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ART: Ventura County | SIGHTS

Evidence of the Power of Painting

Local artist Michael Dvortcsak rarely exhibits locally. But his impressive work is now on display in Santa Barbara.


Painter Michael Dvortcsak, who moved to Ojai several years ago from Santa Barbara, is one of the finest of the fine artists calling Ventura County home. But, apart from an incidental appearance in a Ventura County Museum of History and Art exhibit last year, he has been conspicuous in his absence from the area. Instead he focuses on exhibiting work on the international scene, including the group show "USA Within Limits," in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The rare appearance of his work makes his impressive solo exhibition currently at the Manne Gallery in Santa Barbara something of a special event in these parts. There hasn't been such an extensive look at Dvortcsak's art since the late '80s, when his work was shown in the now-defunct Pamela Auchincloss Gallery in Santa Barbara. The boldness of the work here reminds us of what we've been missing.

A natural-born painter, Dvortcsak's pieces have often revolved around imagery that loosely refers to archeology and geology, of rock formations and natural forces. With his new paintings, however, Dvortcsak leans in the direction of archival Western culture.

In the main, this is art about art, but without the smart-alecky veneer of the post-modern looters/appropriationists. Usually set against the neutral, flat background of black, these paintings are either affectionately rendered depictions of ceramic vessels or figure studies that subtly refer to classical sculpture.

With his usual expressive depth and tactile brushwork, Dvortcsak depicts the vessels and bodies and sometimes draws lines of comparison between the two. We're made aware of the artist's contextual ploys here, as with a painting of a gourd-shaped vessel that has been placed between two male torsos and so assumes an anatomical reference by association.

Touches of subtle dark humor arise in the gallery. In "Great Ascending Madonna," a tall curvaceous vessel graced with female contours is contained in a diamond-shaped canvas--or is it a coffin? His vessel paintings have a seductively tactile surface, exquisitely rendered. Sometimes, the color glows in a surreal way, as with the iridescent red of "Magma Red" (his geological intrigue rears its head again).

In the figurative paintings, Dvortcsak shows a new twist on a timeless theme. "Female Torso #25," for instance, demonstrates Dvortcsak's refined eye for the rounded, sleek contours of actual flesh, but the truncated body--its limbs and extremities fading into a void--makes a clever bridge between sculptural classicism and present-day reality; we see these figures as both cultural relics and living nudes.

True to Dvortcsak's earthly interests, there are sensuous rocks here. "Stone" appears like a mystical orb, reminiscent of the potato-shaped moon of Saturn, while the looming, huge "Great Stone" seems to throb with a kind of canny atavistic charm.

The art-worldly aspect continues with the painting called "Trinity," in which two smooth vessels flank a coarser, stone-like facsimile of what could pass for an angel. But it's not that pure and simple. His references to religious art, as well as art historicism in the other paintings on view, tend to be offbeat.

Dvortcsak seems to be patiently shuffling through our accrued Western cultural memory, using his formidable painting skills to investigate mysteries without supplying simplistic conclusions. These paintings are moody beauties to behold, with ambiguities to ponder.

With this show, presented in the flattering ambience of the relatively new Manne Gallery, Dvortcsak makes a triumphant homecoming, exerting a fresh intensity and sly humor. It is one of those shows that reaffirm one's belief in the power of paint applied to canvas. No, painting isn't dead yet, not nearly.


Michael Dvortcsak, through March 16 at the Manne Gallery, 1129 State St. in Santa Barbara. Gallery hours: Tue.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; 564-5022.

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