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SIGHTS : Two Sobering Looks at the Ravages of AIDS : Shows at Ventura College help humanize the disease and compel viewers to think of works unfinished and lives cut short.

October 13, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In connection with AIDS Awareness Month, Ventura College art instructor Richard Peterson has curated two separate exhibitions that deal, in different ways, with the devastating effects of AIDS on the arts community and beyond.

A posthumous one-man show and a group show by Santa Barbara artists responding to the epidemic are affecting in ways that transcend conventional aesthetics. At issue here are both the ways in which artists are personally touched and driven to action, and also the large task of continuing to stir up public awareness.

Most poignant, and closest to home, is a retrospective show of work by Glenn Harris, a Ventura-based artist who died of AIDS last March at age 44. Harris' art, in the New Media Gallery, conveys not so much rage as it does a fervent appreciation of landscape, life and light.

Harris, who took art classes at Ventura College, was involved in a group show last year at Santa Barbara's Channing Peake Gallery called "Living With." What we find here is a selection of work from Harris' prolific last decade. It showcases his appealingly loose representational style and bold sense of composition, which give his landscapes and flora studies a palpable, breathing quality.

From the evidence of this sampling, Harris seemed more interested in the hidden forms and metaphors in nature than just pursuing idle beauty. "Cacti" is an imposing tangle of lines and volumes, and he relished the almost primitive construction of aloe. Paintings of koi transform into nearly abstract, iridescent splashes of color on black.

The most engaging example of Harris' painterly eye is a large untitled oil painting on the far wall of the gallery. Here, bursts of red blossoms are pitted against spare, twining branches, contrasted with a blue sky composed of energetic paint whorls.

A self-portrait finds the artist looking gaunt, resigned to a rueful fate, but a more affirmative portrait of the artist can be seen in the painting called "Glenn, Gracie, and Geo." The artist, viewed at a distance, is flanked by two dogs, walking along a country road raked by rays of waning twilight.

This painting, flecked with symbolism, becomes a touching leitmotif for the whole show, a graceful farewell to a man who found solace in art.

Several Santa Barbaran artists were involved in the show at Gallery 2, "Artist's Response 1994." The work includes such reportage as Nell Campbell's photographic field reports from AIDS-related marches and rallies--here there is none of the ironic levity that Campbell often deploys.

Inspired assemblage artist and avowed miniaturist Elena Mary Siff shows tiny framed relief pieces commemorating the "Night Without Lights," the December eve in 1990 when New York City dimmed its public lighting as a sympathetic gesture.

The real faces of AIDS can be seen in the centerpieces of photographer Susan Jorgensen's series titled "The Last Picture." The photographer depicts departed AIDS victims--many of them prominent Santa Barbara-based AIDS activists--with handwritten texts swirling around their faces. Barb Parmet's "The Spirit Lives On" is a photo-tapestry that also grants specific names and faces to AIDS.

Ginny Brush's computer-generated print, "Got Insurance?" presents the sobering sentiment of the title, with conceptual roots in Ed Ruscha's word-paintings and the Milk Advisory Board's current ad campaign. Rose Bilat's relief pieces, in homage to AIDS victims, have an elegance and abstract subtlety that contrasts with the more direct impact of the other artists.

Also included here are a couple of works by the late John Bommer, a promising young Neo-Expressionist artist who studied at UC Santa Barbara and died of AIDS in 1986. Like Harris, Bommer was given a posthumous show, at the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara.

Seeing works by late artists in this way humanizes the disease and amplifies the inherent tragedy. We are compelled to think of the work that went unfinished, and of lives cut drastically short.

LADIES BY NIGHT AND DAY: Canadian-born and Los Angeles-based artist Neil Boyle worked for decades as an illustrator for various magazines, and his current show at the Conejo Valley Art Museum smacks of illustrator's kitsch. Seeing this subtlety-free work in an art gallery makes for a disorienting viewing experience.

The show goes by the inexplicable title "Last Artist Before the Freeway," but lest you think it relates to life in this area before the 101 changed everything, think again. The freeway in question is more a mythic concept than a site-specific reality.

He shows wistful images of Wild West saloon life and Native American portraits (for good measure), with a caricatured, stereotyped quality implying that the artist has watched too many B Westerns. But, in this exhibition, Boyle mostly trains his eye on the female form in various stages of undress. He depicts prostitutes on the frontier, in a cartoony way rather than with a concern for social realism.

There is something creepy and coy about Boyle's figure studies, especially in his titles. The phrase "soiled dove" is a favorite term for these "ladies." A painting of a nude on a divan, better than most in the exhibit, is curiously tainted with the title "A Frail Flower of the Prairie." His models flash come-hither glances and strain under titles like "You See Anything You Like?" or "Well, It's About Time!" (Beware titles armed with exclamation points!)

By the evidence here, Boyle comes off like the last artist before feminism.

Details

AIDS Awareness Month

* WHAT: Glenn Harris retrospective, "Artist's Response 1994."

* WHEN: Through Oct. 28.

* WHERE: New Media Gallery and Gallery 2, Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road, Ventura.

* FYI: 654-6400, Ext. 1030.

"Last Artist Before the Freeway"

* WHAT: Exhibit by Neil Boyle.

* WHEN: Through Oct. 23.

* WHERE: Conejo Valley Art Museum, 193-A N. Moorpark Road (in the Janss Mall).

* FYI: 373-0054.

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