Ten years ago, Joe Cardella was a frustrated artist living in Santa Barbara, trying to find expression in what he perceived to be a conservative, closed art scene. He found it with a monthly limited-edition publication bearing the name Art/Life.
The portfolio featured graphic art, prints, poetry, Xerox art and collages, all bound into an attractive package available at a modest price. Cardella could not have predicted the longevity or scope of his project. It was, it turned out, an idea with legs.
At present, 200 copies of Art/Life are produced 11 times a year (every month except January) and distributed internationally--the biggest drop points being New York City and Tokyo. Most of the contributing artists are California-based, but work comes from Germany--which has the second largest contingent of Art/Lifers--and other corners of the world.
"I realized the publication would have the potential to do something, but I didn't know what form it would take," Cardella said last week during a break from assembling the 10th anniversary issue of Art/Life.
"I'm convinced that one of the main reasons Art/Life continued and flourished was because the need for it already existed. I merely filled the need. I didn't create the need."
Now, Art/Life is in the midst of its "10th anniversary world tour," with separate gallery shows in New York, Milan, Tokyo, Kassel, Germany, and, in our neighborhood, at Ventura's Momentum Gallery (34 N. Palm St.) and Westmont College (955 La Paz Road) in Montecito.
And Cardella is now living in Ventura, not in Santa Barbara, although moving was a bit more complicated than a 30-mile drive down U.S. 101.
In 1985, after several years of getting Art/Life off the ground and around the world, Cardella returned to Connecticut, his birthplace. He had graduated with a degree in design from Syracuse University before heading west and thought that it was time to go back.
"Mistakenly, I thought it would be helpful to Art/Life to be closer to New York City, the art center and publishing center of the world," Cardella said. "But I was there and was still doing everything through the mail, so it seemed pointless. I preferred California. We had been out here long enough so that we enjoyed this lifestyle and climate."
So after three years, Cardella returned to Southern California with Barbara Smeltzer--"my life partner as well as my Art/Life partner. She's helped me a lot."
Needless to say, Art/Life has come a long way from the Xerox machine. It has also come a long way from two-dimensional images on paper. Perusing past Art/Life issues on display at Westmont, as well as pieces hung on the gallery walls, it's apparent that the variety and ambition of the art has evolved over the years. Within each bulging issue, you are liable to find such "found objects" as chopsticks, paint brushes, rubber gloves, even patches of Astroturf. The canvas ranges from paper to metal leaf to transparent plastic to fabrics.
The publications force artists to think relatively small--to work to the scale of its 8 1/2-by 11-inch format. "It takes some people a while to get used to," Cardella said of the format. "And other people just can't grasp the concept. But once you work within that framework, there are really no limitations. You can use scaled images of larger pieces and you can also do conceptual pieces which are all-encompassing and that deal with global concepts. It's just a matter of becoming facile with the medium."
For the most part, the aesthetic temperament of the Art/Life art is gentle, often conveying soft-edged absurdity and soothing abstraction. Noticeably lacking are strident political messages or abrasive imagery meant to provoke. In other words, Art/Life is by no means a guerrilla art enterprise or an underground art tract.
"It probably has something to do with the people we attract," Cardella said of his monthly. "I generally don't encourage things that are real downers. The purpose of what we're doing is not to depress people. It's to enlighten people. I prefer things that are primarily well done and that also make positive statements."
Art/Life is as vital as ever, and Cardella believes that "returning to California was pivotal because people still have more freedom out here with their ideas."
WHERE AND WHEN
The Art/Life exhibit will be displayed at the Momentum Gallery, 34 N. Palm St., in the Livery Building, downtown Ventura, from Sunday to Jan. 15. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. There will be a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday. Call 653-0828. The exhibit is being shown in the Reynolds Gallery at Westmont College, 955 La Paz Road, Montecito, through Dec. 16. Reynolds Gallery is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. There will be a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday. Call 565-6162.