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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | SIGHTS

Exhibit Serves to Record, Celebrate Local Murals : Santa Paula Union Oil Museum show surveys wall-size art. Another focuses on portrayals of animals.

February 08, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Let us now praise the mural, that healthy creative entity in our midst. Following on the heels of the current show by mural artist Frank Hyder at Oxnard's Carnegie Art Museum, the Santa Paula Union Oil Museum has unveiled "Ventura County Mural Project," a work-in-progress documenting mural activity in the county.

As with the Carnegie show, the exhibition tries to excite curiosity and to get the view out of the gallery to see this art where it lives. And, in a county with more than its fair share, murals can be found in a myriad of places--in public institutions, on the walls in commercial zones, in restaurants, in mortuaries and virtually anywhere there is a naked wall begging for expression (solicited expression, one clear distinction from graffiti).

Organized and photographed by project director Charles N. McCormick, the show in Santa Paula derives its energy directly from its subject, and from the variety of imagery made public through the murals.

There is no dominant theme threading through these muralists' work. The art can be as innocent as the tigers in the Arco Iris Juice Bar, or as epic as the mural by Xavier Montes at Chino's Market, from Aztec imagery to depictions of the Blanchard Library. The mural at El Concilio Market, by Jaime Estrada and Michael Moses Mora covers a gamut from Native Americans to Carlos Santana. Judy Suzuki takes stamps as her subject at the Camarillo State Hospital.

One of the showcase murals in Ventura has a twofold sense of history. Dating back to its WPA origins, painted by Kenneth Grant in 1938 (restored in 1966), the work wrapped around the post office lobby has a life of its own as a landmark, in addition to the heroic vision of labor it depicts.

Other murals are of relatively new vintage, including the flamboyant mural at the Livery on Ventura's Palm Street, painted by M.B. Hanrahan and Michelle Chapin. Hanrahan has been avidly involved in supporting mural work around the area, working with different groups. Her 1994 mural on the side wall of the Avenue Liquor store is surprisingly site-specific, illustrating the dire effects of alcoholic excess.

Although McCormick's photographic work is straightforward and reportorial, designed to accurately capture the spirit of the murals in their habitat, McCormick brings his own artistic eye to the job. By focusing on details within the often complex maze of images in a mural, he brings an edited, altered view.

The show is just a progress report on an unfinished project that seems well worth the effort. It carries a crusader's torch, alerting the public to the art in our own neighborhoods, accessible to all.

But there is a preservationist aspect to the project, as well. Mural art, unlike other media, is particularly vulnerable to destruction. A change of owner and a coat of paint can spell doom. Museum exposure is one good wedge against careless destruction.

Creature Comforts: There might not seem to be a logical link between the mural exhibition and the museum's other new show, "Animals in Art from the Santa Paula Collection." But there is, in the name of Botke.

The late Cornelius and Jessie Arms Botke were a celebrated, and ubiquitous, first couple of art from Santa Paula, who specialized in mural art as well as in-studio media. McCormick devotes a panel of photographs to some of the Botkes' handiwork, including Cornelius' murals at the Santa Paula High School and at the local Skillen-Carrol Mortuary (a suitably tranquil landscape).

Jessie Arms Botke, recently toasted with a show at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, takes center stage in the show of animal-related art--and rightfully so. Botke's paintings of exotic birds, lovingly rendered and sometimes bejeweled in gold leaf, manage to be extravagant without being gaudy, with enough taste and humor to avoid being overly florid.

In her paintings of white peacocks, plumage is seen as milky white explosions that take charge of the surrounding landscapes. In "Malucca Cockatoos and Hibiscus," Botke is depicting sights from the real world, faithfully and dryly identified in the title, but what she really gives us is a tropical fever dream of a scene.

Often, the personalized place that Botke portrayed was an idyllic nether world, a fantastical garden for the imagination's taking.

Inevitably, the rest of the exhibition pales by comparison, but offers a roundly rustic, nostalgic and sometimes historically intriguing sampler. Cornelius Botke's one entry, "Old California," is a sweet bit of small-town bucolia, tying in nicely with the basic temperament of the show.

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