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COUNTY FAIR ART : Slice of Americana : The festival attracts Sunday painters, rainy-day aesthetes and others whose work is detached from normal exhibit channels.


You need only catch a glimpse of the midway rides off the freeway to realize it's that time again.

The county fair is the talk of the town, and the fairgrounds are buzzing with humanity and stimuli.

People mill about expertly, taking in the hot tub hawkers and observing hogs up close, or checking out the bands at the Budweiser stage.

This means, also, that it's time again to size up the latest collection of unofficial folk art from around the county.

Each year, the county fair devotes space to a sizable exhibition of art by Sunday painters, rainy-day aesthetes and other artists whose work is, in some way, detached from normal art exhibition channels.

What we find are plenty of the usual subjects--seaside imagery, farm fantasies, portraits, floral scenes--handled in the usual ways.

But mixed in, as always, are pleasant anomalies and accidental wonders.

The beauty of amateurism was never so proudly, so publicly displayed.

Part of the joy of the art show is its context; nothing is so steeped in Americana as a county fair. In the next building over is more typical fair fare--quilts, baked goods, jams, table settings--while the art show sits quietly in a corner.

A bounty of children's art is displayed in one of the larger Quonset hut buildings.

In the photography display, there are numerous images of Christo's "Umbrellas: Project for Japan and the United States" of last fall. Christo's idealistic extravagance, though set up outside of Ventura County on the Golden State Freeway, was tragically rendered local when a Camarillo woman was killed by a falling umbrella.

It's impossible now to appreciate the once-benign yellow sculptures without thinking of the project's grim aspect, which accounts for the darkest hour in the county's art news since the last fair.

For doses of purer innocence, proceed to the art exhibit, where you find such delights as Kathy Hunley's Rockwellian vision of prim young girls all dressed up for a tea party.

An aura of family values (pardon the catch phrase), pushed to a level of near surrealism, hovers over the image.

Lucy Miller's dense thicket of flowers is almost dizzying, while Leslie McQuade's macro view of two persimmons--one of the finest, most painterly paintings here--conveys an unexpected expressiveness and confidence of composition.

Fine art influences can be found among the homier concoctions. Hiding in a corner, Shu-Yun Liu's fine painting of waterlilies has a clear Georgia O'Keefe quality. (Another artist, Elna Street, shows a portrait of the late, great artist.) Matisse's influence can be detected in Barbara Douglas' still-life arrangement.

Some of the best surprises come from out of the blue. Sarah Lair's painting is a strikingly simple and effective juncture of elements: a beach umbrella and its shadow on a yellow plane of sand, while a stretch of sky swipes across the top.

James Grist, on the other hand, goes over the edge, using an exaggerated palette to give his rural scenes an air of magic realism.

Ned Bartel triggers historical and local interest with his careful pen-and-ink rendering of the old Ventura High School/College building, a majestic brick Ivy League replica long since demolished.

Collagist Natalie Gerard takes a stab at social commentary--out of place in this group--with her piece "Handmaid or Feminist."

Jan Owsley provides some regionally resonant comic relief with her mock orange-crate label, for "Quake" brand oranges. With an ingenuous sense of humor reserved for county fairs and archival books, the text reads "Our oranges are faultless--and they fall naturally from the tree!"

The "Best of Show" award goes to the prominently displayed watercolor by Carroll Shorts, an empathetic portrait of an elderly woman whose creased and weathered face exudes a quality of well-worn tranquillity.

But my own "Best of Show" award goes to Shirley de Fazio, for her in-your-face painting of nuzzling cows, which stands apart from the other art of animalia; it has a slightly wacky slice-of-farm-life appeal.

As images go, it's just a neatly rendered, goofy little ode to bovine love.

But it makes you want to head promptly over to the cow area with a newfound appreciation for these maligned, beautiful creatures.

Art can affect you that way.

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