The Missions in Art

From San Juan Capistrano to Taco Bell — and Back

by Charles Donelan

From the gated George Washington Smith mansions of Hope Ranch and Montecito to the Taco Bell logo on the wrapper of last night’s chicken gordita, mission style and symbolism saturate Santa Barbara and all of California, providing a kind of aesthetic template for the architecture and imagery of the entire state. From a practical point of view, the resounding triumph of mission style here makes sense — the white walls, red-tiled roofs, and simple, dramatic arches work exceedingly well in our natural landscape. Because it is so widespread, an influence like the mission motif can be easily taken for granted. Yet the historical origins of our dominant California Spanish style remain intriguing, not only because of the Spanish colonial missionaries themselves, but also through the fascinating stories of the artists and patrons who, despite their distance from the original padres, have still taken the missions to heart. In its most widespread manifestation as a style, the story of the missions is the story of those who loved them, what they saw in them, and why.

Through September 30, Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara will be displaying The Missions and Early California Buildings, an exhibit of artwork both historical and recent that reflects the continuing fascination of fine artists with this subject. There is no better way to explore the multiple meanings and deep emotional resonance of the missions than through art. By examining these images, informed viewers cannot only see, but also feel how the missions have transcended any single category of aesthetic influence. Mission style in California has become a kind of second nature, a fluid and dynamic aesthetic force that shapes our lives nearly as thoroughly as its natural counterparts — air, water, and sunshine.

The artist Henry Chapman Ford arrived in Santa Barbara from Chicago in the early 1880s, just in time for the original great mission revival. Ford made the first complete set of etchings of all the missions of California in 1883, one year before the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, the romance novel that is usually credited with founding California’s “old Spanish days” fixation. Looking at Ford’s work today, we see the missions in ruins and immediately learn an important fact — our old Spanish days were born old. It was only when the missions lay in ruins that they became interesting to the world at large. Demand for the California mission style built steadily toward a peak of popularity in the 1920s, when artists and architects realized that it was highly compatible with early modernism and other more eclectic influences. George Washington Smith enthused about the way the mission style freed him to deviate from the formal vocabulary of existing architectural tradition, and incorporate primitive masses and expressionistic shadows into his designs. To see how modernism influenced what artists made of the missions, compare Nell Brooker Mayhew’s Tiepolo-like monotypes of 1914 and 1915 to the “Santa Barbara Mission” in oil by Emil Kosa from 1925. Mayhew’s clear linear verticals are rendered in a highly legible black, while Kosa’s implied verticals emerge from within a pulsating grid of shifting painted planes in the manner of Paul Cezanne.

There is no one true mission style, but rather a harmony of elements — primitive and sophisticated, sacred and secular — that are combined most effectively in the best examples. Some uses of mission iconography are hard to spot because they are hidden in plain sight. For instance, we can all agree that the Taco Bell is a mission icon, but what about McDonald’s golden arches? In the repeated yellow curves of Robin Gowen’s 2006 painting “Mission Nocturne,” the familiar bell appears to share the space of the mission tower with a hint of that world-famous letter “M” logo. Even if you aren’t buying the mission/Mickey D’s connection, you may still find these great paintings of actual missions sensitize you to the more subtle remnants of the mission motif hidden in our contemporary culture.

Finding the meaning of mission style offers more challenges than simply recognizing its pervasiveness. Again, the fine arts are, along with history and imagination, our most valuable guides. Angela Perko’s 2006 cubist work “Santa Barbara Mission with Palms” harmonizes the pose of a single woman in blue with the multiple crosses that adorn the structure she inhabits. The hands she clasps in front of her (perhaps in prayer?) form the intersection of horizontal and vertical that enlists her in the picture’s community of symbolic forms.

Most of these images present the missions without visible human figures, hearkening back to the original revival’s experience of them as abandoned ruins. From a psychological point of view, these unpopulated landscapes imply the isolation of the viewer, who, as witness to the empty scene, becomes the only certain human presence. Equally alone are the endangered Native Americans, who must have felt that the world they knew — and the world that knew them — was vanishing more rapidly than even they could comprehend. What must these mission buildings have looked like to those for whom they were the first Western architecture of any kind that they had ever seen?

This is why it is worth taking time to look again at the icons of the mission and its images in art — so that, in the words of Willa Cather, “Our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

4•1•1 The Missions and Early California Buildings will be on display at Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery, 7 East Anapamu Street, through October 4.

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