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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | SIGHTS

Sculptures and Paintings Are Good Fit for Gallery Exhibit

Gretchen Greenberg's lithe wood pieces offer a graceful balance to Venae Warner's semi-abstractions inspired by music.

August 15, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From outward appearances, stalwart Ojai artists Venae Warner and Gretchen Greenberg might not seem like natural gallery mates. Warner paints, summoning up vivacity and mystery in the gray zone between abstraction and real-world imagery. Greenberg, meanwhile, is well-known for her elegantly wriggling, poetically charged sculptures made lovingly of wood.

Together, they conspire toward a surprising artistic symbiosis, as they share the walls and floor space of the Childress Gallery through August. They ought to go on meeting like this.

Greenberg invests craft and invention into her wood sculptures, which tend to be curvy, polished artifacts, sleek and slender without apology. Often, the pieces lightly refer to the general properties of the human figure ("Tara" and "Cloaked Woman"), or to plant life ("Our Lady of the Forests," made from coastal redwood), but always with a kind of mythic, detached air.

"Gateway" and "The Space In-Between" are works that have been self-consciously split, leaving a chasm in the middle, which suggests spiritual or mental duality. "Music in the Water" is a particularly sensuous piece--made of Honduran mahogany, bass wood and other materials. Its rippling contours could easily be considered analogous to rhythm and music.

Fittingly, music is a central theme--and source of inspiration--in Warner's charming semi-abstractions. Here is art that, true to the adage, directly "aspires to the quality of music." Musical genres vary, from such evocatively titled paintings as "Loreena McKennett Outdoes Herself" to "Django Reinhat Discovers Nature" and "John Coltrane Sings."

Whether or not her color schemes and formal choices accurately reflect the sonic palettes of the musicians invoked in the titles is open to question. The link between music and visual art has long been a compelling and inexact science. It can safely be said that Warner's way with visual balances and texture has a musical, synesthetic ring.

She also works up cartoon-like variations on the stylistic themes of Picasso and Matisse in "Henry and Pablo Take Up Salsa Dancing." Elsewhere, nicely rendered images carry overly cute narrative titles such as "Why Fools Fall in Love" and "Honoring the All of It." But no great harm is done: Warner's paintings are fresh and inviting without ever dipping into the realm of the glib or predictable.

Though working in different corners of the medium, both Greenberg and Warner show an appreciation of the well-turned line. And both lean toward forms that convey rhythm and archetypal feminine attributes. But the secret to the success of their show is something less tangible: Their works simply get along together.

* "Tracking," art by Venae Warner and Gretchen Greenberg; through August. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday at G. Childress Gallery, 319 El Roblar Drive, Ojai. 640-1387.

*

Artful Grouping, Part II: At the Ojai Center for the Arts, the four-person exhibition makes no pretense at curatorial cohesion. Yet this generous sampling of art hangs nicely, pushing in varied enough directions to keep sameness or boredom at bay.

Overall, the most impressive work is that of Jean Smart, who demonstrates a confident, intriguing way with a brush and a broad range of interests. Her segment of the show ranges from "Afternoon Lilies," a close-up view of said flowers energized by a softly distorted color palette, to the odd narrative concoction, "Honeymoon." Here, borrowing Edward Hopper's sense of stealth and mystery, Smart depicts a couple at a table, either swooning with anticipated ecstasy or festering in premature regret.

Fanciful but not florid, "The Gift" is built around a woman draped on a couch, adrift in dreamy and overstated decor and flanked by an imperious, overstuffed cat.

Further off the edge of normal, Tom Hardcastle shows some of his elaborate paintings, dripping with phantasmagorial imagery. Human figures are constantly flirting with transformation, melting into animal forms and clouds--mermen and a centaur are among the more accountable creatures of the lot.

Hardcastle flings his painterly skills around in entertaining fashion. He posits his Marilyn Monroe doctrine in the imposingly large "Stardust," with the doomed star's drowsy face encircled by pills, and then teeters off toward mythology in the self-descriptively titled "Garden of Delusion." Hardcastle's delusions are harmless enough and often engagingly outlandish.

Hardcastle has a three-dimensional kindred spirit in Theodore Gall. This Ojai sculptor's fastidiously crafted (he's no stranger to the welding torch) and sometimes ghoulish metal sculptures seem to be inspired by both Rodin and Heavy Metal comics.

Operating in another idiom entirely, Marsha Braun provides some refreshingly inventive floral studies. She uses a fairly rough-hewn brushwork, and avoids the obvious primrose path. On some paintings it appears as if the artist has cut them into strips and repainted the results, a conceptual trick that goes down easy.

Amid all these assorted schemes and artful dodging, Charlotte Arnold is the resident conservative here, but that's not a bad thing under the circumstances. Working in watercolor and the occasional oil, Arnold is content to deal with soft, idyllic landscapes. And, in the right untroubled mind frame, we're content to enjoy them.

* Charlotte Arnold, Marsha Braun, Tom Hardcastle and Jean Smart in a group show through August; Ojai Center for the Arts, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai; 646-0117.

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