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'Assembly' Narrows Focus to Photography

The annual juried exhibition, after a revamp by curator Tim Schiffer, showcases just eight artists and one medium.


When curator Tim Schiffer took the reins of the Ventura Museum of History and Art a year and a half ago, one of his ideas was to revamp the annual "Assembly of the Arts" juried exhibition. Begun in 1977, the show has served as an overview of worthy examples of the county's artistic life.

What the broad-sweep approach of past shows accomplished was to give a generous, relatively evenhanded showcase of a number of artists, but it failed to provide them with enough room to present their work. Schiffer tightened the focus knob for this year's show, limiting the medium to fine art photography and the number of artists to eight--cut at least by half from previous years.

Overall, it seems to be a wise move. In addition to giving each artist generous exhibition space, the show surveys local photographic work and demonstrates the diversity of the medium.

Landscape photography, that mainstay of the medium, gets its due space. Michael Moore's horizontal Cibachrome images, many taken close to home in the Sespe Wilderness, show a deep appreciation of the general fabric of nature, rather than its postcard moments. Instead of focusing on dramatic details of flowers or peaks, or even vistas, Moore's images present textured, democratic slices of natural life.

In a way, the same could be said of the outdoorsy work of Michael Appuliese, whose lens caresses a field of mustard, a rolling grassy hill or a desolate desert panorama. Larry Janss zooms in close for his pristine, Edward Weston-esque black-and-white images of natural miniatures. A pyracantha, viewed at point-blank range, becomes almost abstract, while the environmental subtext is clear in "Herbie Recumbent," with a decaying carcass of a Volkswagen in the underbrush.

Abstraction of an expressionist kind is the main thrust of Gerd Koch, well known for his energetic painting. In one corner of the gallery, Koch shows his mysterious color prints, gathered into sequences on the subjects of nature and self-portraits. The color is distorted and the edges blurred as the artist scrapes away the recognizable to reveal new forms. Koch, who has found a new medium without abandoning the old one, seems interested in pushing photography toward the visual fluidity of painting.

Carole Topalian bathes her staged portraits, often of lounging young people who could be modeling jeans or designer aromas, with swirling shadows and dizzy chiaroscuro. The surface effects are more intriguing than the content. It's almost as if the scenes are under water or in another dimension, which she says seeks to evoke "a floating world."

Looking at Mary Ellen Wortham's dark, moody images of liquor stores in desolate night scenes, you might expect that they're in Texas rather than in Ventura County. She found ample local color in places like Santa Paula and Piru. These images evoke the art-history baggage of Edward Hopper's existential Americana and the bleak beauty of Walker Evans' Depression-era work, from a local viewpoint.

With a fair amount of irony, Wortham calls the series "American Dreamscapes," suggesting the hope and failure of American dreaming. These roadside liquor stores, with their stark geometries of design and promises of cheap fixes, are both oases and dead ends.

For most intents and purposes, Charles Spink is the surrealist of the lot, but his dreamlike scenarios are more rational than might be expected. Spink plays up the jarring, double-take effect of mixing seemingly unrelated materials and objects.

The head of a shovel is topped by a prickly wig of foliage, subtly suggesting a human form. A tumbleweed is set on a table against a white backdrop, bizarrely glorified by the spotlight. In another image, the same table is hung on its side from the ceiling, turning perspective on its side.

Fittingly, Spink's odd scenes take place in some strange, insular atmosphere. It's a place cut off from the real world where he creates his own private image bank.

In his own way, John Nichols' work shows a surrealist's desire to subvert the conventional interpretation of reality. At times, texture is the subject, from the tightly cropped image of scraggly fur in "Cooper the Pig, Lake Gregory" to the bush of hair that stands for a portrait in "Leslie."

There are two examples from Nichols' fascinating, deceptively simple series called "Tru-Vue accidental diptychs," tingly and fuzzy shots taken with the cheap "Diana" camera, then cut and pasted with images that are not necessarily related. In the best of these, accidental visual poetry occurs.

His "Huntington Dog," its out-of-focus edges coyly scruffy, is actually a sculptural sentry, but exists, somehow, between reality and artifice. The same could safely be said of photography generally, and this exhibition in particular.


* WHAT: "Assembly of the Arts."

* WHEN: Through June 30.

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

* CALL: 653-0323.

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