SIGHTS : Assembly of Arts Show Enlightens While It Entertains : The works of 27 artists are displayed in the museum exhibit. The rugged paintings of Ojai's Michael Dvortcsak stand out.

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Once a year, the parade comes to town. The Ventura County Museum of History and Art is given over to a perennial fine art display known as the Assembly of the Arts, designed to ferret out a selection of art made in Ventura County. In so doing, it purports to make some kind of defining statement about the state of the arts here.

The dangers of such a subjective, sprawling group show are obvious: One jury's conclusions and exclusions are necessarily etched in rubber. Also, what we don't get from a swap-meet exhibit such as this, mostly with only one work per artist, is a broader view of the artists' work and essence.

Those quibbles aired, somehow the annual exhibition usually manages to surprise, enlighten and comfort. The current show is no exception. If anything, this 13th annual show presents an especially hale, hardy--and roundly entertaining--group of work, encompassing both familiar faces and newcomers.

Out of 127 entries, 27 artists were chosen, and there is a fairly equitable mixture of media and attitudes, with a slight emphasis on art with a hook beyond just the visual plane.

The most exciting work in the show is that of the rugged painter Michael Dvortcsak. Dvortcsak, who exhibits in New York and elsewhere, has lived in Ojai for several years, but makes his first appearance in a Ventura County art space.

His 1994 painting "Goddess and Vessel" is a striking example of the painterly issues he has dealt with over the years. A guarded romantic, Dvortcsak has a way with a canvas that is both rugged and probing.

In this peculiar sort of double-edged still life, dualities rule. We peer at objects from disparate points of view and manner of painting, creating an enigmatic effect that is less about the glib archetype-mashing of post-modernism than a healthy internal dialogue.

A tactile, earth-toned ground serves, ostensibly, as a backdrop for the vessel, similarly painted with a loose, chunky richness of brushwork. But this rust-hued ground is interrupted with a window through which we see the more smooth surfaced, curvaceous goddess figure. An illusory sense of depth, a hint of secret inner life, enhances the considerable strength of this painting, which rewards close inspection.

There is no lack of humor in this year's Assembly, much of it relegated to one back wall--class clowns generally being seated in the rear. Exhibit A in the humor department is the by-now familiar "Juror's Choice and the 'In Crowd' of the Art World," with which Mary Christie good-heartedly lampoons a distinctly Venturan phenomenon.

She depicts a group of shmoozing sheep at a museum reception for the somewhat notorious Assembly of the Arts show two years ago. That year, Kyle Lind's wonderfully loopy, naive painting "Auto" nabbed the first-place award, to the consternation of disbelievers.

While Christie's painting has been seen in other galleries around town, when it is seen here in the very space it depicts, the painting seems especially pointed, as an in-house in-joke.

Jim Russell takes the prize for laugh-out-loud whimsy. He has defaced/enobled two generic living room-ready "found paintings," brandishing them with ghostly red silhouettes of a speed boat. Russell's quirky boat leitmotif throws preconceptions in the air and gently jabs us in the ribs.

Deadpanning all the way, "Old Boat Rapture" is presented in an extravagantly kitschy frame and is nicely lit, while "Lori"--named after the original painter's signature--is tilted on its side for added dislocation.

Russell's wife, Carolyn, whose work was among the most memorable in last year's show, weighs in here with the calmly compelling and discreetly political "Desert Storm 2." In this swirling yet introverted composition, a hazy image of a landscape is scarcely visible behind a wispy cloud and through an aperture in a sinister black vortex.

It's as if nature is being enveloped by dark forces, or is struggling to burst out of an abyss.

If Kyle Lind's audacious lark of a painting aroused controversy for its award, the first-prize winner this year is almost too innocuous. Ab Bornfeld's "Rose la Rose at the Empire" has its clumsy charm, as its floral subject is set in contextual relief against a frame doubling as a proscenium stage. But there's something slap-dash and unfinished about the conceit.

After viewing works of various ulterior motives and outright comic audacity in the show, it's difficult to appreciate Ron Marlett's extravagant flower-and-fruit "Still Life" at face value, and with a straight face.

We instinctively look for signs of an extra-visual scheme or concept behind his precise, technically adroit brushwork, detailed right down to the last water droplet. The painting comes replete with a gaudy gilt frame that pushes it over the top, in terms of cosmetic opulence.

Frances Hofsess and Louise Owens, in different ways, project a deceptive lightness in their work, with free-spirited, light-suffused and weightless compositions. From the Ojai ceramic art elite--a vital artistic enclave in the county--comes Otto and Vivika Heino's stoneware beauties, and Heather Young's "Saurian Dance."

The photography component ranges from Phillip Avila-Ruiz Garcia's darkly lustrous interior shot to Charles Spink's more ironic take on still-life tradition: "The Vessel Apparent" is a multilayered image with a spider straddling Styrofoam. Jurgen Kuschnik's enchanted "Candy Sunset (Ode to Ruth Bernhard)," seen last year at the Buenaventura Gallery, focuses on lifesavers casting looming shadows.

Habitual Assembly entrants are woven throughout the show, giving it both a sense of continuity and an opportunity to gauge these artists' progress. Christine Brennan shows two of her continuing, engaging fantasy scenes from an unidentified planet or state of mind or both. She portrays the secret lives of ambiguous creatures here, with one napping in a canoe and a couple standing in a sexually frisky pose for the artist.

Richard Peterson's evocative lithograph "Doug," from his series of portraits of people living with AIDS, is unapologetically Hockney-esque with its homoerotic poolside nature, and its accent on the flickering visual distortions of light on water.

And then, there is the reliably impressive Suzanne Schechter, whose distinctive sense of figurative painting connects modernity with older ideals. Her work this year, "True North," taps into the area of fragile warmth and subtle friction of Degas. A moody dark, and closely cropped space underscores the tender embrace of pale father and daughter, striking by contrast to the ambience of the space.

Inevitably, controversy and factional discord tend to swirl around the Assembly of the Arts. There is talk within the museum of changing the format or reducing the frequency of the show. But it remains a vibrant sign of artistic life in the county, the boldest annual glimpse at what goes on behind closed studio doors of some of our finest artists. Long live the parade.

Details

* WHAT: Assembly of the Arts.

* WHEN: Through March 5.

* WHERE: Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura.

* CALL: 653-0323.

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