Malibu’s Beauty on Display

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Derek Harrison, "Malibu Monoliths at El Matador" Oil, 16" x 24" 

Malibu’s stunning beauty and grandeur through artists’ eyes is on display this week at Pepperdine University. Although it’s opening virtually, On Location in Malibu 2021: Paintings by the California Art Club, a triennial series at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, is expected to begin in-person viewing later this summer.

In this eighth exhibition of the series, 80 paintings are on display courtesy of 50 artists who “show all the beauty of Malibu,” according to Rebecca Carson, the managing director for the Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts. The works depict scenes such as sunsets, tidepools and canyons. All the paintings were done on location, as referenced in the show’s title. 

Some paintings start as studies often consisting of sketches or paintings the artists begin on scene using a pochade, or portable easel with a box of brushes, supplies and paint.  

“There’s some fantastic work this year,” Carson remarked of the plein air (a French term for “open air”) artwork. “This is the best of the best.”

The show was conceived in 1999 by the beloved Michael Zakian, who served as director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University from 1995 until his death in January 2020. Zakian’s widow, art dealer and advisor Lia Skidmore who runs Skidmore Contemporary Art in Santa Monica, explained the catalyst for the series. It was a 1998 exhibition her husband curated: Historic Landscapes of Malibu. That exhibit featured 100-year-old artworks commissioned by Malibu forefather Frederick Rindge to celebrate his acquisition of the Rancho Malibu. Skidmore served on the jury this year, deciding which of the hundreds of works submitted would be included.

Artist Derek Harrison has three paintings in the exhibit. The 37-year-old Santa Barbara resident typically drives once a week into Malibu to paint.  Harrison has studied with a “handful of accomplished painters” including Jeremy Lipking, a local who is also exhibited this year. 

“I’ve found it’s the best way to do it,” Harrison said. “Like an apprenticeship—how they used to do back in the 1900s, 1800s. Even though I live in Santa Barbara, Malibu, to me, is probably the most inspiring place to paint.” 

The artist described one of his paintings entitled Malibu Monoliths at El Matador. 

“I set up [my gear] right on the beach,” Harrison described. From sketches and photographs, Harrison painted a “big studio piece right as the moon was rising over Point Dume and the sun was going down, so it’s a very warm lighting situation.”

In another of Harrison’s paintings he described his model posing in Malibu Canyon “with these clouds coming down and the light striking the model just at the right time. It could not have been more perfect. Malibu is uniquely beautiful,” Harrison commented. 

This is the first exhibition at the Weisman since Zakian’s passing and the first since the pandemic. 

“This is such a bittersweet moment for us because Michael created this exhibition. He loved it. It’s strange for him to not be here,” Carson said. A new portrait of Zakian by California Art Club artist Patricia McGeeney is on display at the museum in tribute to his 25 years of curating, creativity and gifts of sharing his wealth of knowledge with the community of Malibu.

Skidmore, who helped curate this year’s show, said in a statement, in part, “In reviewing the submissions, I thought a lot about what Michael looked for in art, especially in landscape paintings—beauty and transcendence. In many respects, this exhibition is the best in the series. The experience of the pandemic appears to have given all of the artists a fresh, poignant perspective on nature. There are more dazzling waves, more majestic vistas and brighter sunsets. The artists, like all of us, have emerged from our lost year with a deeper love of art and beauty.”

Zakian wrote the following for the 1999 exhibit: “Plein air painting invites a meditation on the complex relationship between time and timelessness, a theme that is particularly relevant when the subject is Malibu.”

“There’s no other place like it,” said Harrison. That’s why I’m drawn to it, like so many other artists. To see all of these paintings done on location is a pretty amazing experience.”  

The art in the exhibition is available for acquisition.