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Following Form, From Classics to Computers

'Figuratively Speaking' offers a historical survey mostly culled from the vaults of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.


"Figuratively Speaking," the admirably eclectic and enterprising exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, gives varied impressions, depending on one's point of entry. Come in properly, through the front door, and a Rodin sculpture--the writhing, spiritually wrenched mass of bronzed flesh--rises in a greeting, along with vintage figure renderings.

Enter from the side door, on the other hand, and the first piece that comes into disorienting view is lying on the floor. Alison Saar's "Terra Firma" is a life-size figure made of tin and wood, sprawled unceremoniously at our feet. Is he lounging, or has he fallen, perhaps permanently?

The figure is apparently indigent, made of funky found materials, suggesting a homeless person incapable of standing, for whatever reason. The horizontal figure becomes a burr in our peripheral vision in the gallery, a sense of things being out of order, the gallery protocol violated. And that's the point.

There are figures and then there are figures. In art spaces, as in public spaces, responses to the human form vary from reverence to skepticism and that plurality is at the heart of this show.

Most pieces resourcefully have been culled from museum holdings by 20th century curator Diana Dupont, as in last year's "About Faces" show, to which "Figuratively Speaking" is something of a sequel. In both, Dupont has shown a keen ability to weave thematic threads by drawing on the available resources of the permanent collection.


This time out, the figure is presented in many forms and permutations, from classical and neo-classical celebrations of anatomy to rational 19th century figurative works to the deconstructive tactics of Cubism, on through to the current Wild West of culture--the Internet.

"BodiesINCorporated" is an interactive Internet piece, requiring visitors to design their ideal, or an imagined, body type, to be assembled and developed over time. Welcome to the mid-'90s.

To anyone who has frequented the museum in recent years, much of the show looks familiar, but these pieces gain strength from the cohesive presentation, as variations on a theme. There are minor works by major artists, including Rouault, Leger, Derain, Cezanne and Klee, worth at least a glance.

Picasso's slight, elegant "Les Trois Grace" of 1923 is last-ditch classicism, before the artist plumbed more compelling areas. Sly Cubist strategy informs Marcel Duchamp's "Bride," a part of the series that culminated in his legendary masterpiece, "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors."

Other familiar faces (and bodies) include Richard Diebenkorn's 1956 "Woman and Checkerboard," the dissolving realism of which indicates the artist's evolution into abstraction. Philip Pearlstein's super realist brushwork takes unflinching aim at the ways of flesh. And flesh becomes dream putty in Dali's "Honey Is Sweeter Than Blood" and Rico Lebrun's lithographs, all mutant anatomy.

At times, the art here plays up the queasy juxtaposition of eroticism and the vulnerability of flesh. Chilean artist Eugenia Vargas, who lived through Pinochet's reign of terror, presents a piece made up of 11 Ektacolor photographs of a woman's back and a girl's dress. On these vividly colored surfaces, black-and-white photos have been crudely attached, images that can be read as either bodies in repose or life made cheap under an oppressive regime.

One of the most commanding pieces here is Bo Bartlett's 1994 painting "Heartland," a large and deceptively simple image that resonates in ways that only emerge upon reflection.

On a flat, treeless landscape, a boy with a red T-shirt and red shoes pulling a red wagon full of sticks seems to be pledging allegiance while staring blankly. Something desolate and ominous hovers about the image, reminiscent of the unsentimental realism of American painters such as Thomas Eakins and Edward Hopper. The abundance of red triggers a sense of alarm and conveys a subtext of dreams gone not sour, but empty.


Over the years, the museum's commitment to fine art photography has wavered, but the permanent collection is at least strong enough for the medium to be well represented here. Pieces as disparate as Edward Weston's demure nude on a sand dune, Robert Mapplethorpe's frank portrait of "Lisa Lyon" and George Platt Lynne's homoerotic male nude from the '30s present an inherent study in contrast.

Santa Barbara's own Richard Ross' triptych, "The Lesson of Passion," presents an ambiguous narrative--made further ambiguous by pillowy, soft focus. We might well read the progression of images as a visual haiku on the theme of young romance, all schoolbooks cast aside and tenderly unclothed anatomy. But that superficial angle seems a clever ruse, a vehicle for Ross' more purely visual, textural experiment. The passion in question is more art-related than libidinal.

And so it is in the exhibition, which, in a modest but effective way, surveys how the figure has evolved in the realm of the art world over the last century. It's a huge subject brought home, and salvaged from the vaults.


* WHAT: "Figuratively Speaking."

* WHERE: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara

* WHEN: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, open until 9 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 3. Closed Mondays.

* CALL: 963-4364.

* HOW MUCH: $4 adults, $3 seniors, $1.50 children and students, children under 6 free.

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