An exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum examines California watercolorist Phil Dike’s intimate relationship with the sea.
The California artist Phil Dike was born in Redlands, Calif., and attended the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, where he would later teach along with his lifelong friend and fellow artist Millard Sheets, before leaving for New York, where he studied with George Luks. Later he departed for France and studies at the American Academy of Fontainebleau. Through his travels, Dike expanded and refined his craft in a way seldom seen or expected today, adding new ideas and techniques to the toolbox he used to create his exuberant watercolors. Ultimately, Dike found himself drawn back to the West Coast and to the sea, his lifelong fascination and inspiration, and working for an iconic California company—Walt Disney Studios.
Dike worked as an background artist on the beloved masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) and as a color consultant on the south-of-the-border, Bing Crosby-inspired The Three Caballeros (1944) before leaving the company. His most impressive, and idiosyncratic, contribution, however, is the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” sequence in the groundbreaking, but initially unsuccessful, Fantasia (1940). Dike worked on the majestic “Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria” sequence, as well, but it is in the Bach “Toccata” sequence where his unique vision is most apparent. It begins with a conductor stepping to up to a podium; he strikes up an orchestra which plays furiously, silhouetted in black against dazzling reds and blues. This literal interpretation of Bach’s piece gives way to a more abstract series of moving images, of possible landscapes and colorful waves, gracefully choreographed to swell and crash in a painted ballet. It’s easy to imagine Dike as the conductor stepping up to a podium at the edge of the sea, directing the waves to and fro, adding his own touches of bright color and gleefully orchestrating the ocean into an abstract dance, of the kind that appears in some the painter’s finest work.
This summer the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., will give visitors access to a privileged point of observation from which to look out over Dike’s ocean-inspired work with its exhibition “Phil Dike: At the Edge of the Sea.” The show, which runs from June 25 through September 24, includes 60 works, some of which have never been seen before, spanning roughly seven decades from the 1920s through the early 1980s. Dike’s work throughout this time span flowed through various styles and approaches with a fluidity which recalls his great muse, the ocean. From the impressionistic 1938 oil on canvas California Holiday, which appeared in Life magazine and recalls Georges Seurat’s 1886 masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in its perfection of composition and vivid depiction of human happiness at the sea shore (Dike opting for a wider vista and rockier coast), to his later abstract paintings, such as the metaphysically potent and mysterious Wave Echo (1972). This later abstraction seems to express the deeply intimate relationship Dike forged with the sea. In its reduction of its subject to color, movement and shape, elements Dike had mastered through years of study and practice, Wave Echo approaches a Zen aesthetic. In the striking watercolor, the ocean is seen with no precondition of knowledge or experience. The moon, the sky, and the waves are obviously painted by an artist with a deep relationship to his subject but with the feeling of a first meeting and sight with new eyes. This work and others of the period are collectively referred to as Dike’s “Wave Series” and represent the artist’s most deeply philosophical reckoning with the sea.
Dike was a major artist in the California regionalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s and spent his life in teaching and painting images of the sea provided by his beloved native state, and the bounty that resulted is staggering in its stylistic diversity and thematic consistency. A work like the 1954 oil on canvas Blue Cove recalls Picasso in its primitivism and geometry, but again the ocean unites it with Dike’s previous work and the work to come. The same can be said for the wildly impressionistic 1965 mixed media on canvas Afternoon Harbor Light, but there is something that makes this work stand out from the others. It depicts a figure in a room looking through a window to the ocean below. There is a melancholy here that is rare in Dike’s paintings, a feeling of disconnection. There is a barrier between the figure, with its back facing the viewer, and the ocean, and although we cannot see its face, we know it is not smiling. The ocean for Dike is the source of life and joy, and inspiration and a companion. As we look at his colorful, ever-evolving oeuvre, we see that the sea is not simply a subject, but a guiding principle and source of strength and hope.
By Chris Shields