaking in the studio, Crooks says the painting is the instant he saw, that day’s late light trapping the architecture, giving the four-plex its peculiar life. The palmy airlight of Crooks’s palette has trapped something else too. Four lives, unwary of his eye, are also present beyond the four doors—four singles who work at banks or software firms, in their 20s, maybe friends but more the keep-to-them-selves type. The four people in Crooks’s vision are, like each door’s timid individuality, similar yet different, alone and equalized in the architectural division. The isolated, rambling young, which he’s suggested by the light and the arrangement of doors he’s captured, causes us to stop and stare, just as his friend did.
Though many of us crow about the warmth here that drove us from other climes, San Diego’s draw is also — maybe more because it’s less noticed — the light, the sun’s parallel thought. The light is the reason near the beach we face the Pacific at sundown, the reason farther inland we turn toward the opalescent glow off the Cuyamacas. Light shining upon may pull us out of ourselves, toward what one Los Angeleno calls the Southland’s “egoless bliss.” Nothing is as invisibly present in Southern California as the hours and seasons of light and air upon land and city — the diurnal paw of fog and near-day-long noontime sun, the white-specked haze, the glaring late July, the distanceless May, the downy green and poppy-full March, the Technicolor on New Year’s Day when television tourists behold the peacock hues from Pasadena and sing of flowers in bowers that bloom in spring and everything.
Glen Crooks — and other representational artists who have pictured San Diego — see with our particular light. Seeing light, though, is paradoxical: The painter needs the light to see the light and what the light beholds, what it softens, hardens, illumines, darkens. Artists paint light and object as one, and they have been doing so since the French Impressionists brought the illumined moment into painting to stay. This ability to render light is the plein-air or outdoor painter's calling: Capturing the object in the sun or shade despite its passing.
The best painters of any region fix a scene in a way that transcends the religiosity of a “glorious” sky or a “troubled” sea, usually attributed to a sincere but amateur work. The image may be blessed by the painter’s brilliance, by her cockeyed personality, her too-vibrant brush, quirky color, iridescent tone. What’s more, the very notion that a given view is artistic ironically makes it more realistic than the photograph’s snapshot. Indeed, people register a realistic photograph of Balboa Park in the 1920s as too plain, too uninspired, to reflect the past. The real view is a somewhat romantic one when it comes to picturing an area we love.
Thus, that artist-shaped scene of La Jolla Shores on a bright summer’s day is our past. It is San Diego as it was and, some say, as it should be. This may be the foremost delight in picturing San Diego: Regardless of the artist’s presence, the hour, or the historical-cultural moment held at bay—what is interpreted for us we regard as our history.
From Oceanside and San Elijo down the coast to La Jolla Shores and San Diego’s hospitable bay is California’s Costa del Sol, a sandy earth where temperate desert abuts balmy sea. Our coastal heliopolis keeps expanding eastward too, from palms to pines to desert scrub, and soon developers may pave it all. Until then San Diegans have a surfeit of dramatic vistas to see. In recording these vistas, San Diego painters have revealed a permanent nostalgia for something rare in the landscape, an unpeopled, austere beauty.
San Diego’s artistic rose bloomed with the 19th-century advent of French Impressionism, a style that featured spontaneous and direct painting often of an outdoor scene. The homegrown California Impressionists flourished from 1900 to 1930 and worked throughout the Southland. Collectively these artists changed painting forever by going outside, recording the region, and influencing how we see the region for more than 100 years.