Art, no matter who is behind it, reveals the motives and the state of mind of the artist. When we know that the artists are of a particular ilk--especially when they're outside normal art channels and traditions--it influences and broadens our way of seeing. It's no accident that art-watchers have become increasingly drawn to folk art or other "outsider" art.
At a fascinating group show open to the public at the Camarillo State Hospital and Developmental Center, we can't help but scan for clues of another mentality. "Journey Toward Being" is the sixth annual exhibition of art by patients and staff in the mental health fields in Ventura County.
Curated by art therapist Jack Cheney, the show features works in two and three dimensions and in many different media.
The art is frequently intriguing on its own merits, as much for art's sake as a testament to the fruits of art therapy.
At the opening Sunday, a fair-sized crowd milled while patients-artists wandered about the room. Some of them danced to a hip-hop tune by Ryuichi Sakamoto on the public address system.
Donna (the artists are known by first names only) explained to me the elaborate Christian symbolism of her piece "Christ Coming to Earth." Not a typical art opening. Not typical art.
The effect of the exhibit resembles the memorable "Thrift Store Paintings" show at Santa Barbara's Contemporary Art Forum a couple of months back. There, collector Jim Shaw showed paintings he picked up at thrift stores, swap meets, garage sales. The paintings, for the most part, boasted a refreshing frankness and a lack of artifice.
The "Journey Toward Being" pieces make you speculate on the artist's outlook on a confusing world. You wonder if the boxy, brightly colored figure in Alan's "I've Arrived" is gesturing triumphantly or if he's merely robotic, the victim of institutionalization.
Reference to cartoons and other child-oriented culture arise. Sally gets the details of Porky Pig and his pals nicely in "Porky at the Ice Cream Parlor," while Mike focuses on lunch call with his "Waking Up Snoopy for Lunch."
The resident draftsmanship virtuoso is Michael, whose many finely rendered pencil drawings feature mutating beasts. The artist himself is the subject in "Self-Proclaimed Artist," with a head attached to feet reminiscent of Dali.
Some of the artists use the natural therapy of abstract painting--pure gestures sprayed and flung onto the canvas. Often, the colors are loud and fluorescent and the expression joyous. Titles can be revealing: Patty's "Twist and Shout," Cheril's "Cheerful" and Brian's "Rainbow Vortex" illustrate the exuberance of their abstract expressions.
Michael's "Waterfall" looks like both a vibrant Rorschach blot and a mushroom cloud.
One of my favorite pieces in the show is so small and introspective that it might get lost in the shuffle. Kerry's "Drowning" is a lake scene in pastel, the tranquility offset by the tiny figure apparently drowning.
"Playgirl," by Noah, is another puzzling charmer, a portrait of an oddly primitive rabbit-like creature. It's a simple image: elemental and mysterious. I had to buy it.
Another strangely powerful image is Susan's "Bull," with the subject poetically evoked. What we often see in this show is creative vision fairly unfettered by convention or the influence of art history (except for Audrey's portrait of draftsman Albrecht Durer).
And there are constant reminders of the underlying pain of the artists here. Amid the artful flourishes, for instance, is Curtis' bleak "Being in This Place" with a stick-figure man in a cage.
Nancy Whitman was as literal as she was literary when she entitled her painting and her art show "Room With a View," now at the Momentum Gallery. Whitman's art--shamelessly bowing in the direction of early Matisse--is about the interaction of the room and the view in question.
Whitman's studio, from whence these views come, is at Rancho del Oso above Ojai, overlooking a garden and the valley. The title work depicts a nicely outfitted studio. A still-life arrangement sits on the table against the window, and tutti-frutti-colored drapes hold the composition in place. Outside, we see the garden's splendor, a constant backdrop for the artist.
Whitman's palette can be, at times, that of toned-down Fauvism (if Fauvism was the movement of "wild beasts," her art has the temper of a mild beast). One of the better pieces on view, "Room With a Coffee Pot," features more vivid hues and a grid-like pattern of orange-red rectangles stretching the question of realism (the influence of the coffee?). "View From a Porch" is a view of the paradise in her back yard, with a glimpse of a Spanish Revivalist tower amid the valley vegetation.
Nature is seen by Whitman twice removed, interpreted with her loose style and observed through glass, lightly. In this private little wonderland, Whitman paints hazy, idyllic images of life in neutral.
A sight and sound benefit for AIDS care is sponsored by El Concilio at the Dorill B. Wright Center in Port Hueneme on April 27. A special exhibition of artwork by artists Carlos Almaraz, Richard Peterson, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Mark Flores, Jaime Estrada and Michael Mora will be on view at 7 p.m., preceding a concert by guitarists Strunz and Farah at 8.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Journey Toward Being," the sixth annual art exhibit by the Ventura County mental health patients and staff, will be shown through Sunday in the Staff Conference Room at the Camarillo State Hospital. It is open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Nancy Whitman, "A Room With a View," through April 27 at the Momentum Gallery, 34 N. Palm St., No. 11, Ventura.