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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN / THE ART SCENE : Visions of Nature : Ojai-based artist Gayel Childress offers her own personal views of paradise at Ventura County National Bank in Camarillo.

April 01, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A central problem with landscape art has to do with defining beauty that is ever in a state of flux. Sweeping natural vistas still compel painters to try and translate the scenes onto canvas, out of love, out of craft, out of lack of anything more majestic to paint.

But how are we to respond as viewers in 1993--after more than a century of reshuffled attitudes toward art? Do we respond to the translation skills of the artist? To the splendor of nature, empathizing with the admiration the artist must have felt--making it admiration twice removed?

These and other burning questions have left landscape painting in a ditch--or, let's say, a marginal niche--of the art world, out in the corporate domain or wherever Sunday painters dwell.

But there is still plenty of room for creative new visions of, and reflections on, nature, which seems more precious than ever in this environmentally fragile age.

Ojai-based artist Gayel Childress offers her own personal findings with the wonderfully weird new landscape paintings she calls the "Red Valley" series.

Many of these color-charged works were seen in Childress' home as part of last fall's "Ojai Studio Tour," but her show now at the Ventura County National Bank in Camarillo is her first official public exhibition of the series.

There, hanging with a deceptive innocence on the bank walls, are Childress' visions of paradise, radically revised.

A stark contrast is established between her elaborate new paintings and the more simple, gestural charcoal sketches. These charcoal pieces emphasize forms--the bones of scenes, rapidly rendered. The paintings, on the other hand, are process-driven reinterpretations.

Juxtaposed, one gives rhythm to the other in viewing the show as a whole.

In the "Red Valley" paintings, color explodes in unlikely ways, detonated from an exaggerated palette. Vivid swatches of red accent the lay of the land while violet mountains' majesty melt into fantastical sunset scenarios.

One sub-theme for the artist seems to be a reconsideration, not only of landscape painting generally, but the tendency for artists in an idyllic spot such as Ojai to slavishly record what they see, without conceptualizing their ideas.

Childress' Ojai is a surreal--yet also familiar--locale. In "10," tree-lined, orchard-bordered country roads lead the eye into a voluptuous vortex of fields and flatlands dissolving into craggy mountains.

Throughout the series are echoes of Fauvism, the modern art tradition out of which these paintings seem to spring. What Matisse, Derain and the other Fauvists managed to do was to bridge the sensuality of the Impressionists with the more active intellectual involvement of the later "isms:" Cubism and Expressionism.

Partly because of the renewed cachet of Expressionist ideas in the past 15 years, work such as Childress' looks at once topical and accessible.

Regardless of the inherent interest of these paintings on counts of both regional and art world fashionableness, Childress' new paintings have their own sort of rough charm. A palpable energy is created through color--irrational schemes that buzz on the surface.

But something deeper is going on here, deeper than the flamboyant surfaces might immediately suggest. She seems to be searching for a way to insert herself into the spirit of nature, rather than its image.

Further Adventures in Bank Art

For a more conventional, deep-dish landscape perspective, proceed to the Ventura County National Bank headquarters in Oxnard, where Oxnard-based painter Glenna Kurz is part of a disparate display of three artists.

As landscape painting goes, Kurz's works are skillfully rendered, plush of palette, and harmless to the point of being invisible. Kurz's paintings derive from aesthetics airlifted out of the 19th Century, before Impressionists and pre-Modernists began mucking around with new artistic ideals.

These paintings are shamelessly retro and yet also beautiful in their own way, celebrating nature and the parade of seasons without intellectual apology.

Time is warped in other ways in the VCNB show. Bernard Clendenin's basic graphic approach, oddly, seems to hark back to the '50s, with its wispy skeletal portraiture, skewed angles and cocktail-napkin washes. You look at his work and think of Brubeck, beat poetry and Formica.

His works range from large, looming images of musicians and others to small sketches, almost always focusing on the figure. Gentle distortions and stylization remove the portraits from the realm of the strictly realistic, but human interest is clearly his departure point.

Clendenin's nude studies, while tame by any modern-day standards--even Jesse Helms'--have been relegated to the 10th floor, where they wouldn't offend delicate sensibilities. Where do people get delicate sensibilities these days, anyway?

Charlotte Von Troesch's marble sculptures amount to something completely different, while they, too, draw on pre-existing archetypes and have little connection to current art world dialectics.

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