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VISUAL ARTS / LEAH OLLMAN : Soviet Festival Aside, S. D. Will Offer Diversity in ’89

With or without a mayoral proclamation, 1989 is shaping up to be a bountiful year for the visual arts in San Diego. The Soviet Arts Festival, scheduled for October and November, will undoubtedly get the heaviest dose of hype of any local art event this year. In terms of visual art offerings, however, the festival promises to be mostly bark and very little bite.

The rich and diverse programming that has quietly slipped onto the books of local museums and galleries for the year attests to both the city’s potential and its accomplishment much more convincingly than any of the spectacles planned by the mayor. Exhibitions organized by major institutions across the country will be stopping in San Diego for a spell this year and, more important, local art museums will be spreading their wealth as well.

The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art continues to lead the pack in this regard, this year initiating two touring exhibitions, beginning with the first comprehensive museum retrospective of the work of Vernon Fisher, a Texas-based artist known for his complex and often obtuse narrative works. After its La Jolla debut (Feb. 3-April 2), the show will travel to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and other distinguished venues. Later in the year, the museum will exhibit the work of designer Emilio Ambasz (June 9-Aug. 6). The show will explore Ambasz’s contribution to architecture, industrial design and graphic arts, and will also be seen in Montreal and several other American cities.

The San Diego Museum of Art, hardly a vigorous exporter of its creative products, will travel only one of its exhibitions this year, a retrospective of the Spanish Impressionist painter, Joaquin Sorolla (Sept. 16-Oct. 28), co-organized with the Institute of Modern Art in Valencia. The museum’s schedule for the year, however, does reflect a more adventurous importing policy than usual.

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Its show, “Art For the Public: New Collaborations” (March 1-April 9), from the Dayton Art Institute, offers an educational perspective on the highly provocative arena of public art, through plans and models of seven projects throughout the country. The Bronx Museum of the Arts will be sending “Latin American Presence in the United States, 1920-1970" (May 22-July 16), which focuses on how the U.S. has acted as “stimulus, source, haven, receptor or locus” in the work of artists from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries.

The museum’s sporadic steps into contemporary art and art linked to other cultures touch on firmer ground this year with these two shows as well as an exhibition featuring the paintings of Li Huai. Trained in Beijing and now living in San Diego, Huai explores the experience of working in such disparate milieus in her show, “An Artist in Two Cultures” (June 10-July 23).

With the demise of most of the city’s serious contemporary galleries in the past few years, local artists have seen their home-based opportunities dwindle. Of the galleries that remain (or have newly opened), only the Dietrich Jenny Gallery maintains a strong and consistent commitment to local artists. This year the gallery will show work by Steven Criqui and Michael Cuddington (Jan. 5-Feb. 4), Amanda Farber (Feb. 9-March 11), Ernest Silva (April 20-May 20) and Wick Alexander (May 25-June 24).

Local artists will have a chance to respond directly to one another’s work in Installation Gallery’s new “Hothouse” program. Each month, a different artist will make his or her mark on an appointed section of the gallery, modifying the work of the previous month’s creator and setting the stage for the next. The gallery will also spotlight the downtown art scene once again with its annual Artwalk (April 22-23), a weekend of open studios, galleries and special exhibitions. Sushi Gallery’s annual “Streetseries” presentation of art in public spaces (Feb.10-March 11) promises to ignite the city as well, in its own surreptitious and subversive ways.

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Other stimulating experiences in store for the year include the “Rosenberg Era Art Project,” a traveling show of historic and contemporary work along the themes of patriotism and the Rosenberg trial itself (at Installation and the La Jolla Museum Downtown, Sept. 8-Oct. 21), the Thomas Babeor Gallery’s exhibition of work by the elusive Surrealist Joseph Cornell (March 17-April 16), and the San Diego State University Art Gallery’s sponsorship of a site-specific collaboration by New York artists Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler (April 21-May 24).

While the mayor’s decision to bypass the city’s natural links to Latino culture and concentrate its first international arts festival instead on the remote expressions of the Soviet Union generated a measurable amount of flak, that bond will not go unexplored this year. In addition to the SDMA’s “Latin American Presence” exhibition, three promising shows are scheduled at four different venues. “Young Mexican Painters” will be shared between the Mesa College Art Gallery and Palomar College’s Boehm Gallery (March 17-April 27), and will be accompanied by a symposium on Mexican and Chicano art.

Sushi Gallery will organize a show of work by Hispanic women from Tijuana and San Diego (March 17-April 15), and the Centro Cultural de la Raza, which faces the challenge this year of sustaining its momentum through a change in leadership, will present a show of photographs by Latina women that was curated in New York.

If the efforts of a consortium of contemporary art venues--LJMCA, UC San Diego’s Mandeville Gallery, SDSU’s Art Gallery, Installation, the Centro and Sushi--materialize, a group of Soviet artists will be brought to San Diego as artists-in-residence in the fall. Then, perhaps, the Soviet Arts Festival will elicit as much vitality and energy as the city’s arts institutions strive for all year, every year.

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