Something is cooking in the heart of Oxnard--the Carnegie Art Museum, to be exact. And it’s well worth the trek, from east or west, across the river or over the grade. Forget about any lingering misconceptions that you may have about Oxnard’s cultural pulse.
With the attrition of art spaces of any seriousness in the county, the Carnegie’s role in the fragile aesthetic ecosystem here is ever more critical.
Take, for instance, the museum’s current roster of disparate exhibitions. The Carnegie is not a huge venue, by museum standards, but by organizing its spaces--on the floor level and the upstairs gallery--the museum has allowed for the graceful display of discrete exhibitions.
Presently, the viewer glides from “Selections From the City Art Collection” to a generous showing of Balinese masks, to the elliptical exotica of the late Mexican artist Chucho Reyes, all without any particular sense of cultural vertigo.
With “Selections From the City Collection"--the first of many exhibitional rotations--we get a glimpse of items from the increasingly respectable collection, which began to accrue in 1925. Another blow against the cultural stigma in Oxnard.
The most impressive piece in this go-around is also one of its subtlest--Albrecht Durer’s minuscule 1507 work “The Lamentation,” a copper engraving purchased from the Estelle Doheny Collection.
Dark and almost inscrutable on cursory glance, the image is a potent depiction of Christ’s limp body being taken down from the cross by mourners. Grief, metaphorical and actual, is etched into the writhing, rumpled forms.
One theme threading through this cross-section of works has to do with affectionate urbanscapes. Emil Kosa Jr.'s watercolor, “From Boyle Heights,” dissects a view of the L. A. community in the mid-'50s as a tangle of geometries across the picture plane.
By contrast, Colin Campbell Cooper’s “New York, West Side” shows the New York skyline, even in 1906, as a jumbled mass of rectangular edifices, some spewing smoke into the choked air. Even here, the view seems rendered with fondness; this was long before eco-correctness reared its head.
The showstopper in this modest but engaging show is Paul Wildhaver’s 1969 painting “Night Light,” a romanticized detail of a brick building by night. The pre-postmodern curveball factor: a tromp l’oeil olive green frame, mimicking the cornice of the painting’s subject.
In another corner of the museum is Reyes (aka Jesus Reyes Ferreira), represented by his paintings on tissue and China paper.
Reyes (1880-1977) was notable for his ability to link the folk sensibilities of his homeland with the primitive instincts of modern artists such as Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet and Marc Chagall, the latter of whom he befriended.
Happenstance plays heavily into his life story. Reyes began painting on delicate China paper as wrapping for the antiques that he sold out of his late father’s antique store. These personalized wrappings attracted attention as artworks, and Reyes’ reputation took off.
The delicacy of this thin, crinkly paper and the seeping effect of the pale watercolor gives the art a physical presence beyond the imagery. With minimal means and a poetic eye, Reyes drew with flowing simple gestures stylized likenesses of skeletons, roosters and gaunt, piteous Christ figures.
Typically spare but loaded, Reyes’ “Angel” features faint, ghostly lines on white paper suggesting flapping celestial wings. His art appears grounded, but ready for flight into another dimension.
The back half of the museum is given over to a display of Balinese masks, curated by Balinese scholar Judy Slattum. The masks, fastidiously carved and crafted and inherently quixotic, automatically take on a quality of mystique to Western eyes.
To that end, there will be a demonstration of Balinese dance to the accompaniment of a gamelan led by Carpinteria-based Ed Dorsey at the museum at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 17.
That event is part of a cultural walking tour of Oxnard entitled “Rediscover Downtown’s Treasures” from 4 to 7 p.m. Stops along the way include the Gull Wings Children’s Museum, Heritage Square and Inlakech Cultural Center.
On Sept. 18, there will be a mask-making workshop related to the Balinese exhibition, sponsored by Mervyn’s.
As Carnegie curator Suzanne Bellah explained, one of the plans for the museum in the near future is to have a regular “Masters in Our Midst” series, showcasing Ventura County artists, in the soon-to-be renovated conference room.
At a time when constriction, conservatism and consolidation are menacing buzzwords in the arts, the Carnegie is branching out, letting its hair down. Somebody’s gotta do it.
* WHERE AND WHEN
“Balinese Traditional Masks,” “The Art of Mexican Master Chucho Reyes” and “Selections From the City of Oxnard Collection,” through Oct. 3 at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 S. C St., Oxnard. Call 385-8157.