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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : ART / SIGHTS : Lavish Bird Paintings Portray Fantasy World : Museum displays artistic aviary of Jessie Arms Botke and paraphernalia that gives insight to the creative process.

November 02, 1995|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Visitors to the Ventura County Museum of Art and History these days are greeted by an artistic aviary. An embarrassment of visual riches is represented by tropical and other flamboyant birds among flowing flora, with the muted shimmer of gold leaf in the background.

If this art weren't so exquisite and dreamlike, the adjectives florid and gaudy might spring to mind. There lies the secret to the art of Jessie Arms Botke, who, in her long life in art, worked within the realms of decorative art and mural painting long enough to master the craft of extravagance but who never neglected a personal aesthetic agenda.

To those versed in the history of art in Ventura County, the legacy of Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971) looms large. Botke, who with husband Cornelius was based out of their Wheeler Canyon ranch in Santa Paula beginning in 1929, is one of the handful of artists from these parts who have made a sizable impact in the greater art world.

This is the second Botke exhibition in a year, after curator Tim Schiffer organized a show of Cornelius Botke's etchings. But rather than a case of overkill, the new show of Jessie's paintings should be considered a timely companion piece to the earlier show, a study in spousal contrast. If he was grounded, depicting landscapes or travel-oriented scenes, she was flying into her own bird-filled fantasy world.

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Often lavish beyond lavish, Jessie Botke's bird paintings were more than an ornithological celebration of bird life--they were a means to an artistic end. "Peacock with Tail Full Spread" finds the entire image consumed with the subject's web-like white plumage.

Pompous pink birds might easily live up to the wry title "Swearing Birds." In "Crowned Cranes and Flowering Eucalyptus," the birds blend into the dream-laden landscape.

She also created big, loud images, partly as a matter of instinctual course, having specialized in murals rendered with her husband (their idyllic handiwork can be seen at mortuaries in Santa Paula and Fillmore, among other local spots). Two of her larger paintings, from 1954, take up most of one gallery wall, but delicacy is the byword, not grandiosity.

The magical sheen of gold leaf, often underscoring or padding a wildlife scenario, comes across more as a touch of enchantment than as kitschy affectation.

We're not asked to accept these images as prickly realistic field reports from the great outdoors. These birds are sometimes simply decorative decoys, a fine excuse to put down paint. She liked to work in oil-on-board, creating a flat stylized surface.

Her still-life paintings on view here are something else again, done with a freer hand and rougher edges. "Avocados" has an especially palpable beauty, apart from its regional resonance here in avocado country.

Also included in the show are display cases full of paraphernalia, fleshing out the picture of the artist's working process. Linoleum blocks, personalized postcards, Christmas cards and sketches from her travels give us a broader idea of her life beyond birds.

Certainly, with her apolitical, extra-realist paintings, Botke flew in the face of what was going on in serious art circles in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, with her seemingly bourgeois concerns and fanciful indulgences. But at this juncture, Botke is to be admired for envisioning her own menagerie, a sort of peaceable kingdom that connects as much with the unconscious as the actual world of nature.

Allegorical Wraps: Sculptor Myra Toth's current, very fine show at the Childress Gallery in Ojai presents a series of variations on a quietly compelling theme. Her work gives off mixed messages and refuses to be taken literally.

In her "See the Trees for the Forest" series, spindly tree branches--tender saplings or dead driftwood?--are wrapped in thick bases of what looks like ceramic bandages--embraced? restrained? It's not clear, nor is it meant to be. For Toth, the natural elements are filtered through conceptualist thinking, which tills the soil between artistic will and natural process.

Also on view are pieces in which the artist plays up the juxtaposition between the fertility symbol of eggs--some real, some made by human hands--and ceramic nests of various sorts.

But the strongest work remains her bandaged trees, which exist in some between-state, neither alive nor dead, half-art, half-nature. The ambiguity is fetching.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

DETAILS

Jessie Arms Botke

* WHEN: 10-5 Monday through Saturday, through Nov. 26.

* WHERE: Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura.

* HOW MUCH: $3 adults; children 16 and under and members free.

* FYI: 653-0323.

Myra Toth sculptures

* WHEN: 10-5 Monday through Saturday, call for appointment on Sunday, through Nov. 10.

* WHERE: G. Childress Gallery, 319 E. El Roblar Drive, Ojai.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* FYI: 640-1387.

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