Mix Master : Alberta Fins’ perspective differs from that of many of her colleagues in Ojai.
Alberta Fins scrunches up her face at the thought of being considered an “Ojai artist.” Fins is an artist who lives in Ojai, but she says she has little in common with many of that fair town’s artistic community--at least that contingent of Ojai artists intent on making pretty pictures.
That much is obvious to anyone who has visited Fins’ mixed-media show, “Immersed,” at the Momentum Gallery in Ventura. Throughout the impressive exhibition, her complex and sometimes tortured images convey anger, physical energy and confusion, but also metamorphosis.
Strictly speaking, there is not a pretty picture in the house. The pieces, rough-hewn and mysterious, work on many levels. Surfaces have been abused or altered, from canvases that have been torn and slashed to chemically melted plastics and fabrics.
Collage, xerography and other mixed-media effects add to the intrigue, and the impression is that these pieces have known abuse--scraping, smearing, spray-painting, burning.
The “Rites of Passage” series features images on paper with curled edges--such as photos that have survived, if barely, a trial by fire.
Swatches of brighter colors are generally obscured beneath washes of gray, brown, or, in the case of the title piece, “Immersed,” waves of blue. But even the water imagery here is more disturbing than soothing. In this blue, a red cross is drowning along with a photo of mysteriously floating skirt.
Facing gallery visitors as they walk in is “Admonish,” a piece that was recently selected by Barbara Haskell, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, to be featured in the “International Juried Exhibition--Art and the Woman Artist” at the Clary-Minor Gallery in New York. The claustrophobic image features a faint cross icon, the red and white stripes of a warning sign and a tattered vortex at the center of the canvas that appears to have been physically attacked and shredded, and symbolically scorned and admonished.
The presence of crucifixes in many of these pieces--and such titles as “Double Cross” and “Cross Bite"--tips the viewer that, beneath the deliberately murky visions, religion is the target. Fins explains: “My series does not only deal with fanaticism, but with organized religion, period. Everyone has the answer. Everyone is right. It scares me to see followers. There are a lot of people who go to church and question what the pastor has to say. I think that’s great, and it has to be that way.”
Fins lives and works in a house at the end of a lane, with its back yard against San Antonio Creek. A rustic but sophisticated house, its stained wood paneling gives the impression of redwood, counterbalancing the modernist, rectilinear design of the building.
In front, an orchard boasts a variety of fruit trees. A former barn has been transformed into a large studio. The secluded spot is a landscape artist’s dream, a garden of paintable delights.
“I can’t understand it,” says Fins, sitting in her spacious living room and gesturing toward the picture window framing the back yard.
“People will come here, look out at this natural beauty and say, ‘Oh, God, how come you’re not painting that?’ I think: ‘Why the hell should I paint it? It’s right there. I can’t do a better job.’ If I were to paint anything, it would be an interpretation of it--a huge canvas full of atmosphere, with no specific references. You’d just get the feel of the scene.”
Fins was born in New Jersey, but moved to Los Angeles in 1950 at age 17. After two decades in the city, Fins and her husband, Joe, bought the Ojai house nine years ago. Joe owned haircutting salons and Alberta worked at bookkeeping between fits of art-making.
It was after Joe’s death a year and a half ago that Fins plunged into the series now at the Momentum Gallery. The processes used in her current work are the result of a lifetime of medium-hopping, from painting to printmaking to photography (she has shown her photography locally in the past few years) and photo silk-screening.
Fins recalls: “I found that, if I could use a camera, by manipulating and setting things up, it was so much less work than doing etchings. I’m always looking for ways of shortcutting processes,” she says with a laugh. “Why labor if you don’t have to?”
An impressionistic painter in her early days, Fin says her current interest is in mixing and matching techniques, in finding ways to fuse her disparate directions in art. “I’m putting them all together now in a sense.”
By necessity, Fins’ studio--out past the fruit orchard--has several workstations. Her work entails wandering from the large, skylighted wall where she paints, to the darkroom, to the outside wall where she abuses fabric and plastic with chemicals. Another shed houses her works in progress.
The artist’s interest in adorning works with “chemical-melted plastic” came about by accident, after she had been transferring images onto fabric with an etching press. The chemicals “ate the fabric, and I liked the feeling of that effect. I went further and tried it with plastic.” Because she needed a good deal of pressure to deal with huge chunks of plastic, Fins wound up adding a cement tamper to her list of artistic tools.
“First, I rolled the car tires over it,” she says. “That didn’t work, so I picked up a cement tamper that was around in the garage. I’d have my fabric and lay colors on, throw chemicals all over it and then take my cement tamper and stamp the hell out of it,” she says.
Art can be a highly physical task for Fins. “A lot of my pieces have scratched surfaces. That’s an emotional response about how I feel.”
Maureen Davidson, the former head of the Ventura Arts Council, was the Momentum show’s curator. Davidson writes that, in Fins’ recent work, “symbols from prehistory combine with signals from modern society. The resultant images provoke uneasy responses at deep layers of consciousness.”
The artist is reluctant to analyze her art. ". . . when I’m working, I don’t think of what I’m going to do. That’s what makes it so hard to go back into the studio. I work intuitively. I just start slapping paint around.”
In most of Fins’ work, there is a give-and-take relationship between abstraction and realism. “My work is not completely abstract. I don’t do that purposely. I don’t say, ‘Let’s see, I’ve got to put something in here so people will be able to see what it is.’ I don’t really care. But I do unconsciously.”
Fins pauses for a moment, then adds, “maybe I have to hold onto some kind of reality. I really don’t know. My work hasn’t always dealt with religious issues, but it has always been on the serious side. I’ve never painted happy little things, but I have used a lot of color.
“If I didn’t have painting, I’d either be going to a psychiatrist or maybe become a political activist.”
* WHERE AND WHEN
“Immersed,” a show of mixed media works by Alberta Fins, will be displayed at the Momentum Gallery, 34 N. Palm St. in Ventura, through Aug. 18.
UP CLOSE ALBERTA FINS
On the place of art in her life: “I think art is what keeps me normal. I really have a sense of humor. I’m an up person and I do a lot of laughing. I think I have that side of me because I’m able to express the other side in the studio.”
On selling her work: “I never thought of art as a selling commodity. From when I started making art, it never dawned on me to sell art. I do sell work from time to time--serious collectors buy it. But I would starve to death if I had to rely on my art.”
What’s to come? “What I really want to do is work with the melted fabric prints. That, in itself, is a very serious act. When you take fabric and destroy it, that in itself is a very serious thing. I don’t think I could put happy little balloons in the paintings.”