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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN / THE ART SCENE : Culture Ukrainian : A show of folk crafts in Thousand Oaks offers a look at history on a whole shell.

March 18, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Accidental irony is currently brewing at the Conejo Valley Art Museum.

There, tucked away in its lonely niche at the Janss Mall in Thousand Oaks, the museum is hosting an exhibition of Ukrainian folk art. Examples of costumes, textiles, paintings, ceramics and the ancient indigenous art of pysanky --painting on eggs--add up to a microcosmic vision of a culture that extends back before Jesus and has survived history's abuses up through communism.

A further cry from the mall's parade of merchandise could scarcely be imagined. You proceed past the Toys R Us and step out of time.

Ceramics seen here are part of an evolution dating back to Trypillian "painted ceramics" from the Neolithic age (4,000 to 3,000 BC). Thousands of years later, Ukrainian culture evolved from a complex hybrid of Christian and pagan rituals and ancient and modern artistic, social and political values.

Folk art's innate appeal has only increased in recent times, as the once-hard line between the fine and the folk in art has been blurred. In part, folk art offers a last bastion of innocence and--theoretically, at least--unfettered expression.

But, while we tend to place value on folk art from the Southern Hemisphere and Indonesia, or native territories such as the American South, there is literally a world of folk art waiting to be liberated from the ghetto of the ethnic festival sensibility.

A close inspection of this Ukrainian work is rewarding, especially when it comes to appreciating the refined examples of pysanky in the display cases. With these fanciful eggs, the remarkably fine detailing and patterns of geometric ingenuity are a pleasure in themselves.

For the most part, the exhibition follows a craft ethos by presenting works without credit given to individual artists. But a few artists, with disparate styles, are individually spotlighted.

The woodcuts of Jacques Hnizdovsky, who died in 1985, involve highly detailed, stylized renderings. Realistic subjects--plants and animals--are depicted in tightly organized geometric patterns that abstract the source. The knotty image of a sunflower becomes a mandala-like image.

Yaroslava Gerulak makes ceramic sculptures that draw on ancient, pre-Christian sources, sometimes fusing human figures with animal bird-like elements.

Meanwhile, Aka Pereyma's paintings also bask in Ukrainian folk art heritage by dealing with pysanky as a subject and a departure point: Quasi-cubist designs govern her oval imagery.

One afternoon last week, two Peruvians wandered into the museum and asked a volunteer, in broken English, if any of the work on display was from Peru. Folk art can at once be steeped in indigenous culture and also tap into universal truths.

Of Music and Junk

Now showing at Ventura College, Nancy Mooslins is a painter and sculptor who makes a valiant attempt at bridging music and visual art. Although the experiment ultimately falls apart, it's not for lack of ingenuous ambition and incidental pleasures along the way.

With her abstract, brightly hued pieces--in 2- and 3-D--Mooslin plays up the musical ideas of repetition and rhythm, and attaches color schemes to corresponding harmonic phenomena in music.

In the most imposing piece in the gallery, "Circle of Fifths/Twelve Tone Chords," narrow sculptural wedges stand in front of a huge painting of kinetic forms and color wheel kaleidoscopes. Here, the artist imposes on her work a literal sense of space--so integral to music.

"Arpeggios Major/minor" presents tumbling, cascading color spectra in a tubular form, like the woven notes in musical arpeggios.

Mooslins' art works best in strictly visual terms. Her abstract spheres recall the work of Delaunay, and Orphism, the offshoot of Cubism, which he pioneered. But it is less successful at creating a visual and musical doppelganger; conceptualism can be a hobgoblin, disrupting the flow of art for art's sake.

This month, the College's New Media Gallery features the darkly cheeky and almost obsessively detailed junk sculptures of Karen Fulson.

From afar, Fulson's relief assemblages look like glittery quasi-religious artifacts and shrine-like creations. Closer inspection reveals the delightful madness of her method and the unlikely materials in her pursuit of irony.

Fastidious arrangements of push pins, hair and other everyday objects, all disguised in a gilded presentation, challenge traditional definitions of what makes fine art fine. Then again, in art at this late stage of the 20th Century, validity is what you make of it. And Fulson makes a satirical gag out of it.

A corkscrew and frayed electric wire are key elements in "Fire Ants," while false fingernails figure strongly in "Cat."

Fulson's centerpiece here is "Glamour Puss," a kind of irony-laden shrine to socially defined feminine vanity. The sculpture is patterned after a vanity mirror, replete with working light bulbs illuminating an apparition made of shoes, a purse and perfume bottles.

The womanly image depicted here is only as strong as the sum of her accessories.

Feminist underpinnings emerge in Fulson's work, coated with humor. The message is plain enough in "Glamour Puss." In "Piranha," the costume jewelry, silvery locks of hair and a carnivorous "mouth" lined with gold silk, we get a strong evocation of an opportunistic creature navigating the waters of social advancement.

Fulson's clever transformations of the everyday come equipped with biting subplots. At its best, you admire the handiwork and snicker, while squirming--a sign of good satire.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* Ukrainian Folk Art, through April 10, at the Conejo Valley Art Museum, 193-A N. Moorpark Road (in the Janss Mall), Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 373-0054.

* Nancy Mooslins and Karen Fulson, through March 26 at Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road, Ventura. For more information, call 654-6400.

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