San Diego County Arts Writer

September marks the end of the theater season for the Old Globe, Starlight and the La Jolla Playhouse, but it brings a cornucopia of openings at some of the leading edge art galleries around town.

If, like Tom Wolfe, you have your doubts about the world of contemporary art, these sometimes festive openings give San Diegans a chance to judge a variety of the local, regional and national art at first hand.

In his book “The Painted Word,” Wolfe implied that Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, Photo-realism, Conceptualism--all of this century’s major art “isms"--amounted to little more than a big cultural Ponzi scheme. Anointed by a couple of theoretical wordsmiths, a select few artists could start a new school or movement and become the darlings of the tiny but influential art establishment of a few museums and high-rolling cognoscenti. The rest of the world was left to buy in quickly before cultureville crashed ahead into the next movement.

Wolfe’s is a fine cynic’s approach to contemporary art. On the other hand, there are artists such as Billy Al Bengston. For more than 25 years the rootin’, tootin’ Kansan cum Californian cum Hawaiian has been selling his lovely colored but increasingly abstract and provocative paintings to an appreciative and growing audience. Bengston returns for his fifth annual exhibition at the Thomas Babeor Gallery this weekend with a passel of brand new works. Saturday’s opening follows a Friday night black tie reception. The Bengston show, Babeor said, is always on the first weekend after Labor Day so that Billy Al can make the La Jolla rough water swim. Bengston, at 51, is a triathlete and one year younger than the annual La Jolla swim-in.

Other early September gallery openings are the Tasende Gallery’s show of cast sculpture by Auguste Rodin, which will have a black tie invitational kick-off Friday, and Installation Gallery’s work by a Los Angeles artist, “Jud Fine, A Physical Narration--Without Plot,” which also has an invitational preview Friday.


PAAB STAFF: Now that the deadline for submissions has passed, the selection committee is moving quickly to fill the city’s new $24,000-a-year Public Arts Advisory Board staff position. “We received 16 applications,” said City Council staff adviser Kevin Munnelly, including ones from San Francisco, Texas, Los Angeles, Brawley and San Diego. Only 12 applicants were deemed to be qualified, and at a committee meeting Friday the field was cut to seven.

The person filling the position is supposed to write an arts plan for the city. “The committee will meet again this week, and we hope to be down to about three,” Munnelly said. “Maybe then they will begin interviews.” The city has announced its intention to fill the position by Sept. 16. The committee is composed of Katy Gomez, a member of the city personnel office; Diane Annala, a member of Councilman Mike Gotch’s staff who has a background in arts administration; attorney John Howard, representing the advisory board; and mayor’s office staff member Kathy Howard, wife of John Howard.

SYMPHONY HALL: A check for $500,000 from the City of San Diego to help in the Fox Theatre renovation was delivered last week by Mayor Roger Hedgecock to Ballard Smith. Smith chairs the San Diego Symphony’s capital campaign. Orchestra officials anticipate receiving a similar amount from the city for each of the next two years.

TROLLEY ART: The deadline for proposals for a work of art to be placed at a trolley stop is approaching. The request for proposals, issued after the Metropolitan Transit Development Board waffled over a proposed sculpture by artist David Beck Brown, so far has drawn no submissions. But there’s still a week before the Sept. 13 deadline arrives.

The MTDB’s request for proposals specifies that no San Diego Trolley or MTDB funds be used in the creation or placement of any artwork selected for the Imperial and 12th Street Trolley station. Any artist selected must obtain independent financing. Interestingly, the RFP gives no guidelines as to the kind of art desired. “We’re pretty open. We wanted to see what artists in the area could come up with,” said the board’s Anne-Catherine Vinickas. Any proposed artwork, she said, should be suitable for placement outdoors and require minimum maintenance. Vinickas expects that a number of applications will come in by Sept. 13. The Transit Board plans to make a decision by Sept. 26.

ART BEATS: Jazz great Buddy Rich and his 15-piece band will play two performances each on Monday and Tuesday at the Fiesta Dinner Theatre at 7 and 9:30 p.m. . . . Crawford High grad Stephen Bishop returns to town this weekend for an 8 p.m. gig Friday at La Paloma Theatre. Best known for such easy-listening rock hits as “On and On” and “Save it for a Rainy Day,” Bishop has written movie themes for “Tootsie,” “The China Syndrome,” and “Animal House” . . .

Merle Haggard, Alabama and George Strait are the top acts on the Marlboro Country Music Concert, coming to town Nov. 23. Local bluegrass and country and western groups can enter the Marlboro Country Music Talent Roundup with a shot at the $5,000 first prize. Contest deadline is Sept. 30. Entry forms with rules are available in the San Diego area at the following clubs: Country Bumpkin, Leo’s Little Bit O’Country, Wrangler’s Roost and Circle D Corral . . .

La Jolla Playhouse’s Thursday matinee of “The Sea Gull” has been shifted to Saturday at 2 p.m . . . Subscriptions for the forthcoming Old Globe season have passed the $1-million mark, reports managing director Tom Hall, with more than 54% of capacity sold.