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Protean Artist : Ventura's Charles Fulmer refuses to paint--or photograph or sculpt--himself into any corner.


Walking into the busy back corner of the Palm Street Gallery in downtown Ventura these days, you'd logically assume you were in the midst of a group show.

Lining the walls are impressively vibrant desert landscape paintings in which colors buzz and forms quiver. One painting depicts a wintry Wheeler Gorge, dressed up in somber tones. Two paintings made with oil stick--a face paint--have a primal, ethnic quality. Altered photographs and spooky-funny "dog series" paintings are offset by three-dimensional work. Polished sculptures of alabaster and marble mingle with a tangle of scrap--copper wire and "found" hunks of juniper wood, one majestic piece looking like the wingspan of a condor.

Who are these gifted people? Is it a movement, a school, a wrinkle? In fact, it's the fruit of many impulses--and of just one artist.

Welcome to the world of Ventura's Charles Fulmer. Painter, photographer, sculptor, artist-at-large, Fulmer is a man for whom "medium" is just another word for nothing left to lose. But his one-man show manages to be more than a hodgepodge portrait of a restless eclectic. This is fine art dancing across the boundary between modern and primitive--a trait of 20th-Century art.

One morning last week, Fulmer talked about his art in the gallery. With gray-speckled hair that is longish but neatly cropped, Fulmer is an expansive character, with hands that stab the air or carve out shapes for emphasis. His eyes light up from behind his glasses, and the bold polka dots on his shirt seem to throb in sync with the general energy level.

"You should be able to make art out of anything," Fulmer says. "That's what being an artist is all about, I think. What is (a) medium? It's a place for your interests."

While he is a schooled, well-credentialed artist, Fulmer has a potent maverick streak and is wary of the perils of academic and art-world values.

"Creative things happen by what I call flow," he says. "I work madly on pieces and then step back to apply aesthetic organization. I have friends with MFA (degrees) who haven't painted since getting their degrees. It's because they haven't found how to get that flow going."

Fulmer has deep roots in Ventura County. His father, a Seabee, moved the family to the area in 1949. After graduating from high school in 1960, Fulmer went to study art in the Bay Area, where his work earned him exhibitions. But frustration with gallery business dealings soured him on the art world for more than two decades.

While making art on his own time, Fulmer worked at a variety of jobs--as a blues harpist, as a knife maker and in the insurance business--and with his wife, Marianne, raised three children.

In 1981, he picked up the pieces of his art career, earning master's degrees in both painting and photography. He is noted in reference books--including the California Art Review,the American Art Review and Modern Photography--for his work in two dimensions.

Fulmer is as prolific as he is diverse. Of late, he has found himself lured by three dimensions, making sculptures and, most recently, relief pieces that look like native American altars.

To keep body and soul together, he also teaches art at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air. He offers art classes and workshops at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard and life-drawing classes at the Palm Street Gallery, and is involved in other educational projects around Ventura.

Palm Street Gallery is also where Fulmer's work has been exhibited for the last three years, since the gallery opened. More so than with most gallery liaisons, the artist and owner Larry Burdorf are in cahoots.

"Larry is great about dealing with someone like me, who is so chaotic," Fulmer says as Burdorf steps into the room.

" 'Light fuse and get away' is the theory I adhere to," says Burdorf, laughing. "I respect artists who don't just do one trick over and over again."

Originally a painter, Fulmer found himself exploring the radical possibilities of photography after studying with Jerry McMillan at Cal State Northridge early in the '80s. "Some teachers help nudge the door open for you: He kicked the door open for me. I made an important realization." Fulmer whispers conspiratorially: "I could do anything I wanted to do."

What he did was to break forcefully with tradition, steer away from the Ansel Adams approach and start tinkering with emulsions, printing techniques, altering the prints and creating collages, pushing the medium toward abstraction. One collage piece, in another corner of the gallery, is a composite body portrait evoking a combination of "Day of the Dead" folk art and X-ray vision. For him, experimentation is a means of investigating forms and new representations of reality.

Fulmer grins, saying: "My mother looks at these things and says, 'People don't look like that.' And I say, 'But they do!' "

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