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Art Review : Feasting On Earthy Fare

January 07, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

SANTA BARBARA — As all tourists and weekend visitors know, this is a town saturated in ambiance, from its salty pier to its dawdling Neo-Spanish paseos . Maybe that is why one is inclined to view two exhibitions at the local art museum as manifestations of the character of places.

One presents recent work by Guy Williams, a former L.A. artist now nested up here (to Jan. 26). The other is called "A Golden Age of Painting" and concerns Northern European pictures from the 16th and 17th centuries (to Jan. 19).

Aside from its slightly pretentious title, "Golden Age" is a laid-back and modest compendium of about 40 Dutch, Flemish and German works from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. It has its gaggle of pictures labeled "Rubens" and "van Dyck," but its virtues are those of a dinner after the holidays, when simple fare tastes awfully good after a diet of gourmet concoctions.

Left free to concentrate on something other than the sauce of fancy reputations, one is struck by the impression of real life created by the ensemble of these images. A view of the town of Dordrecht by Jan Van Goyen shows us that Holland was as cool, gray and flat 350 years ago as today but human life was immeasurably more immediate and tangy. We see a church, a windmill and a few boats, and know that the tiny figures depicted there led lives as intertwined as roots in the earth.

Funny how Northern art leans toward the depiction of our species as a collection of burrowing animals inhabiting earthen passages. The white, hairless skin of the people reminds you of peeled potatoes and turnips. Hieronymus Bosch's crazy vision of St. Christopher carrying the Christ child through a sinful world seems set in a subterranean realm. In a busy "Adoration" by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the holy stable is like a cave, and so is Adriaen van Ostade's cottage full of brawling infants and drunken peasants. It's a small, great painting that tells us something else about Northern art: that it was never better than when it cloaked an elegant vitality in a mantle of vulgarity.

That bagpipe player by Hendrick Terbruggen is so earthy you can smell the beer on him, but his Caravaggesque silhouette is grand and noble. Sometimes Anglo-Saxon forays into the Italianate grand manner left them looking a little silly--Abraham Janssen's nudes exude a bit too much body odor to represent all four of the elements. Well, we always have Rubens and Rembrandt to remind us that the North could magnificently outflank its own limitations.

Anyway, that's not the point. Vitality is the point--still-life tables groaning with ripe food longing to be eaten before it goes rotty; avid, cockeyed dancers in Dirck Hals' merry company. Even Phillips Wouwerman's scene of soldiers plundering a village pulses with the energy of face-to-face existence. Nobody died in a war fought from thousands of feet in the sky. You got to look your killer in the eye.

The modern viewer shudders a bit. It must have been rough, but the evidence says it made people avid about life while it lasted. The paintings pulse so much that the spots on Jan Fyt's hounds won't stay painted on their bodies.

It's hard to imagine one of these folks suffering from anomie or the desire to be skinny. They liked laughing, drinking and being fat--all enriched by empirical philosophy and bold fancy.

Poor Guy Williams. How is anybody going to look at his geometric abstract paintings without pitting rosy dreams of the past against the skeptical reflections of our present selves?

Inescapably, Williams' art is of our mechanical, industrial, analytical times. Aside from a certain inevitable mod chilliness, there is a surprising amount of continuity between the two shows. Williams' recent work is Modernist Baroque in spades. Its use of diagonal or X-shaped compositions lends it much of the same internal dynamism as the work of the 17th Century. In the big "San Marco Pass" he uses a flipped-up plane as a matrix for a wonderful juggle of forms between logic and serendipity.

Baroque art invented very little, but it inflated the known visual lexicon to noticeable newness. Much of its content was sheer delight in its own virtuosity. Thus it is with Williams--the work pulses with pleasure in the taste and control the artist has gained in some three decades of practice. The fact that there is not a single mistake in these 16 paintings and works on paper is a trifle unsettling.

The big difference between Williams' Baroque and the historical Baroque is in the basic impulse. Those Northern Europeans seemed to trumpet their paintings into existence, whereas Williams' works are worried and fussed to life. The end result is vital--Williams knows what he's doing--but the effect is crucially different.

Like a Baroque artist, Williams is working in a style that is virtually international. His fastidious perfectionism tacks it to California. It is silly to compare the raised surfaces of his collage-method compositions to the tiles of Santa Barbara, but it is not silly to observe that his high-control velocities are about West Coast hedonism. Plummy, exotic color combinations like that of "Goleta Landing" evoke lush, tropical summer nights in Lotusland.

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