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'Merit Award' Exhibit Displays Quiet Strengths

The annual showcase at the Buenaventura Gallery spotlights a varied group of works.


In Ventura County, certain annual group shows and events are perennial reminders of both time's passage and the continuum of the artistic pulse in the area. Take, for instance, the annual "Merit Award" show at the Buenaventura Gallery, presented with comforting predictability.

This year's show, on display through Sept. 7, gains in quiet strength what it may lack in revelation. Many of the artists shown have familiar aesthetic impulses, and some of the pieces chosen have been seen on gallery walls recently.

The winners, a varied lot, are: Stephanie Elise Kelch's "Quiet Afternoon," a still-life with shadows, and Ellis Jump's "Contemplation," a sinuous sculpture that nods vaguely to the figure. Honorable mention citations go to Duane Simshauser's "In the Window," a multimedia collage, and Robert Wassell's "Haddock," a distinctive, stylized landscape.

Wassell's sea and mountain scenes are rendered in deliberate, blocky modules. And yet his dabbed brushwork lends the imagery a kind of quivering, bustling energy that contrasts with the inherent tranquillity of the natural vistas.

His are not the only landscapes with a difference in the show. Several artists here deal with landscape tradition in refreshingly nontraditional ways. Chloe Murdock's "Fallen Trees" adopts a frazzled Impressionist approach, its edges zapped rather than watery, and the vagueness is becoming.

Betts Waite's "The Blue Door," seen here not long ago, has the perspective of a lazy afternoon, gazing out of French doors toward an idyllic garden. The door itself, transition between interior and exterior space, is as close to a specific point of focus as it gets.

In "Hobo Park-Cosmic Connection," Wilva Ehlers depicts a wintry beach scene with bleak, weather-beaten trees acting as protagonists. Roland Roy's "White Fence" finds a structural anchor in the fence in question, about which wildflowers explode in colorful visual excess.

In a similar way, the title of Roxie Ray's "The Red Handkerchief" isolates a key element in the composition by referring to the sweat-absorbent adornment worn by a farm worker, whose hunched frame fills the canvas. Ray's compassionate portraits of farm laborers are a boon to any group show in which they find themselves.

In the three-dimensional arena, the fare ranges from Heather Young's iridescent clay vessel to Hanna Lore Hombordy's "Phun House," a wild-colored construction of playful absurdity. Howard Quam goes for an organic approach, presenting "Sespe Rock," a stone in a relatively unaltered state.

The title describes the process in Julie Knudson's "Painting with Pantyhose," where the materials help create a whimsically bizarre effect.

* "Merit Award Winners," through Sept. 7 at the Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; 648-1235.

Gallery With a View: It still takes strength of will to find the Third Floor Gallery, tucked away in the uppermost part of Ventura City Hall. Visitors there who are willing to traverse the stairs have to be on an art-seeking mission. Or, at least, a love of rooms with a view.

Word has it that the space may only be available through November, but it remains a small wonder, the most copious and scenically endowed art space around. And the dazzling view over the Ventura area is part of the attraction.

Currently, a bipolar group show is up through September, showcasing members of the Gold Coast Watercolor Society and the Artists Union, two organizations that might not otherwise share a room. In art, differences can be tolerated more than in the sociopolitical realm.

Watercolorists can be unfairly typecast as amateurs who enjoy working outdoors and avoiding risks. There is plenty of evidence here to the contrary, starting with Debra McKillop's dark, mysterious imagery, as if we're peering through murky veils toward a distant light source, emblematic of hope.

Nancy Swenson-William steers away from watercolor pleasantries in "Malibu Holocaust," a depiction of the fiery vista on that beach town two years ago, with flames licking the night sky. Dorothy Brunkan's evocative "A Lady Walking" is a cryptic, almost voyeuristic, scene of a woman on an Old World street, glimpsed from behind a chipping pink wall.

Some of the best watercolor works train a loving eye on a simple subject, from Catherine Sasso's still life, "Chili Peppers," to Nancy D'Andrea's respectfully rendered "Rusty Door" and Curtis Cormane's affectionate ode to rusty pipe works, all loopy lines and earthy hues.

Meanwhile, members of the Artists Union provide the gallery with its generally more outlandish, physical, three-dimensional components. Alexandra Morosco's "Boudicea" is composed of stones, a wood pedestal and a lean, writhing hunk of stone; a figure seems to be either struggling to escape from out of that stone, or melting into its crags.

There is a strong contingent of sculptors associated with Art City here, including Paul Lindhard and Michele Chapin. Joe Cardella, the founder and editor of Art/Life, contributes "Chronology 1969," a mock shrine of personally charged objects and mementos, including shorn hair.

This wide-ranging show even boasts a Magritte reference, in Robert Eyeberg's assemblage "This is Not an Artichoke."

Whatever its ultimate fate, the Third Floor Gallery, formerly the women's detention facility, has had--pardon the pun--a liberating effect on the local art scene. Come for the art, come for the view. But come.

* Gold Coast Watercolor Society and the Artists Union, through Sept. 27 in the Third Floor Gallery, 501 Poli St. in Ventura City Hall. Gallery hours are noon-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; 658-4760.

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