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ART: Ventura County | SIGHTS

Women Behind the Lens

Female photographers are showcased in a citywide program.

July 24, 1997|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an unusual, maybe even heroic, act of civic collaboration, Santa Barbara's gallery scene has been overtaken by women photographers this summer. Virtually everywhere the art watcher turns, photography is liable to turn up, in multiple forms, giving a broad overview of the medium.

Over the course of a walking tour of galleries in the program pithily titled "Focusing Women," we can see firsthand how photography has evolved over the last 100 or more years. We see how experimentalism and social ideals have found fruitful companionship within the medium and how Santa Barbara-based artists, from Nell Campbell to the late Marion Post Wolcott, have played a role in the art form.

Sometimes, though, looking at this art, you may wonder: What's gender got to do with it? An attempt at providing equal time is worthy, but segregating women's work threatens to marginalize it further. While that question may arise, it doesn't diminish the strength of the citywide effort.

It all begins in the art scene's hub, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, with the impressive traveling show "A History of Women Photographers." The exhibition, which has passed through New York and Washington, D.C., is a sprawling survey, dating back to photography's beginnings, sampling a diversity of subjects, and including many of the most celebrated artists in the medium.

It's a huge topic; consequently the exhibit is selective. But many of the prominent female names in photography are included. Diane Arbus, the compassionate chronicler of social misfits and fringe characters, is represented by a shot of an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike, appearing proud and also a bit pathetic on the edge of a cheap motel bed. We also see notable pieces from such important figures as German design team ringl + pit, who wittily fused commercial and fine-art concepts early in the century; images by Imogen Cunningham; a Cindy Sherman faux self-portrait; Judy Dater's impish "Twinka"; and a striking Leni Riefenstahl image of the 1936 Olympics, sinewy bodies as tiny flecks in a rippling pattern.

Ruth Orkin's classic 1951 shot of an American girl suffering the downpour of lascivious male attention in Italy is de rigueur here. Other standout pieces include the "Little Italy," by Sylvia Plachy; Sandra Weiner's shot of a cute tyke in "Easter Morning"; and Esther Bubley's shot of a departing train, "Coast to Coast," about the loneliness and allure of travel.

A curious highlight of the show is Jan Groover's 1975 color triptych, from a period when color photography was finally being given due credit. The mundane suggests something profound as Groover captures sides of freight trucks barreling through neighborhoods and seen out of focus. We register them as rectangular planes of color.

There are manipulated images by the likes of Wanda Wulz and Barbara Morgan--darkroom-generated surrealism and social cartooning dating back to the '30s--as well as striking antique works, like Amelie Galup's 1895 shot of a girl and a staircase, a crisply designed study of everyday geometry, and Julia Margaret Cameron's elaborate mythologies.

At the Contemporary Arts Forum, the show "Discomfort" is oriented around issues of gender and sex typecasting and body politics, and the fact of the artists being female is a key aspect of the work. There is deliberate cross-fading between genders in Deborah Hammond's "Transfigured Portrait" series, in which her subjects' genders are fused and confused, and Inez van Lamsweerde's computer-altered portraits--a man's smile pasted on a 3-year-old girl, a woman's hand seamlessly grafted onto a large, sharp image of a man.

Barbara DeGenevieve mixes photography and assemblage to investigate sexual identity, and Caryl Davis plays with archetypes and transfigures a woman's body into an abstract peach.

Out at UCSB, the back gallery of the Art Museum shows a funny Cindy Sherman piece and, for a change, not a self-portrait--here, a baby is fitted with a dwarfing old-man mask. Trude Fleischman's portrait of a beatific-looking Einstein contrasts sharply with photographer Dorothea Lange's affectionate portrait of "Ruby From Arkansas," dignity amid the ruins of the Dust Bowl era.

In the University's Multicultural Center, the young photographer Monica Ann Wiesblott shows images from the world over, from China to Israel to Santa Barbara, usually with a good eye for telling composition. At the Women's Center, Diane Sova focuses on the fragile coexistence of Judeo-Christian and Muslim factors in Jerusalem, via neighboring shrines and religious centers, and Katheryn Ward slathers us in coziness, printing puppy pictures on an emulsion-coated pillow.

One of the virtues of the citywide project is that it has afforded a concentrated look at several of the notable photographers who call Santa Barbara home and whose work has shown up in town over the years.

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