It may be a distant second to the real thing, but a good perspective on the Channel Islands is at the Ventura Harbor, in the warm, dry confines of the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center. Here, photographs and relief maps seem to defy indifference toward the rugged terrain of islands that, on a clear day, seem just a short hop, and yet a world, away.
Photographs and maps are one thing. But when nature is filtered through the artistic process by which painters consider and transform a subject, the spirit can be all the more intense. Such is the story with the current exhibition here of work by artists from the Santa Barbara-based OAK group. Their landscape works celebrate the relative purity and unspoiled beauty of these islands, and champion their preservation as wild, natural enclaves.
The ecological aspect of this show is more than happenstance: Artists in the OAK group cling to the idealistic notion that art can influence social order and public policy. By creating affectionately rendered landscape paintings, and focusing on specific, identifiable areas, the art becomes much more than a detached exercise in nature lore.
What the artists apparently found in the Channel Islands was a sometimes stark but generally inspiring terrain at odds with the congested Southern California that we know and don't always love. A sunset sky casts pink light on a lovely, unpopulated valley scene in Michael Drury's "Creek Crossing Stanton Ranch." The rippling formations of hillsides are the subject of study in works by well-known Santa Barbara artists Ray Strong and John Conner.
In his paintings, Thomas Van Stein takes good advantage of situational light. In one painting, he depicts late afternoon sun raking over the hills and projecting one last wedge of lambent light on the beach.
Taking a different tack from the others in the gallery, Tom Dewalt adopts a photo-realist approach in his piece "Island Surf," glorifying the almighty wave. Polygon glare spots, from sunlight on a camera lens, add a touch of irony to the quasi-photographic painting.
Buildings are scarce on these islands, which makes their appearance all the more dramatic. Arturo Tello's works evoke a kind of mysticism in their view of regional architecture, what precious little there is. Erika Edwards' finely realized "Light House Point" is one of several paintings documenting the lighthouse, a beacon of romantic allure.
The side effect of viewing these works--a desirable one at that--is that it excites interest in actually paying a visit. In a validation of the idea that art can inspire life, this art makes you wish you were there.
* Exhibition of art depicting the Channel Islands National Park, through Tuesday at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, 1901 Spinnaker Drive in the Ventura Harbor. Gallery hours: 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 658-5725.
Art Hopping: On Saturday, the annual Holiday Art Walk descended on Ventura, on a smaller scale than last year's wingding, but still with its spirit intact. This is the time when kitsch, window dressing and more serious art are on view for the passerby.
One of the pleasures of the Art Walk is the surprise introduction to private art spaces normally inaccessible to the public. Take, for instance, the upstairs studio space adjacent to the Oddfellows Lodge, with several of painter Roxie Ray's portraits of farm workers and assemblages by Judee Hauer. Here, too, visitors have added their own contributions in paint to a work-in-progress on an old door taken off its hinges.
At City Hall, the sprawling, scenic art space that has been the Third Floor Gallery--in the former women's jail facility--had a bittersweet closing reception, although the future is up in the air. Lining the halls of the second floor are works by Lindsay Thomson, who meticulously cuts, folds and weaves paper into textures that resemble fabric, fooling the eye in delightful ways.
Off in another corner of downtown, the Buenaventura Gallery is featuring work by Katherine McGuire, who demonstrates an admirably light touch and a feel for harmonious color in watercolor and mixed media. Her admirable painting of the vintage Ventura High School auditorium, flanked by palm trees, makes for a lean and idyllic scene.
With her views of Ventura and Malibu, McGuire manages to paint an impression of Southern California as a place of airy splendor, with an untrammeled Mediterranean ambience. It's art that makes you glad you are here.
* Katherine McGuire, through Jan. 11 at the Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara St. in Ventura. Gallery hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 648-1235.