Bergamot Station’s “Vanishing America” transports viewers to another time

By Christina Campodonico

With his super precise paintbrush, Emile Dillon has captured everything from regional fast food chains like White Castle and Waffle House to hyperlocal haunts like the New Beverly Cinema in the Fairfax District, Rae’s Restaurant on Pico Boulevard and Casa Escobar on Wilshire Boulevard

For his latest film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” director Quentin Tarantino turned back the clock on a section of Hollywood Boulevard by half a century — transforming it into a 1969-smothered street of mid-20th century neon signage and marquees, with windows dressed in period fare.

Film aficionados and L.A. history buffs across the internet went bananas for recreations of iconic Hollywood storefronts such as the X-rated Pussycat Theatre and Peaches record store alongside the original Larry Edmunds Cinema and Theatre Bookshop. The entire film in fact feels like a love letter to a lost Los Angeles.

Emile Dillon’s “Vanishing America,” on view at Bergamot Station’s Skidmore Contemporary Art gallery through Aug. 31, exudes similar retro vibes. The assemblage of paintings by the Florida-based artist and grandson of Harlem Renaissance painter Frank Joseph Dillon captures vintage signs and storefronts from across America in brilliant photorealistic detail.

Locals will recognize the neon signs for Rae’s Restaurant on Pico Boulevard and the bright red-orange sign for Wilshire Boulevard Mexican cantina Casa Escobar amid the collection of colorful paintings depicting icons of American fast food culture. Dunkin’ Donuts, White Castle and Waffle House come to life in all their kitschy glory. Felix the Cat (embodied by the iconic black, blue and red Felix Chevrolet sign near USC) and the welcoming neon sign for Mel’s Drive-In in Hollywood also make appearances in the gallery show.

It all comes from Dillon’s deep love of movies and old-school Americana. The Thom Andersen documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is among the retired Eastman Kodak engineer’s favorite films and film noir has a huge influence on him, he says.

Interestingly, it was a vanished movie theater from Dillon’s native New Jersey that first sparked the 75-year-old artist’s mission to capture classic American storefronts and signage on canvas about 20 years ago.

“One day I was looking for a movie theater I used to go to when I was a kid, and I was looking online and I couldn’t find any pictures of it. … Well, guess what? The theater’s not there anymore,” he says. Another old hang had turned into a parking lot, and so an epiphany:
“I said, ‘Oh my God,’ I better run around and get all these theaters.”

Since then, Dillon — who mastered the art of photorealistic painting with training from the Pratt Institute and Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts — has captured the facades for the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and the New Beverly Cinema in the Fairfax District. That movie theater gets a Wes Anderson treatment with charming pink and purple pastels. The Aero is rendered with highly saturated hues reminiscent of the palette from a classic Technicolor film.

Tarantino would approve.

“Vanishing America” is on view through Aug. 31 at Skidmore Contemporary Art in Bergamot Station (2525 Michigan Ave., Ste. B-4, Santa Monica). Visit skidmorecontemporaryart.com for gallery hours.

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