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COUNTY FAIR ART : Slices of Life : This year's show has the standard fare, but also features provocative and unexpected pieces.

August 22, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people who go to county fairs have other things besides art on their minds. Prize hogs, maybe. Hobby displays, maybe. Amusements of a more brain-rattling kind, certainly.

But the world of county fair art shows--havens of amateur aesthetics--might also be considered a last bastion of folk-art consciousness, where no bona fide galleries would dare tread. The exhibition at this year's Ventura County Fair is no exception.

County fairs are the stuff of great American kitsch and ripe subjects for artists.

The concerned art watcher looks at the huge, stomach-churning rides looming over the fairgrounds, and the spherical look of Robert Delaunay's "Orphism" springs to mind.

You won't find fine art culture in the big Quonset hut halls, by the floraculture or the agriculture or the livestock. Proceed past the kiddie rides, hang a right at the coin-coaxing monkey, and there is the Fine Art and Table Settings hall. Inside, art forms a thick border around the table setting display.

Much of the art is what you would expect--nice, competent, but uninvolving landscapes, portraits and topical Desert Storm-related images. Of these, the best is Paulette Griffin's whimsical drawing of Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck sunbathing in the Gulf while bombers dispatch their firepower overhead.

A few pieces of note: Janet Stryker's antiqued portrait of a man, Carrol Shorter's close-up of a fish head, M.K. Martin's campy black poodle, Thomas Pratky's variation on "Starry Night" (with a mermaid's breast tucked coyly in the corner), and Lucinda Cotta's study of chatting nuns, arranged in a rhythmic pattern of black and white.

Much of the finer art here, at least in terms of the provocative and the unexpected, comes from the hands of "Physically Challenged Adults." We find images, like Alan's day-glo "Happyman" and his melting Mickey Mouse portrait, seen last spring in the fine show at the Camarillo State Hospital.

Rick Ames provides a few peculiar and intriguing images, the most outrageous being the surreal and exaggerated "Nancy." (On the tags, there are only descriptions and no titles.) There, in a Matisse-like red-suffused room of the White House, stands Nancy Reagan, large of head and tightly lacing her fingers, whether with poise or cunning, it's not clear.

Ames also shows a portrait of a field worker--a local angle. His "Man With Pig" finds a gutted pink hog on a man's shoulder, with the composition tilting perilously downward. Is there a vegetarian subplot here?

One wall of femmes fatales features the work of Thomas Hardcastle, who takes Toulouse-Lautrec's cue and focuses on showgirls backstage. And there is Wayne Harvey's ode to Marilyn Monroe and the buxom "toon" Jessica from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Several of the more interesting pieces in the show have all the markings of classic down-to-earth folk art subjects, unfussy attention to details, and a charmed naivete.

Folk art charm, involving such an inexact aesthetic, is often a pleasant surprise. You know it when you see it.

You sense the charm in the slightly askew proportions of C. Rhodes' farm scene. An elder woman lounges in a wicker chair in her garden in Margaret Bonnertz's odd, glossy portrait. Dorothy Logsdon's portrait of a stocky, implacable potato farmer amounts to an agrarian visual poem, "American Gothic" gone Slavic.

Last Sunday afternoon, off in a corner, portraitist Linda Kish was at her easel, working on a portrait of a couple and their dog.

Someone stopped to admire. "She gets the light in their eyes," the passerby says. "It's so hard to get the light in the eyes."

There is art in the air, at least until the smell of barbecue chicken lures you away.

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