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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : Raw Talent : A gallery show featuring 'outsider' artists explores the realm of unadulterated American folk art.


When Carpinteria gallery owner Frances Puccinelli last had a group show of "outsiders" art a year ago, she was an avid fan and collector--as well as a player in the growing network that studies, collects and discovers these artists. Outsider refers both to the naive quality of the artists' work as well as to their literal status, working in backwoods areas outside the established art-world centers and mind-sets.

Puccinelli's current second annual Outsiders Show is bigger and better, and more of a personal statement. Last spring, she embarked on a trip to the South, where many of the stars in the outsider world live and work. In large part, hers was a professional trek in search of work to hang on her gallery walls.

Many of the artists, including the notorious Howard Finster, are well-known in the field of outsider art. Most of them are included in Charles and Jan Rosenak's fascinating "Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists," as definitive a volume as there is on this elusive and ever-changing subject.

But Puccinelli's trip was also a pilgrimage to the heart of "the outside," tracing the art to its geographical roots. "Many of these artists are getting old, and I thought that I better go see them while I can," Puccinelli said, standing in her multi-room gallery last week.

And so she did. Eighty-year-old Alabama artist Jimmie Lee Sudduth, who works with pigments and mud, rendered a "Portrait of Frances Puccinelli," which hangs on staircase wall leading up to the gallery and initiates the visitor to the ingenious charm to come.

As a glimpse into the world of unadulterated American folk art, the show is highly enjoyable and enlightening. It's also a fitting celebration of Puccinelli's first year in operation in her well-lit, second-story perch in downtown Carpinteria. During that time, provocative exhibitions have made her gallery one of the most reliably "fine" art spaces in the area.

Puccinelli's tastes veer toward folk art-like expression from the area or, in this case, beyond. As Puccinelli said: "There's something very authentic about this art and nothing pretentious. It's straight from the gut. I've had artists come here to look, and they love the stuff.

"They especially like these," she said, pointing to the innocent paintings of Ruben A. Miller, whose childlike images are the simplest and most elemental in the gallery. "I've heard them say things like, 'I wish I could get back to that state in my work, that rawness.' "

That rawness amounts to a gallery full of disarmingly simple pleasures. Among the three-dimensional art, there are several elaborately sequined voodoo flags from Haiti. In the back room are several aptly named "ugly jugs," a ceramic tradition dating back to times of slavery.

James (Son) Thomas from Yazoo, Miss., has been many things in his life, including a gravedigger, a sculptor (his pieces here include small wooden images of open caskets) and one of the last of the Delta blues guitar players. Retired teacher and principal Fred Webster whittles up figures from biblical scenes . . . or Little Bo Peep.

Most, but not all, of the art here hails from the South. Two artists are from that nether world just over the mountains in the Santa Ynez Valley.

The late Andrew (Old Man) Block was a Danish emigrant in Solvang. A blacksmith by trade, he depicted early Santa Ynez Valley life on cardboard, sometimes painting on both sides (in which case, the collector gets two for the price of one). "Old Man Block's Denmark" is an idyllic vision of Solvang, the village that has since become kitsch central.

While putting the show together, Puccinelli discovered the shy John Morgan in Santa Ynez and brought him out of the woodwork, so to speak. Like many of the outsiders--and like Ralph Auf der Heide of Goleta, who had an impressive show at the Frances Puccinelli Gallery last month-- Morgan began painting after his retirement. Morgan's paintings, glossy paint on carved wood surfaces, are ornate abstractions that look like ritualistic emblems.

Religious fervor is often a motivation for these artists, as epitomized by the meteoric career of the Rev. Howard Finster, whose work commands respect in many cultural quarters. His work appears in the fine-art world and on album covers of the Talking Heads and R.E.M. At the Frances Puccinelli Gallery, one wall is devoted to recent works by Finster, a furiously prolific folk artist who uses his newfound fame to spread the Gospels and his doomsday prophecy as he sees fit.

Here, Finster has painted scenes and scrawled cryptic messages on panels in the shape of Coke bottles and figures of Elvis Presley, Henry Ford and Finster "with the weight of the world on his shoulders." Otherworldly though his work seems, the headlines--references to the Gulf War, for instance-- always creep into the paintings. There is also a splashily colored Finster telephone. Be the first on your block.

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