SANTA BARBARA — Rick Stich once seemed to be Southern California's Matisse. Now he appears as our Monet, painting shimmering landscapes that make the world safe for contented reveries. How bad can things be if there's an Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden where an artist can lose himself in the astonishing splendor of nature?
For the past five years, the four-acre garden in Santa Barbara has been Stich's subject. Now 26 paintings of the park and nine related works on paper are on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (through Dec. 7) as part of its "California Viewpoints" series.
Stich has painted the Park Memorial Garden's pond and lush vegetation with near reverence, constantly discovering new vistas and vignettes. Over the years he has moved from brushing relatively bold, flat fish and flower shapes to creating summery tapestries. Set down in dry, overlapping strokes, all the elements seem woven together in his current work. Water, atmosphere and plants are enmeshed in pastel carpets while fish and gardeners are worked into compositions so subtly that they melt into their surroundings.
If there's a message here, it's surely about harmony. No competition exists between humankind and nature in this lovingly cultivated park. Gardeners wade right into the water to tend the lilies in "Pond Curve," a 12-foot-wide, fan-like painting that serves as half of the show's centerpiece.
In a companion painting, the equally large "Gazebo Viewer," an airy, rainbow-colored porch invites a young man to immerse himself in the scintillating spectacle of reflective water. He is badly drawn, but you hardly notice because confetti sprinkles of colored light draw him into the mood of the picture.
Other works, done from 1981 to 1986, explore concepts of form, space and light that are evident in these major paintings. "Pond With a Blue Face" (among others) conventionally frames a circle of fish and water in foliage. Screen-like compositions take another approach by unfolding and stretching a limitless space. Some of these works echo the angled space of the gazebo; others suggest real, idyllic landscapes as well as paintings of painted ones. Throughout the show, form dissipates into broken chunks of color as one image interlocks with another.
If Stich is a latter-day Impressionist, he is also a thinking artist. You can see the problems he has set for himself: how to use colored light as a unifying element, how to merge a sense of the particular with a perception of expansive space, how to convey the feeling and not the illusion of an enchanting place. He looks for the best of the visible world and removes it to a realm of cultivated exploration.
Though the 37-year-old artist is no beginner, a streak of naivete and a wide strain of idealism run through his work. Richard Armstrong's catalogue essay reminds us that Stich got his start mixing his own pigments while living in a tepee in the Santa Monica Mountains with his wife and baby daughter.
In those days, Stich's work was relatively raw and earthy, but it felt authentic. It still does, though his painting has grown almost fatally pretty. Fortunately, an unfinished look, a certain awkwardness and a sense of struggle roughens every decorative edge that threatens to undermine the art.