Art about California is suddenly all around us. In Santa Barbara, regional landscapes have taken over the Museum of Art and, as part of an organized effort, various galleries around town. Meanwhile, the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, which regularly celebrates California art, boasts a robust watercolor show that casts an admiring--though sometimes romanticizing--eye on the Golden State.
The Carnegie show, "California Watercolors from Collections of the Jonathan Art Foundation and the Jonathan Club," presents a broad spectrum of images from 1910 to 1980. The paintings aren't limited to the stereotypical domain of pastoral landscape. Nature is revisited and stylized, while urban scenes are painted with a woodsy lyricism.
With its historical perspective, the exhibit tells the story not only of the California landscape, but the conditions for artists themselves. A number of artists, unable to support themselves during the Depression, took work painting murals for the WPA or sets for Hollywood movies. Clearly, they painted watercolors more for love than money.
Some of the best pieces in the show take liberties with the medium of watercolor. Ralph Baker's "Yellow Tree," from 1950, is an explosion of yellow leafage. Emil Kosa Jr.'s "Reading in the Park, Los Angeles," painted in 1930, is a rhythmic mesh of slashing brush strokes, while his portrayal of "San Pedro Fishermen" revels in the soft light of a foggy morning.
Cities are seen in a kind of glowing light, rather than as caldrons of congested urbanity. "Coit Tower," painted by Harold Gretzner in 1960, is viewed as a spire on the hill, amid a meandering group of ramshackle houses.
Edward Reep's "Freeway Overpass, Downtown Los Angeles," depicts the dizzying entanglement of roads and signs almost as an abstract image rather than an indictment of traffic strangulation. Likewise, Kenneth Potter's "Potrero with Scaffold" is a crazy patchwork quilt of overlapping colors and lines, an agreeably kaleidoscopic cityscape.
Whatever California's real-life, real-time problems, whatever its legacy as an empty promised land, these watercolors depict a wholly different state. It's a state where beauty burgeons, even in the most confusing of places.
Euro-Local: Upstairs at the Carnegie is a show of relatively minuscule canvases--sketches for eventual, larger works--by the noted American Impressionist Colin Campbell Cooper. Cooper (1856-1937) taught for many years at the now-defunct Santa Barbara School of the Arts. Earlier in his career, though, Cooper cut his teeth on the East Coast and studied in Europe, bringing back home a strong imprint of the French Impressionists.
Cooper's intriguing mini-paintings depict locales as distant as Rome and Delhi. He also painted California scenes, as well as romantic visions of New York City. Europe figures prominently in these paintings, even when the subject is close to home, as in a painting of San Diego's Balboa Park that details its Mediterranean architecture. One wonders if his European fixation drew him to painting the place called Naples--a small coastal town north of Goleta that never quite came into being.
Media Mixer: Speaking of local wonders, the Ojai-based artist Sherry Loehr is continuing her impressive artistic evolution, as seen in her compelling exhibit at the Carnegie. Loehr, who detailed her multimedia methods in the recent issue of "Artists" magazine, has been refining her unique aesthetic for the past few years.
The secret of her art lies in the convergence of subjects, backgrounds and text. For example, lusciously rendered fruit still-lifes are blended with decorative-yet-abstract backgrounds and cryptic hints of phrases.
Her titles are often deceptively straightforward--"Plums and Postcard," "Loquats and Pears," and "Night Radishes"--and tell only the facts contained in her work. Beyond those facts, a personalized kind of poetry lurks in the cracks.
* "California Watercolors from Collections of the Jonathan Art Foundation and the Jonathan Club," "Colin Campbell Cooper: The Importance of Sketching," through Feb. 23. "Harvest: Watermedia by Sherry Loehr," through Jan. 19 at Carnegie Art Museum, 424 South C St., Oxnard. Open 1-5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Call 385-8179.