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ART: Ventura County | SIGHTS

Family Ties

College displays paintings that were left to the artists' granddaughters.

September 04, 1997|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The two art galleries at Ventura College can be relied on to show some of the more provocative art in the area. And because there isn't the concern with commercial potential, the galleries often exhibit works with a contemporary outlook.

For its first exhibition of the school year, however, the focus is on art from early in the century by artists who bequeathed their works to caring granddaughters.

"Legacy: Two Grandfathers," by James Britton (1878-1936) in Gallery 2 and Cornelius Botke (1887-1954) in the New Media Gallery, is, true to the title, organized around a familial curatorial angle. In a way, though, the real celebration here is of art by early 20th century Americans who resisted the pull of modernism swirling around them.

Botke, a local artist of note who created a precious artistic chronicle of his Santa Paula hometown, is often represented around these parts. Some of the pieces were featured in a show last year at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. It's a different story with Britton, however: the Ventura College show represents the first West Coast showing of his work, arranged by his Ventura-based granddaughter, Ursula Britton.

Better known during his lifetime than after, James Britton had links with both the Ashcan School (realism) and the American Impressionist movement. Yet the main impression left by his art here, especially the portraiture, is a grounding in the 19th century romantic realist tradition of such artists as Thomas Eakins. Many of these works date from the 1920s, but there is little evidence that Britton paid much attention to the revolutions in Europe and Russia.

Britton's portraits tend to be posed, a bit stern and self-serious. Assiduously crafted and finely detailed paintings, they beg for after-the-fact psychological interpretation, especially this far after the fact, when our intrigue with historical realities runs high.

"Rosalie" is a seated woman, her compassionate young face oddly framed by a fur hat and a thick, chin-high collar, which seem to envelope her. "Theodore Valencampf," by contrast, is a stocky man, with a challenging insouciance conveyed by a hard glare and a casually dangled cigarette.

Comparatively, Britton's landscapes are smaller, looser in brushwork and airier. He relishes the ethereal effect of snow, its power to cool out a scene, visually and otherwise.

In all, Britton emerges here as a painter in a grand old tradition, which may have seemed moldy in his time when Modernism was first taking hold. At the end of the century, with Modernism having been thrashed and/or reconsidered, Britton's work can be appreciated afresh, for its painterly charms and depths, beyond questions of style.

Meanwhile, the concurrent show of Botke etchings hits home in a strange way. Scenes of agrarian life in Santa Paula circa the 1930s now assume an alluring exoticism, even more so than the artist's scenes of Europe, which look a tad familiar.

In the most striking images, labor and landscape intertwine, and take on a quality of American myth-making from the Thomas Hart Benton-era realism, exemplifying the work ethic and rural dignity.

Botke also created memorable images of Santa Paula as a peaceful idyll, whether in the lazy sprawl of structures making up Foothill Ranch or the Santa Paul train depot during its functional days.

* "Legacy: Two Grandfathers," through Sept. 19 at Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road, Ventura. Call for gallery hours: 648-8974. Ursula Britton and her sister, Barbara, will speak about their grandfathers' work in Gallery 2 on Sept. 12 at 11:30 a.m.

*

Petroleum-Based Art: Legend has it that art creeps in from unlikely places. Take, for example, old dog-eared issues of the Union Oil Co. Bulletin, the source of the photographs making up the show "On the Road with Ethyl," at the Union Oil Museum in Santa Paula.

These images, taken by an unknown photographer, chronicle the promotional road tour in 1926 taken by "scout cars" fueled with the new, superior gasoline known as ethyl. What should be a funny example of the culture of "better living through science" makes for surprisingly engaging viewing, reflecting prewar advertising and future-loving consumerism.

* "On the Road with Ethyl," through Sept. 14 at Union Oil Museum, 1001 E. Main St., Santa Paula. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Thursday-Sunday; 933-0076.

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