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SIGHTS ABOUT TOWN : Art on the Move : An exhibition of works of the late Millard Sheets is a portrait of the artist as a world citizen.

December 27, 1990|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We can rightfully claim Millard Sheets as an artistic product of California, but early on he found himself lured into a life of travel. What we see in "Impressions from His World Travels," the current exhibition of his watercolors at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art through Jan. 7, is a portrait of the artist as a world citizen.

As Sheets (1907-1989) is quoted as saying in the catalogue for the exhibit, "The beauty and dignity of people who are truly adjusted to their way of life fills me with respect and awe." The quote sets the stage for his vividly painted images of natives at work, of unfettered Third World landscapes and of tropical female beauties (a la Gauguin, full of awe for his subjects).

Sheets' continent-hopping resulted in this personalized travelogue, with works from the '50s through the end of his life in 1989. Sheets was born in Pomona and spent much of his career teaching art in California.

Artists sometimes go far afield for inspiration, and obviously Sheets found in his exotic subjects ripe ideas both in terms of visual splendor and content. But, much as Sheets turned awe into lively imagery, there may be something condescending about observing from a tourist's remote perch, having a Western, "civilized" perspective about native people's lives. Cross-cultural awe can cross the line into voyeurism.

"Women of the Fields, Yugoslavia," from 1978, is a busy, humming composition, in which women tending to chores generate sweeping lines across the picture plane. Sheets used a semi-pointillistic pattern of dabbed watercolor to further animate the already color-happy surfaces. The same sense of cheerful attendance to labor is the underlying subject of "Forever Moving, Idea," a sparser image that finds peasant women at work, suggesting the motion of the title.

Not shy with his color or his bejeweled sense of design, Sheets sometimes channeled his enthusiasm into painting with an almost Fauvist (the "wild beast" movement) intensity. The enchanted marketplace in "Village of Cameron, Africa" looks like something wrested out of the dream bank of Walt Disney--as filtered through Henri Rousseau.

Beside art with a human-interest angle, we find examples demonstrating that Sheets had an eye for painterly forms tucked into landscapes. What Sheets extracts from his depiction of "Rice Fields, Taiwan" are paddies laid like ragged tiers across the composition. As an image, "Scottish Countryside" is as much a disguised abstraction--planes of yellow seeping into green--as it is a rural landscape painting.

Some of Sheets' works on display dip toward either the pedestrian or the excessively ornate. But, by and large, this is a show well worth a visit--with enough eye-popping color to tickle the lite holiday art appetite.

As one year ends its shift and another reports for duty, you can't help but wonder about the bigger picture. At least I do. The human brain wants to quantify and connect the dots. The big questions: What did this year amount to, and what's in store for the next one?

These are the perennial questions I put to Maureen Davidson, director of the Ventura Arts Council, an organization that has done more than its fair share to begin mobilizing the arts community in Ventura. She ruminated over a cup of coffee in the courtyard outside the Arts Council's sizable Momentum Gallery. As for the past and the future of the Arts Council, a lot of it rests right here in the courtyard.

What began humbly in 1981 has picked up considerable, ahem, momentum in the last few years since Davidson took over, coming here from a post at the Long Beach Museum of Art. The gallery itself began at less than half its present size. The Arts Council has worked in many areas, including organizing the New World Arts Festival, the City Hall Chamber Music series and special events around town.

"We feel like we've been created by the people we serve," Davidson said. "We serve the artists directly and the best we can. Even when we're not showing them, we give them grants advice, help with live-work spaces and zoning ordinances and the likes of that. The artists make all of this possible and the future of this possible.

"In the gallery, we try very deliberately to approach the different faces and ages and points of view in the community. We probably will never present a hugely conservative show for those who are comforted by things that are pretty and traditional. But maybe we will."

Upcoming shows include one called "Architectonics: Two Viewpoints," a two-person show featuring sculptor Dave Feinner--who uses raw construction materials to make pieces with "an architectural reasoning behind them"--and geometrically minded printmaker Eleanore Rembaum.

Also in line for exhibition are the Long Beach-based artist Norm Looney, maker of three-dimensional wall relief panels, and Seattle-based Juan Alonso, whose work draws on the practices of Santeriea, a religion that is a cross between Catholicism and voodoo.

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