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SIGHTS : Landscapes Are Focus of California Art Club Exhibit : Though the show lacks strong points of view, it boasts an endearing innocence, with several standout pieces in the pack.


California, ever the youth-obsessed locale, has a love-hate relationship with history, especially when it comes to the arts.

The fact that the California Art Club was established in 1909, making it "the oldest art club west of the Mississippi River," could be taken for a sign of venerability. But instead, suspicions tend to arise. A lot has happened to art, and our definitions thereof, since 1909.

Aesthetics in the 20th Century have often been focused on the new, the now, and what's next rather than on matters of longevity and bygone standards.

Questions pop up. Why a focus on California? (Members must be residents.) Why a club for a demographic so patently individualistic as artists?

The current exhibition at the Carnegie Art Museum, displaying paintings by early club members and new works by current members, answers these questions and tells a story that is sometimes fascinating, even when the art itself is not.

The club began as a celebration of the many artists in this state who relished the landscape by painting in the plein-air tradition. This was, of course, before the onslaught of cityscapes and suburbia on the Californian topography. Presently, plein-air in this area might well be tainted air.

In the back gallery we find a bounty of tranquil vintage landscapes. Works such as William Wendt's 1912 painting "Along the Arroyo Seco," a picture-perfect, idyllic green afternoon, or Colin Campbell Cooper's impressionistic view of the great, gentle outdoors elicit a pleasant sensation. Works by Cooper, Kathryn Leighton and Paul Lauritz have been brought up from the Carnegie's own collection.

But as the tide of modernism pushed artists away from 19th-Century values of fine art and away from the landscape tradition, the club apparently became something else.

It was a safe harbor from the shifting intellectual base of art history, an enclave for representational artists who were left out in the cold--both by their artistic instincts and their distance from the art world brain center of New York.

Cut to the 1990s. Upstairs at the museum are pieces by current club members. As a whole, the fare here leans toward the pretty--and pretty tame, by existing modern-day, post-post-modern standards. You don't get a sense of authority questioned or archetypes re-examined.

By the same token, there is an endearing innocence put forth in these landscapes and traditional subjects. Implicit in the gallery is the notion that painting is not dead or even ailing. But if this segment of the show, on the whole, suffers from a lack of muscularity or strong points of view, there are standout pieces in the pack.

In John Comer's "Waves and Aloes," tiny surfers ride waves tucked away behind atavistic plant life choking the foreground. Meredith Abbott's "Eucalyptus and Country Back" is a landscape enlivened by a dramatically muted dispersal of light, giving it an almost mystical ambience.

Likewise with Richard Brodie's affectingly dreamlike "Sumac and Lone Oak in the Topanga Firebreak." In addition to its subtle contextual message--beauty found along the firebreak--Brodie's work is a thing of swarthy, painterly poetry.

If this exhibition is all about self-preservation of outsiders and club-consciousness by style and residency, the concurrent exhibition now up at the Carnegie goes full steam ahead in the opposite direction. Harry Hurwitz, who has made his mark as a filmmaker but has also worked steadily in the visual arts, comes across in this sizable showing of his art as a quirky and creatively restless sort, with a taste for the surreal and the dryly comic.

Not surprisingly, film references leap out, from images of Chaplin to the parade of trench-coated men making up the pen-and-ink "Film Noir." Often, Hurwitz's figures and faces appear distorted, as if shot through odd camera lenses.

But the more memorable works stem from an internal dream logic that is less cinematic than it is psychological. "The Secret Dreams of Plants" finds an apparitional turn-of-the-century dandy floating above a field of flowers. Better yet, a mad giddiness informs his piece, "The Clown's Dream," with its hollow-headed clown set, irrationally, against a forest scene.

Creative license runs charmingly amok in works such as his cigar box assemblages, including a self-portrait in a box.

Off in a corner is an etching from 1960 entitled "The Creative Process," an intricately rendered drawing of some fanciful edifice in which architecture gives way to crazed plumbing schemes, organ pipes instead of pillars, a band and gymnasts on the roof.

Also at the Carnegie is "A Piece of Painting," an installation/documentation from Ventura-based choreographer Pamela Pilkenton. Pilkenton dutifully documents her 1992 performance/dance/painting piece in which dancers dance while painters splash their white garments.

That striking piece, performed in various spots in Ventura County and in Los Angeles, is brought back to life here through video and actual artifacts--the paint-splashed fabric in question. To bring the piece up to date, in real time, a performance took place in the museum itself. What would the California Art Club founders have thought?


* WHAT: "California Art Club: 85 Years of Art"; "Harry Hurwitz/Artist and Filmmaker, a Retrospective"; and Pamela Pilkenton's "A Piece of Painting."

* WHERE: Carnegie Art Museum, 424 S. C St., Oxnard.

* WHEN: Through Nov. 20.

* CALL: 385-8157.

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