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SIGHTS : Age Cannot Wither, nor Custom Stale the Art of Beatrice Wood : An exhibit of wryly humorous and vibrant drawings by the Ojai artist is on display at the Carnegie museum.

August 04, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it comes to Beatrice Wood, Ojai's venerable grand dame of the arts, the pesky age issue is certainly relative. It has been over a year since the media descended on her for the occasion of her 100th birthday.

Now, Wood is simply getting on with the business of living, continuing to produce work in two and three dimensions--ceramic vessels, tableaux and drawings. At 101, she is still blessed with the wry levity and flowing hand that artists a fraction of her age should envy.

Youth prevails, regardless of what numbers tell us. And that's an underlying theme of "Dialogues: Drawings by Beatrice Wood," another coup for the Carnegie Art Museum.

This cohesive group of images focuses on the risky playground of social intercourse. But Wood--alias "Beato"--casts a suspicious eye on the ulterior motives and duplicity in social settings, showing the kind of skeptical bemusement you might expect of a perceptive young person.

Wood has gracefully assimilated the influences gained from her role in seminal 20th Century art. Accounts of the artist's life can hardly refrain from mentioning her intellectual and/or romantic entanglements with such figures as Marcel Duchamp, Edward Weston, Brancusi and Henri-Pierre Roche (author of "Jules and Jim," speculated to be about Wood).

What self-respecting, history-loving art observer can get around her reputation by association? Wood's cachet as a living legend travels with her wherever she, or her work, goes.

Although known for often bedazzling and intricate ceramic works, Wood leans toward an almost naive airiness once her drawing persona takes over. Spare and unconcerned with virtuosity, Wood's drawings are loose and supple things, sensuous of line and sly of content. Her forms and sense of spatial distribution--or dissection--take cues from Cubism, resulting in a kinder, gentler variation thereof.

As seen in this exhibition of devious delicacies, Wood is a master deflector of social mores. In the course of the show, we get the impression that the artist is both celebrating the social life while questioning--sometimes even skewering--it.

Putting things in perspective, there is "The Well-Fed Settling the World," depicting the discreet, ineffectual charms of the bourgeoisie. Wood shows two pieces entitled "The Bore," with the offending parties depicted as overbearingly pleasant types surrounded by parties melting with tedium.

She lets us in on her politics and values with such humorous scenes as "Trying to Convince a Republican," with subjects reduced to arm-wrestling, or "Men Trying to Discuss Politics," all contorted figures and twisted limbs.

Her libertine philosophy is stated simply in "Monogamy Is Impossible" and "Tell Us a Dirty Story."

In her work, we often detect references of Wood's own background as a well-heeled Easterner who gave up propriety for a more free-spirited life early in the century.

Characters often suggest an earlier period in history, as in the wacky "Man Introduces his Mistress to His Wife," with a top-hatted scalawag from another time. But, typical of Wood, there is no moral scorn attached to a potentially loaded image.

One tangent to the exhibition proper is the newly unveiled table, a crafty looking object, made by Wood along with Lloyd Wright in the '30s. Above it hangs a lithograph of Wood's portrait of Helen Lloyd Wright. This image is alone in the gallery for its conscious lack of irony.

In her recent book, "Playing Chess with the Heart," Wood writes: "There are three things important in life: honesty, which means living free of the cunning of the mind; compassion, because if we have no concern for others, we are monsters; and curiosity, for if the mind is not searching, it is dull and unresponsive."

To that short list might be added flexibility. In these drawings, as with much of her art, Wood dances along a fine line separating--and intertwining--innocence and sophistication. She remains a local treasure with a worldly reach.

LOCAL HARVEST

Upstairs at the museum, a juried selection of local art goes under the peculiar moniker "A Classic Celebration." There are some admirable fruits here to behold--further proof of the artistic worthiness lurking in Ventura County.

Jumping off the wall in the museum stairwell, Gary Salvail's "Orange Sofa" exudes a funky bewitchment, with its colorful elevation of the everyday. Kazuko Knowles shows her painting "Venezia I," a rippling pattern of stones in a dark patina.

Suzanne Shechter's fine, unabashedly Hopper-esque "Union Station" finds a boy in a train station, raked with late afternoon sunlight, wallowing in a not-unpleasant aura of desolation. Meanwhile, Wilva Ehlers' "Wilva" depicts its woman of leisure with appealingly chunky brushwork and a relaxed energy. Powerful Ojai artist Alberta Fins' typically dark-toned mixed-and-mashed-media pieces contrast with Bill Woolway's marvelously effervescent, folksy cityscapes.

Downstairs in the back gallery, "Jill Sattler: Atmospheric Photography and Other Treasures," is an uneven display of photographs and assemblages, distinguished mostly by her evocative sepia-toned portraits of Beatrice Wood, flanked by girls on her 100th birthday.

Details

* "DIALOGUES: Drawings by Beatrice Wood," through Sept. 4 at Carnegie Art Museum, 424 S. C St. in Oxnard; 385-8157.

* ALSO at the Carnegie, "Jill Sattler: Atmospheric Photography and Other Treasures" and "A Classic Celebration."

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