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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | SIGHTS

Works Bear Closer Scrutiny

Exhibit focuses on two distinctly different sculptors and a painter of unflinching imagery.

September 12, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Exhibits mounted at Art City often tend to be group affairs, multifarious happenings in which the numerous artists associated with art outpost show their wares. But there is clearly something to be said for a more intensive focus on an artist's work, a point brought home in Art City's current three-man show, bearing the title "Alimento"--Spanish for "nourishment."

This month, the gallery floor is committed to the works of two sculptors of distinctly different natures, Frank Lauren being the narrative, conceptual sly dog, and Francisco Robles working up more conventional etudes in marble. Lauren's canny, semi-Cubist nudes often consist of bulging fragments and odd permutations, while his "Sail Away" is a geometric, abstract sailboat, and the epic "Safety Pin" recalls the work of renowned pop artist Claes Oldenburg writ small. Robles shows attractive pieces that are all sensuous curves and polished surfaces.

But, as strong as the sculpture element is, the real story here is hanging on the walls. Painter Henry Taylor's generous showing of pieces conveys a brute energy amid unflinching imagery, usually depicting life on the socioeconomic edge, where African-American experience meets and is betrayed by the American dream.

Taylor's paintings have an unfinished, unpolished character that contributes to an effectively hangdog personality. They are crudely rendered, often unframed, with patches of raw canvas, and they deal with harsh realities in a ragged, folk-art kind of way.

Bitter ironies abound, as in "Happy Meal," a scruffy portrait of a distinctly unhappy black McDonald's employee, missing teeth. "Screaming Head" is a revision of Munch's classic existential howler, this time taking on a racial-mental aspect. "Affect/Camarillo" shows a naked black man depicted as a slender dehumanized stretch of flesh strapped to a bed.

Despite the pain underscoring his work, Taylor also exerts a bright way with color and form, and a poignancy comes through in a painting like "Soppin' With John T," a view of a boy before gravy-bound biscuits. There is humor here, too: "Odelay" shows a bullfight setting with police cars in a circle around the black toreador. The bull in this symbolic equation could represent the hurdles faced by people of color. Or, of course, it might just be a bull.

Not necessarily pretty but deeply personal, Taylor's show is a rarity in Ventura County. This work taps no particular commercial potential, nor does it apply to any general art-world fashion. It just feels like the real deal.

*

Ojai-La: The title "Open Spaces: The Ojai Landscape," reveals a cherished aspect of Ojai, a perennial subject for landscape artists here. The current group show at the Ojai Center for the Arts, presented in conjunction with the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, is about landscape, to be sure, but it's also about space, that precious commodity in Southern California.

In Ojai, open spaces and natural imagery are readily available resources, begging to be captured and interpreted by artists so inclined. The art here immediately adopts a stance of civic pride and at least a bit of caution, in that the instinct to preserve Ojai's natural beauty and small-town, quasi-rural life is strong.

To its credit, the show celebrates many different angles on the same turf. Frances Johnson's simple, nearly abstract pastel piece "Lake Casitas" hangs in stark contrast with the realist sheen of Don Lazo's paintings, which take a slightly smirking look at the manicured landscaping on private property.

Ojai's grand dame Beatrice Wood--103 and counting--contributes one of her delightful child-like drawings, this one being the delicate colored-pencil and graphite drawing "Sunday Afternoon," from 1979. An imaginary aerial view of a country road, the drawing is typical of Wood's inspired ingenuousness when the ceramist works in a two-dimensional mode.

Diane Severton's "View From Krotona" seems to be awash in beatific lavender light, and Mary Christie's "When Carnival Comes to Ojai" focuses on a smattering of twinkly lights--the carnival in action--against the dark mountain backdrop at dusk.

Jennie Scott's "Valley Meadow," like her "Fields of Meadow," propose a hazy, dream-world-like vision of Ojai in its incarnation as a SoCal Shangri-la. Of course, this version of paradise plays best after the rains have left it in its brief vernal splendor. Bert Collins' typical skill shines through in her portrayal of a eucalyptus grove.

As the exhibit's "title painting," Jane Ray's "Open Spaces" is, fittingly, horizontal in format, a view of uncrowded trees backed by the Topa Topa mountains. It's a little slice of hometown paradise, duly noted.

* "Alimento," art by Henry Taylor, Frank Lauren and Francisco Robles, through September at Art City, 31 Peking St. in Ventura; 648-1690.

* "Open Spaces: The Ojai Landscape," through Sept. 26 at Ojai's Center for the Arts, 113 S. Montgomery St. in Ojai. Gallery hours: noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 646-0117.

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