Loneliness of a long-distance painter

It is a scene much like other urban landscapes, with streets providing perspective, rooflines merging with trees. But what is that in the sky? Is that smog? An artist who paints smog?

“His paintings are quintessentially Californian, in that they celebrate the light and the open space of the region,” says Michael Zakian, Ph.D., director of the Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University.

He speaks of the late John Register, a nationally renowned and longtime Point Dume artist, the subject of a retrospective at the Weisman. Curated by the San Jose Museum of Art to tour nationally, after San Jose it traveled to Seattle and Palm Springs before arriving at the Weisman. “Not only did I select the show because he was a Malibu artist but I think the art speaks to our community,” says Zakian.

He hung the exhibit chronologically, and he offers bits of explanatory biography while discussing each canvas.

Register was born in New York in 1939 and came to California to attend art school. “But he came to study advertising art, not fine art,” Zakian emphasizes. Register then became an art director at a successful advertising firm in New York. “He was good at it, but he found something lacking in that work.”

One day, in the middle of a meeting, Register stood up and announced he had a dental appointment. The married-with-children Register walked out of the meeting and never came back to work.

“I get the sense he was someone who took control of his life as much as he could,” Zakian says.

So Zakian begins his tour with the canvas titled, “Parking Lot by Ocean.” The viewer overlooks a parking lot facing the ocean. On the right is a Cadillac. Next to the driver’s side is a beach chair, but all we see of its occupant is a pair of legs. A symbol of wealth and a symbol of the rejection of wealth meet in this serene, yet humorous, oceanscape. He didn’t paint another human being until years later.

“His biography says he was an avid race-car driver, surfer, swimmer, runner and tennis player,” says Zakian. “But when he was in his 30s, he suffered from kidney disease.” Register was on dialysis when he began painting, and he later underwent two kidney transplants. “The perspective of wanting to embrace life but being trapped in a failing body strongly influenced his world view — which was as an observer.”

The painting titled “Mustang Cafe” shows the front end of a Ford Mustang, circa early, seen through the window of a coffee shop. Known as California’s Edward Hopper, Register seems to focus on empty places — rooms recently vacated by people. “Both [Hopper and Register] used emptiness as a poignant comment on life itself.”

“Bunker Hill” interprets the downtown L.A. site as an ancient ruin. “It’s a hot, smoggy July day. You get a great sense of the type of day in a particular city by showing almost no detail.”

Zakian tries not to focus on the smog, but there it is, for future generations to observe of our time, much like we marvel at the clothing in a Rembrandt.

“John also had a strong feeling for nostalgia. He loved the old, mythic L.A. and the Raymond Chandler stories of the 1940s. In his paintings, he often yearns for a return to a quieter, simpler place.”

His paintings don’t tell stories. Rather, they subtly encourage the viewers to imagine our own. Many canvasses show empty chairs in public spaces — Laundromats, barbershops, hotel lobbies, a Greyhound Bus station.

“The places are public, and transient,” says Zakian. “That’s their poignancy, the emotional charge. He enlivens them with explicit contrasts of warm and cold colors, light and dark boundaries. He keeps the eye stimulated.”

In “Waiting Room,” Register depicts a Long Island barbershop — empty, of course. Its interior is ornate, the landscape in the distance loosely rendered. “Sometimes the most detailed parts are in the mirror’s reflections, more complex than the reality it is reflecting.”

Even “Times Square” looks isolating. Its background is filled and busy, and in shadow. The foreground, in light, is primarily empty, and the human figures walk out of the painting. “Loneliness and solitariness are not negative qualities in these paintings,” Zakian emphasizes.

Upstairs at the gallery, Zakian has hung Register’s 1990s works. In the ’80s, says Zakian, Register’s diagonal lines give a sense of space, but strong horizon lines create an overall sense of tranquillity.

In the ’90s, says Zakian, Register uses an exaggerated perspective, giving an unsettled sense of space — a rushing back. Did he see his life rushing by, Zakian asks? The paintings depict beds and bedrooms, the artist coming home. One of the last is a self-portrait, a meditative work in which Register is seated on his bed.

He died in 1996, but locals remember him and honored him by attending the opening reception. Surf-shop owners and tennis players mixed with the art crowd. His widow, Cathy, still lives on Point Dume.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know him,” says Zakian.

“John Register: A Retrospective” shows through April 2 at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. through 5 p.m., closed Mondays, no admission fee. Tel. 317.7257.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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