We’ve been resolutely absolutely modern for 150 years, so we forget that some artists have deliberately broken step; Blake, despising the painterly “Blotters & Smearers” of his day, looked to the Middle Ages for inspiration; the neoclassicists, to Greece. Ralph Borge, who taught at California College of the Arts for forty years, belonged to this contrarian brotherhood, aspiring to “art that could move people, could make them reflect or think” in the old masters’ manner. A retrospective of his work, curated by painter Jim Whiteaker, a former student, presents his realistic portraits and life drawings; his California landscapes; and, ta-da, all of his 1955-1981 symbolic realism paintings, fourteen works about human destiny that combine surrealist/symbolist oddness and theatricality, magic-realist detail, and veiled social critique: this amalgam of Giorgio di Chirico, Otto Dix, Christian Schad, Andrew Wyeth, Ben Shahn, Grant Wood and George Tooker is a potent brew — when the flavors blend.
They don’t always, of course. While Borge’s rendering skill is always evident (see the astonishing early self-portrait in uniform), his symbolism is sometimes heavy-handed. Works employing fractured mirrors (“Metamorphosis”) and flayed-skin masks (“Masks of Persona”) look dated, and the histrionic “Dreams Lost,” with its windblown leaves and clutching hands, teeters into kitsch. But other works make the cut, sometimes with minimal symbolism (e.g., the defeated job-seeker in “The Rejection,” or, the artist as young curmudgeon in a spare, penetrating 1956 self-portrait), and sometimes with the barely allowable maximum: “Autumn Journey,” with its dowdily dressed old lady rowing a boat over a leaf-dappled lake surface reflecting sky and clouds; “Seasons,” with its chatting young couple seen from above, through the coils of a gigantic branch, hemmed in by foreshortened cemetery headstones and branches bearing spring buds; “The Paradox,” with its nude biracial duo standing back to back, separated by ramshackle fence and gilt-framed mirror; the Hopperesque “Gothic Hermitage,” with its man peering out a dilapidated window at a sky as blank as the one in Goya’s “The Dog;” “Dilemma of Adolescence,” with its gangly slip-clad heroine sitting by a tall window, surrounded by broken dolls; and “Grandma’s World,” with its chipper old dame in her regal armchair amid wondrous Thirties knick-knacks — American Gothic Revival. Also showing: work by Borge’s illustrious students, too numerous to list here.
Retrospective runs through March 17 at Hearst Art Gallery (St. Mary’s College, 1928 St. Mary’s Rd., Moraga). 925-631-4379 or HearstArtGallery.org