SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : Landscape Painting Show Tells Sad Story of Wilderness That Got Away : Some of William Keith's works express panoramic beauty. Others yearn toward an almost religious, epiphanic intensity.

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On one level, the century-old California landscape paintings of William Keith, now hanging in all their resplendence at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, might be dismissed by some as the conservative art from the continental fringe, when the 20th Century was struggling to be born.

These paintings embody pre-modern ideals of beauty, in subject and rendering--ideals that were firmly challenged not long after they were painted.

But it may be increasingly difficult for Californians with any interest in the state--in its pure state--to look at these rhapsodic images with any proper degree of objectivity. The pictures in the traveling show, "William Keith, California's Poet-Painter," tell a beautiful and, retroactively, sad story about a pristine wilderness that got away over the course of a tumultuous century.

Art can be affected by the headlines, which recently reported a plan to dam up the rustic Clavey River, not far from the vistas where Keith set up his easel.

Looking at the unspoiled luster and yawning spaces of a painting such as "San Anselmo Valley Near San Rafael," the viewer glimpses--literally--another place and time.

Keith was born in Scotland in 1838, the same year as fellow conservationist John Muir, whom Keith befriended in the 1870s and whose passion for this landscape--particularly Yosemite--he shared. That affection is palpable in a painting such as "Yosemite Falls," with its late-afternoon sunlight spilling out in a subtle wedge over the craggy cliff.

While Keith's work tends to be shamelessly romantic, its levels of painterly "poetry" varies widely.

The work of Keith, one of the most successful Northern Californian painters of the late 19th Century, gained in sensitivity and evocative qualities after his sojourns to Europe. The trips seemed to have a liberating effect on his brushwork, loosening it up, opening his eyes to the potential drama of light.

The critical balance in landscape painting relates to reportage and interpretation: It's a matter of bringing to the canvas a reliable accounting of the natural experience while also synthesizing the human presence therein.

Keith's most affecting art, most of which is tucked away in the back of the Ventura Museum gallery, works off the orchestration of light strategies. He could be expert at finding meaning in contrasting values and densities of light, especially when it came to sunlight at either end of the day.

Many of the paintings in the show impress mostly as documentation of panoramic, mountainous beauty. But another group of Keith's work yearns toward an almost religious, epiphanic intensity.

"Burst of Light in the Sky" finds cows in a meadow amid the warm burst of final radiance at twilight. In "Twilight at Cazadero," a flock of sheep are herded in a diagonal line across the composition, out of a clearing pregnant with the sun's last light.

That seemingly spiritual light-sensitivity is the very subject of "Twilight Hour," depicting darkening, murky woods with the day fleeing in the distance. Another moving image is "Grand Forest Interior," a dense thicket of forest into which a golden bath of sunlight creeps and illuminates impressionistically rendered visitors.

From the evidence in this exhibition, Keith had only marginal interest in the human factor on this new landscape. Settlers, when present at all, are marginal figures imposed on nature rather than interwoven into it.

In fact, greater respect is shown for cows, which tend to loll benignly amid the foliage, like heaven-kissed foils for the Earth in its unadulterated state. They are the silent, uncredited protagonists beneath the "Dazzling Clouds" and in "Sunny Meadow and Stream with Silvery Clouds," the deceptively pragmatic title that reveals a kind of built-in, honest poetry.

Not one to grab the reins of any proto-modernist ideas, Keith was content to give expression to the stuff of cows, meadows, clouds and twilight. And his art gains considerable appeal, 100 years later, because of our fear of the Golden State losing even more of its precious sheen.

Now you see it . . .

ART ABOUT DANCING

Ojai-based artist Gayel Childress has been a steady source of intrigue in the county's art scene, including some memorable neo-Fauvist landscapes of Ojai.

With her show of recent work at the Buenaventura Gallery, Childress lets her hair down, splashing around in some unabashed whimsy.

In these semi-abstracted scenes, Matisse-like figures cavort in mid-dance amid washes that savor the quality of seeping color. With her surreal figure relationships, she also taps into Chagallish mysticism, alluding to transitions--death, departure--in the bittersweet "Say Goodbye," counterbalanced by "Say Hello."

She makes a cheeky feminist statement with "What We Women Do--Till Our Faces Turn Blue," featuring a scantily clad woman on a tightrope, with, sure enough, a blue face.

"All Thumbs" is a ruggedly attractive thing, an organic messy tangle of forms--human and otherwise--and color sprays, a painting that allows itself to be all thumbs, and is proud of it.

In the variety of paintings in the outer gallery, standouts include Shirley J. De Fazio's loony "Ignorant Bliss," a loving, fisheye lens ode to napping swine.

Roxie Ray's bold note of regional realism, "Oxnard Plain Strawberry Pickers" successfully marries a worthy social agenda--casting a respectful eye on that neglected local population--with a strong compositional sense of order.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"William Keith, California's Poet-Painter," through Oct. 17 at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St. in Ventura, 653-0323. Gayel Childress, through Saturday at Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara Ave. in Ventura, 648-1235.

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