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Outings: Ventura County | SIGHTS

Age of Innocence

Henry Chapman Ford captures a vision of bucolic times.

March 27, 1997|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the late 19th century, the world according to artist Henry Chapman Ford was a beautiful and relatively unspoiled place, and it centered around his adopted hometown of Santa Barbara.

Like many white settlers of the last century, Ford left Chicago, where he had based a successful career as a landscape painter, and came West for health reasons. What he found on this western fringe was a landscape more enchanting than it would ever be again, as westward migration brought increasing development. That's the message we get from the intriguing exhibition of his paintings, drawings and etchings now at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

Fittingly, this show, co-curated by Tim Schiffer and Norman Neuberg, is another sterling example of how history, art and regionalism can peacefully coexist in a curatorial setting.

A couple of paintings from Ford's Midwest period are dark and dense with foliage, but when he came West, he saw things in a new light, literally. The palette brightens and the sense of space opens up. Looking at his paintings of the Santa Barbara Mission, hunkered down in the yawning, undeveloped stretch of land leading to the ocean, may instill pangs of nostalgia for a Santa Barbara we never knew.

Other paintings lavishly portray natural settings in our midst, including Gaviota Pass and Glen Annie Canyon--replete with lolling cows where suburbia now rules. As a landscape artist with open eyes in a new land, Ford took nothing for granted.

Painted in 1875, "Olmstead Home, Carpinteria" depicts a rural outpost. The picture is one of the five paintings Ford did in exchange for a five-acre parcel of land in that town.

As visually rich as Ford's paintings are, a centerpiece of this exhibition is subtler. In the 1880s, Ford undertook a project creating etchings of the California missions, in a limited edition published by Studio Press in New York. These finely detailed and evocative works, offer a loving vision of the mission system.

Here again, Ford's 100-year-old depictions of the missions prick our awareness of California history. When he rendered them, the missions tended to appear as bucolic fortresses nestled in sparse landscapes.

Just as 19th century paintings of Yosemite inspired conservation on a governmental level, Ford's mission images reportedly spurred interest in preserving them.

This is a show which, apart from its artistic merits, serves up lessons about the passage of time and the nature of change. More has happened to this coveted hunk of real estate since Ford cast an admiring eye here than in hundreds of years prior. And there is the essential subtext, in hindsight: Ford captured a landscape in the twilight of innocence.

* Henry Chapman Ford, through April 27 at Ventura Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tue.-Sun.; 385-8157.

Sail Away: Bill Surgett's charming little assemblages are gathered at the Buenaventura Gallery under the punning title, "Lost Soles."

Sure enough, weathered, curling shoe soles are key among the list of found objects he uses in creating tiny ships. Providing a technological tension to such junk materials, though, are "sails" imprinted with computer-aided graphics.

In the outer gallery, the highlight among this month's art on view is Eve Riser-Roberts' Gaugin-referential watercolor, "The Yellow House," all tropical panache and narrative ambiguity.

* "Lost Soles," by Bill Surgett, through April 5 at Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura. Gallery hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Tue.-Sun.; 648-1235.

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