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SIGHTS ABOUT TOWN : Wild West Pop : Painter Bill Schenck takes alternately grave and whimsical views of cowboy and Indian mythology at Sacred Visions Gallery.

March 07, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What with "Dances With Wolves" fresh in everybody's mind and headed for an Oscar roundup, there's been a chic re-evaluation of the American West mythology. Cowboys and Indians--who's on the side of right? Was John Wayne all wrong? Is Kevin Costner alright? Questions burn and white guilt rears its head.

The way Arizonan artist Bill Schenck packages what he calls his "contemporary Pop Western" style, you'd think that he too is taking aim at stubborn legends stemming from what he has called the "rape of the Native Americans." But his real focus seems to be on decadence in the great Southwest.

That's capital P, Pop art, in which low culture nuzzles up against fine art and the liaison results in a smart-alecky brainchild. For Andy Warhol, Pop Art was a means of finding the hidden bridge between a soup can and a high-priced work of capital-A Art.

As for his own Pop credentials, Schenck works with flat planes of color laid out schematically and without fine degrees of shading--highly reminiscent of a paint-by-numbers technique. The same could be said for his shadeless content. For Schenck, the "Pop Western" shtick often seems like a coy way of posing the question: What do you say to a naked lady?

That implicit query becomes clear when you're peering in the window of the Sacred Visions Gallery, where the comely canoer of "Lady in the Lake" is visible to the drive-by traffic. Her bared form is mirrored in the reflective surface of the water.

The reflection device pops up again in "A Singing Cowboy's Hero Sunset," an image of actor Tom Berenger taken from the Western spoof "Rustler's Rhapsody." Berenger croons moonward while his boots sit matter-of-factly in the bubbling crik. A bit of cowpoke absurdism, that.

Schenck's one-man Ventura show is peopled with modern-day cowboys, Indians and, most of all, well-proportioned women in tall hats, sunglasses and little else. The woman in "You Got to Be Kidding" forgot to button her blouse, and fish swiming by are reflected in her sunglasses. Pop Art takes another turn with "Lotti Dots," where the effect of magnified color dots mimics Roy Lichtenstein by way of pointillist George Seurat.

The West wasn't always calling Schenck. Posing as a photorealist, he briefly found a home in the New York art scene of the early '70s. But, unimpressed with the cerebral chill required by that movement, Schenck headed to the warmer climes of Arizona and began to explore the Western art tradition from the outside in.

The essence of Schenck's artistic attitude is found in "Road to Tequilaville." It's a portrait of an old Caddy packed with grinnin' young good ol' boys at leisure beneath a sky full of pillowy Southwestern clouds. Is one of them Schenck himself, cruising into the Southwest sunset with tongue in cheek, a tequila bottle under the seat and a Jimmy Buffet tape blasting on the stereo? Could be.

Amid this gallery of merriment and titillating semi-clad white women, a more serious image such as "The Last Horizon" loses its sting. Depicting a female American Indian elder flanked by sheep on an idyllic plain, the piece is clearly a paean to a dying way of life.

At least as seen in this collection, Schenck appears as a lone gun encroaching on the romantic territory of Western art, adding satire and lust freely.

The Sacred Vision Gallery, which opened its portals a year ago this January, intends to represent a "wide spectrum, between Western and Native American art," according to owner Jay Rapp. As he displayed the current show of prehistoric Pueblo pottery to a reporter, he discussed the growing foreign markets for American Indian arts and crafts, in stark contrast to America's own disregard of its original settlers.

"For the longest time, we didn't consider it art," Rapp said. "We've been asleep at the wheel." American Indian art, Rapp believes, is an available--and unsung--cultural source. You don't have to be Kevin Costner to appreciate that notion.

Up the Coast :

* The first things you notice about painter Susan Southwick's current show at the Westmont College Gallery are vivid colors, otherworldly men and exaggerated horizontality. Southwick's modular, sequential work--all 36 feet of it--wraps itself around the gallery space.

Comprised of 12 separate canvases that interlock but are also self-contained compositions, "12 Paintings" features contemplative figures equipped with yellow halos and lost in thought, in rooms that are both intimate and not quite real. As a series of images, the piece seems to reflect the Catholic Stations of the Cross.

Filled with often obscure Christian symbolism, these rooms are mysterious dimensions. Often, it's difficult to discern between windows and paintings, and Southwick's own paintings or sculpture (including a figure of Santa Barbara herself) often appear on the walls of these mysterious rooms.

Southwick's peculiar, scrolling project--a gallery of meditative figures--has the puzzle-like organization, the bright paint-handling and free association of much post-modern painting. Yet it also evokes a quality of religious imagery, twisted to yield a contemporary resonance. In this age, contrary to centuries past, openly religious painting is an anomaly. But, carefully handled, it can speak the same language as the "secular" art world. Southwick's art does just that, with spiritual meanings as an optional feature.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* Bill Schenck at Sacred Visions, 101 California St. (805) 653-2787. Indefinitely.

* Susan Southwick at Westmont College, 955 La Paz Road in Montecito, through March 22.

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