Santa Paula is a wonderful little paradox. It may be one of the last genuine small towns in the area (and proud of it). But its bucolic splendor can be appreciated after an easy drive from the big city. So close and yet so far.
No doubt that critical proximity factor lured artists to the area and helped foster a sense of artistic purpose there. It was 55 years ago that the Santa Paula Art Show was launched, making it the oldest juried art show in the state.
"California on Canvas," the current show at the Ventura County Museum, takes to the "boonies" of Santa Paula for its substance. With art taken from various Santa Paula collections and featuring many works from past shows, the exhibition offers a portrait of a town and a regional art scene that intentionally ignored the 20th Century.
From the early stages of the art show, Douglas Shively was a patriarch of the scene. A baker, rancher and painter, Shively essentially brought the show to town, inspired by regional shows in other parts of the country. Shively the artist is represented here not by images from the hometown, but by paintings of European houses and Southwestern terrain.
Lawrence Hinkley, originally a cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times and a painter by instinct, staked his claim as artist and art supporter just down the road in Fillmore, setting up the somewhat renowned gallery The Artist's Barn in 1935 (the woodsy structure earned landmark status in 1984). Hinkley's "Low Tide, Morro Bay" is an impressionistic scene emphasizing sky.
Not many of the pieces in the show actually depict Santa Paula, except for Dan Tiogo's straightforward portrait of the Santa Clara School. Emil Kosa Jr. saw the light and the inspiration in his "On the Way to Santa Paula," with voluptuous hillsides and barn structures dotting the land (Kosa Jr. was the subject of the recent show at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard).
Kosa Jr. was among a few artists in this show who found work in Hollywood to support their personal work. Other show biz-employed artists include Charles Payzant and Duncan Gleason, whose oddly intriguing "Steckle Park" is perhaps the most striking piece in the show. In it, a mother, daughter and collie are viewed at a picnic table from an overhead perspective, as if the artist is lurking in an oak tree. Mottled light streaks through the tree, making for a dabbled, pointillist-like surface.
A significant name in Santa Paula art is Botke. Artists-in-wedlock, Cornelius and Jessie Botke moved to Wheeler Canyon in 1929 and became members of the art community, often painting murals when not working on their disparate artistic pursuits.
Jessie Botke's pristine paintings of birds and other gilded wildlife are among the best in the show. "White Peacocks with Grapes" is an unabashedly extravagant image, in which plump purple grapes are tickled by feathery plumage and touches of gold leaf. A hint of tension pops over the territorial imperative of two ducks in "The Intrusion." Other than the one suggestion of friction, Jessie Botke's art world is a gleaming, Angst-free, hermetically sealed private reserve.
Cornelius, meanwhile, takes to the outdoors with "The Days of Spring," a riverside scene reminiscent of Seurat's pointillist classic, "La Grand Jatte." Cornelius Botke's "Old California" of 1951 is a wistful rural scene, a paen to the good old days, as in Oxnard resident Junie Harp's "Proudly We Lived," with a mansard-roofed Victorian house being slowly engulfed by urban blight.
The museum show, apart from its incidental aesthetic pleasures, serves as a history lesson, which is fitting given the heavy accent on history at the museum. You can also follow the art trail further, into the field, so to speak.
One of the places it takes you is to the Skillin Mortuary in Santa Paula. There behind the podium in the chapel, in epic proportions and muted colors, is one of Cornelius Botke's murals. Painted in 1934, the scene depicts stately eucalyptus trees and a tranquil lake, the picture of solace. Sometimes, you find art history in the most unexpected places.
Warning: undraped figures have been repeatedly seen in area art spaces. Proceed at your own risk.
William Hendricks, an accomplished commercial photographer and teacher at Ventura College (and a Santa Paula resident) is a photographer with a keen, clever eye on the nude figure. Often, he goes too far with his coy strategies in presenting the nude. Like a good ad man he knows how to titillate without going over the edge into eroticism.
In his show "Chasing the Light" at the college's Gallery TWO, Hendricks often employs soft focus or carefully obscures key anatomical areas, making these models squirm uncomfortably between archetypes of nudity both in fine art circles and on Madison Avenue.
A skilled craftsman, Hendricks' prints are sharp and clean. The subject matter gives off more ambivalent messages. At times, the images look like provocative ads for sheets or, in the case of "Comfortable Rubber," with a slender nude draped on huge inner tube, it looks like a spread for a rubber manufacturer's calendar.
More interesting is his series of shots of a nude woman writhing against a crumbling wall in Santa Paula, taken at one-minute intervals for 15 minutes. Personally, I liked "3:48."
In a statement, Hendricks writes: "If this experience is seriously intended, we will move beyond an erotic personal reaction to the naked body, to a higher understanding of ourselves." From my viewpoint, I had trouble latching onto the serious intention and couldn't get past a baser understanding these women tended to excite.
UP THE COAST:
Casitas Springs-based photographer Donna Granata deals with nude subjects in a subtler way, as seen in her show of treated Polaroid images at the Faulkner Gallery in the Santa Barbara Public Library. Her small, misty portraits involve figures around whom milky, hand-painted gestures are swirling. Granata's acrylic brush strokes on her original images add surface tension or simply supply a cosmic backdrop wash.
"Kakine," with its tilted camera angle and the model's look of longing, looks like a '50s magazine ad gone awry. Bashing tired conventions of who qualifies as a nude subject, we also see a forthright shot of a nude pregnant woman, which now coincidentally recalls Demi Moore's similar pose on the cover of Vanity Fair.
There are also portraits of artists in the show, including a few dreamy self-portraits, all flowing hair and languid poses, and two images of Ventura sculptor Neil Pinholster gesturing like a mad sage on a hilltop.
Also on view are the treated Polaroid images of fellow Brooks student Dana Spaeth.
* WHERE AND WHEN
* "California on Canvas: The Santa Paula Collection," at the Ventura County Museum of Art, 100 E. Main St. through Sept. 29.
* "Chasing the Light," photography by William Hendricks, at Galley TWO, Ventura College campus, 4667 Telegraph Road through Sept. 27.
* "Reaching Through the Lens," photography by Donna Granata and Dana Spaeth at the Faulkner Gallery in the Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara, through September.