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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : Portrait of Life : Photos in 'American Dreamscapes' show strange beauty in commonplace commercial settings.

July 11, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The buzzword "dreamscapes" normally invites visions of either surrealist inventions or kitsch-filled fantasies. What we see in "American Dreamscapes," the current photography show by Ventura resident Mary Ellen Wortham at John Nichols Gallery in Santa Paula, are images more down to earth and more enigmatic.

The subject at hand is the withering domain of the mom-and-pop stores, those once-influential, independently owned and operated spots whose trade is now impinged upon by glitzy convenience store franchises. At risk is one more slice of the American dream--another case of the corporate heel coming down on individual enterprise.

But that ominous message is actually secondary to the simple, strange beauty that Wortham finds in commonplace commercial settings. By shooting at night and from odd angles, with most of the illumination coming from such peripheral sources as fluorescent beer and cigarette signs and vending machines, Wortham's store portraits manage to be both mysterious and familiar.

Marlboro men, Coke machine monoliths and Miller High Life beacons are meant to carry metaphorical meaning as crass emblems of low American culture, but they actually function as snappily ironic (mom and) pop art signifiers.

We have stopped at many of these places. Routinely, we have driven by and seen them, but never with quite this romantic nocturnal eye. This is a show not lacking for local color. Ray's in Santa Paula boasts a Wild West exterior decor. Dave and Nancy's, also in Santa Paula, is seen as a hectic visual composition bathing in the pitch-black space of night.

The Town and Country in Oxnard looks lonely in the dead of night, a modest commercial triangle on the side of a road lit from the side by the headlights of an oncoming car.

Wortham, a sociologist by academic training, set out to document the phenomenon of these lonely stores and found several prime examples in the Tri-Counties (from Piru to Santa Ynez). An obligatory stop for any self-respecting mom-and-pop aficionado is in Piru, an oasis of archaic arcana along state Highway 126. We shop there partly to support a sense of local history.

Rather than presenting a dry documentation of her sociological topic, Wortham only comes out at night, and otherwise maximizes the potency of her images. Wortham makes a successful plea for our attention--both for the images themselves and the slow eclipse of these humble stores.

Not nearly so successful is Wortham's "Lady Liberty" series in the back hall of the Nichols Gallery. A series of cheeky portraits finds various friends and dogs wearing plastic foam Statue of Liberty hats. The prints have been mounted on chenille--that fabric so reeking in pre-modernist Americana--via clothespins and C-clamps. The sum of the parts in the series add up to less than a cohesive whole.

GALLERY HOPPING:

Ventura's galleries have taken a turn for the better as of last Friday's official opening of the Pacific Rim Gallery on Oak Street. Walking through the gallery is a lesson in diversity, as you pass a variegated roster of artists, from the misty and innocuous landscapes of Charles Napier; to the primitive instincts of Carozo and Romero; to the floral pleasantries of Stephanie Elise; to the more intense imagery from Soviet-artist-in-Ojai Slava Sukhorukov.

Sukhorukov's recent show at the Momentum Gallery was a strong introduction to a notable artist temporarily in our midst (he has a three-year visa and has been staying with Ojai's Paula and Bill Spellman since 1990). Here, Sukhorukov shows more of both his small Russian Orthodox icon paintings and larger, brasher wares.

The painting "His Daughter" is of special intrigue. Against an engulfing backdrop of gray, a frumpy, slumping couple sit before a vodka bottle and a painting of an idyllic, swan-filled river. A young pigeon-toed boy, sporting a red bow tie and facing us, looks like an alien in the bleak circumstances. We leap to assume that this, like most of the artist's work, is an allegory of Soviet life.

Wait, there's more. Gerald Massey's abstractions, on crumpled paper, feature seeping pools of color a la Helen Frankenthaler. In yet another corner, there is Gloria Todd-Jones, a Newbury Park resident and native of Jackson, Alabama. She shows her depictions of scenes, with a style of relaxed realism, often from an African-American perspective. Todd-Jones' "St. Union's Sunday" is an inviting Pentecostal church scene as seen from the back pew.

The Pacific Rim takes over from the previous incarnation in that space, the Blue Stone Gallery, and seems to be off to a fortuitous start by appealing to a broad palette of tastes. Watch for the official "Artwalk," involving this and other old town galleries, on August 2.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* "American Dreamscapes," photographs by Mary Ellen Wortham at the John Nichols Gallery, 910 E. Main St. in Santa Paula, through Aug. 31.

* Works by Gloria Todd-Jones, Gerald Massey, Charles Napier, Carozo, Slava Sukhorukov and Stephanie Elise, at the newly opened Pacific Rim Gallery, 61 S. Oak St. in Ventura.

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