Not so long ago, history was considered, with only a little exaggeration, the chronicle of the deeds and misdeeds of conquering kings; the world was their bloody arena, as perversely glorious as Troy's fatal plains (the Great Man theory readily degenerates into The Iliad for Idiots). Thankfully, that millennialist marching/shouting mentality has abated lately, and most of us have returned to reason. Story Painters at the Bedford Gallery presents three eminent local artists — Inez Storer, Hung Liu, and Squeak Carnwath — all of whom, anarchic and creative, see history, the world, and life as shaped by the personal and quotidian, as informed by authorial subjectivity rather than subjection to authority. Their studios — permeated by found objects that they incorporate and transform — are laboratories for processing kerfuffles and calamities. Their artworks constitute a theater of poetic drama, a semi-abstract, semi-figurative record of our dazed days.
While the works on display are autonomous works of art that speak for themselves, the artists' life stories offer new perspectives on the art. Storer is the daughter of German immigrants who fled Hitler and settled in Southern California, but hid their Judaism, raising their daughter as a Catholic. (Her father flew with the Red Baron's Flying Circus and later worked at Paramount for the German-born director Billy Wilder.) Although Storer's independent streak led her to reject the church (she was expelled from one school after turning the paintings upside down as a prank), some of the magic and mystery of her childhood lingers in her magic-realist religious imagery. "Christmas" is a kind of interfaith crèche; so, in its way, is "Duchamp," with its baby crib appropriated from the master's homage to poet-critic Apollinaire. Liu also reclaims the past artistically. Growing up during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, she worked in the fields for four years alongside the peasants. After training in social-realist mural painting, she emigrated to the US, and since then has painted ordinary Chinese workers based on historical photographs juxtaposed with imagery from folklore, art history, and contemporary mass media. "The Last Emperor," about Pu Yi, the last Manchu; and "Richter Scale," commemorating the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, give Chinese history "a human face" through Western visual style. Carnwath, who had a large Oakland Museum of California retrospective last year, continues — in wry, idiosyncratic works like "Easy Is Easy," "Lessons," and "Mental Chatter" — to "affirm the joys and consolations of that alternative spiritual practice, the garage philosophy of art." Story Painters runs through April 11 at Bedford Gallery, Dean Lesher Center (1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek). 925-295-1417 or BedfordGallery.org