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All That Glitters Is Not Gold--Tin Also Shines

Mexican artisans have molded the metal into items both profound and playful--from hovering angels to windup toys.


Some of the most exciting art in the county at the moment is made of tin. Through this weekend, the Carnegie Art Museum is filled with patiently and passionately crafted works in tin, a material that has particular significance in Mexican history.

"Impressions in Tin: Mexican Tin Works" is an illuminating traveling show that originated at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. Its arrival in Southern California has special meaning, considering the proximity of its source.

In these sacred and playful works, we witness the evolution of a medium. Beginning in the 18th century, tinsmithing became a viable means of expression and decoration in Mexico, a tradition that continues today. Whereas the precious metals of silver and gold were coveted by the Spanish aristocracy, tin was a material readily available to craftspeople of average social means who used the stuff for religious, decorative and functional ends.

Entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted by the glint of brightly painted tinworks of a gregarious, ceremonial sort. Alfonso Santiago de Leyba's "Soldier With Trumpet" stands like a toy sentry, and the back wall plays host to a Nativity scene--angels hovering on the wall seem to watch over the exhibition. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of Christmas decorations, turned from the ordinary to the exotic.

Elsewhere, a mirror with a Baroque flower frame--an ornamental wreath of floral designs--dwarfs the small, round mirror in the center. In this case, formal fancy outweighs the utility of the object.

Tin has often been pressed into service for devotional art, for the church or home. The "Retablos Santos" tradition consists of painting saints on tin, for use in home altars. The Virgin of Guadalupe, seen as a symbol of the fusion of Spanish and Indian culture, is another common subject of Catholic devotional artists in Mexico. The sacred artworks are expressions of faith, both humble and often beautifully rendered.

Some of the most charming and memorable tinwork in this show is of a rough-hewn sort--the wonderfully funky work of toy maker Seculio Corral, who was born in 1903 and died in the mid-'60s.

Corral's toys are often windup jobs (long since preserved under glass against the temptation to wind them) that blend the best of intuitive design and clever tinkering. These handcrafted objects have no concern for right angles and are painted with crude swaths of strange colors. They are useful, appealing toys with a loony spin, as in the pistol that shoots out a cow or the Ferris wheel on which human and animal riders hang onto bars for dear life.

Here in Corral's corner of the gallery--away from the more glittery objects of desire, decor and religious meditation--is a window to the secret life of tin. Corral's work possesses all the beloved hallmarks of folk art, the humor, inspired simplicity and sense of purpose.

Mission Impressionable: Upstairs at the Carnegie is a vaguely complementary show, "Puertas del Santuarios: Paintings of Mission San Juan Capistrano by Members of the California Art Club." No history of Mexican life and culture is complete without the saga of the mission system in California, a living reminder of the transition period between California's indigenous culture and the arrival of Manifest Destiny.

San Juan Capistrano's mission was the seventh built along El Camino Real, now Highway 101, and it remains an idyllic bastion of history. It is with a fond, fawning appreciation that these artists have depicted the site, with paintings mostly leaning toward relaxed realism.

But the show is also a study in diversity. Alexander V. Orlov's precise, orderly rendering contrasts with Charles Percy Austin's loosed-edged, impressionist vision. Peter Adams eyes the glittering altar while Ray Harris focuses on the present--the web-like scaffolding that signifies the current restoration project.

Alexey Steele slyly calls his painting of a decaying section of the mission "Classic Ruins," hinting that in this still-nascent corner of California, we have our own bit of antiquity.

Flowering Art: In the gallery featuring "Masters in Our Midst," watercolorist Susan Petty's "Opening Up!" is an unabashed celebration of the floral world, in time for vernal fever. Petty shows a keen sense of observation and subtlety, whether dealing with a light, airy view of Matilija poppies in "Passing Through" or the almost voluptuous tapestry of red in "The Eyes Have It."

Petty's floral appreciation, it would seem, has fully bloomed.


* WHAT: "Impressions in Tin: Mexican Tin Works," "Puertas del Santuarios: Paintings of Mission San Juan Capistrano by Members of the California Art Club" and "Opening Up! New Floral Watercolors by Susan Petty."

* WHEN: Through Sunday.

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

* CALL: 385-8179.

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