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SIGHTS : Friendly Faces Populate Exhibit by Area Painter : 'People of Ojai: Portrait of a Small Town' is affectionate but fails to reflect residents' diversity.

July 21, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As with many large-scale artistic projects, this one began on a humble scale and got out of hand. Ojai-based painter Alice Matzkin decided to do portraits of a few friends. One painting begat another as she "let the flow take me to the next painting."

A year and 27 subjects/paintings later, a show was born. "People of Ojai: Portrait of a Small Town" amply fills the Ojai Center for the Arts gallery, with its mosaic of kindly faces.

Of course, Ojai is a small town, but not Everytown U.S.A., by any means. The populace includes spiritualists of various stripes, gentle-person ranchers, urban refugees, and artists--by profession and by amateur passion. But, wait, there's much more.

While this is an abidingly affectionate show, and while it may accurately represent part of the racial and socio-economic picture of Ojai's demographics, it also presents a light, limited overview of a town--if the ambitious title is to be taken at all seriously.

Ojai, according to this exhibit, is a dream-world place full of smiling, apparently cultured white people (apart from a portrait of Grandfather Semu, an 85-year-old Chumash medicine man born in the area).

Matzkin's portrait is not a broad-minded, objective slice of humanity in the sense that German photographer August Sander sought. It's all friendly fire here, a selective sampling of friends and neighbors. Glittery generalities can be dangerous: better to think of the show as "some people in Ojai: a sketch of a small town."

That cavil aside, Matzkin's sampling touches on several pillars of this rightfully proud community.

Mayor Steve Olsen stands in front of the celebrated Ojai Post Office tower, standing tall. DeWayne Boccali, Italian restaurateur, grins warmly for the painter, while Jeffrey San Marchi, editor/publisher of the Classic Voice, peers at us, harried, amid the informational rubble surrounding newspaper work.

Less pragmatic in function, perhaps--but true to the heart of Ojai--we find a muted portrait of Rosalind Raja, a friend of Beatrice Wood's, founder of the Happy Valley School, and a caretaker of Krishnamurti.

Among the down-to-earth celebrities on hand, Wood herself, 101 and counting, is found hunched over a potter's wheel in a piece that conveys her undimmed spirit. Potters Otto and Vivika Heino, seen in full figure, look the picture of love and health, and the denim garb seems to symbolize their work ethic.

Then there is the odd portrait of Larry Hagman, looking sinister under a jester's cap and gripping a scepter. Those menacing eyebrows look like something out of the actor's "Dallas" gestural repertoire rather than relating to his gently scatterbrained "I Dream of Jeannie" image.

Local landscape painter Bert Collins, viewed up close and very personal, flashes an infectious smile that seems to shiver and rattle the canvas. A rare, unsmiling visage in the show, Karen Guthman nurses her baby while gazing off sagaciously. Apparently, she symbolizes the Earth mother consulting heaven.

Lucy Ness--described as an artist, quilter, animal lover and astrologer--appears as a gentle older woman, flanked by a pooch, awash in an aura of soulful tranquillity. We also see a nice portrait of Aaron Clement, the 16-year-old whose liver transplant was made possible via local fund-raising efforts.

Matzkin's figurative approach varies in degrees of realism versus expressionistic looseness. Her painting of Roy Patton looks oddly haunted, basking in unflattering yellow half-light and finished with brusque brush strokes.

On the other hand, an almost brutal roughness of surface compliments her portrait of Don Lawson. A clenched close-up view of the subject lighting a cigarette elicits the tough mettle of a weathered outdoorsman without a lot of time for idle grinning.

The good-natured and even benevolent gist of Matzkin's show might make it almost above, or outside the ken of, criticism. But, while enjoying the gallery of faces, some hobgoblin of political correctness compels you to wonder what a portrait of the other Ojai might look like.

WHEN IN OJAI. . .

"Ojai Studio Artists" is a suitably vague and apt title for the current crop of works up at the G. Childress Gallery. As Childress pointed out, most of the artists hail from within a five-mile radius of the gallery itself--a clarion call for the aesthetic energies around the neighborhood.

Of late, Childress' lively space has tended to host art with erotic content, or, last month, a show of cartoonists. This show, of two- and three- dimensional work, leans away from the anatomy and toward landscape. Nancy Whitman, Fran Hofses and Betty Saunders exert a free, light hand in natural settings, while Bert Collins (she of shivering smile in the Matzkin show) brings a prickly seaside realism to China Cove.

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