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ART: Ventura County | SIGHTS

Blurring the Lines

Artist Alberta Fins transforms media through physical and mental manipulation.

January 15, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ojai-based Alberta Fins is clearly one of those contemporary artists for whom the process of making art is more than a means to an end. The final artwork is, by her reckoning, only partly an artifact: It is also proof of the mental and especially the physical manipulations that have gone into its making. The surfaces tend to look withered, smeared, tattered--yet beautiful in their own ragged, rugged way.

In the case of her show at Oxnard's Carnegie Art Museum, "Venerations in Tatters," Fins is up to her old tricks and evolving new ones. She likes to make truly mixed-media work, in which she blurs the boundary between abstract and representational art as much as she blends paint with collage and sculptural elements. Of late, she has been working with photo transfer prints, heading back and forth from her studio to Kinko's.

For Fins, whose painting studio is also an assemblagist's playground and a personal construction site, the process of art-making might include melting and otherwise treating materials with chemicals and heat and other forms of destruction, all in the service of seeking out new modes of expression and new ideas that don't have the smug luxury of easy resolution.

Fins, who has shown her work in solo and group shows around the county for the past few years, has themes, often using the symbols, icons and traditions of organized religion in a questioning way. Certain pieces in the Carnegie convey this interest quite directly, such as "Stripes and Saviours," with topsy-turvy images of zebras and Christ flung about like decor motifs.

The show's title says much about Fins' aesthetic. Her 1992 work "Venerations in Tatters #14" is the largest piece in the show, and it looks deceptively calm, like a sprawling, meditative tapestry. But closer examination reveals its wounded nature--the melted fabric and the disjointed collage element suggest both veneration and tatters, in equal portions.

Other titles reveal Fins' process of examination and reinvention, as well as a sense of fervency or upheaval: "White Water," for the violent froth of a rushing river, "An American Melt Down," alluding to the melting imagery as well as to breakdown, both chemical and psychological.

As this exhibition demonstrates, Fins continues to challenge viewers with her art, which is both beyond categorizing in relation to prevalent art trends, and also identifiably personal in its visual and conceptual language. In the end, it may be art about reading art, asking us to tap into our own psyches to supply a framework of meaning. Once that is done, it is less dark than it is cathartic.

Something Completely Different: The main exhibition at the Carnegie couldn't be more different. "Early California Impressionists: The Ronald E. Walker Collection" tells one version of the story of artists who, like Norwegian transplant Paul Lauritz, found themselves seduced by California's natural splendor and came here from afar to capture it on canvas.

The show fits in nicely with the Carnegie's agenda to support California art, just as Fins' more raw-nerved work serves well the Ventura County focus of the museum's "Masters in Our Midst" series.

It made perfect sense for transplants such as Lauritz to import Impressionism's lessons to this new Arcadia. Historical context speaks volumes with this art, now that our state's natural resources and its status as a frontier has changed so radically over this century. Looking at these idyllic plein-air paintings now inevitably induces pangs of nostalgia for earlier and more innocent, less developed times.

There is Franz Bischoff's lovingly observed "Bridge at Arroyo Seco" and Benjamin Chambers Brown's "Sunset in the Mountains Near Pasadena," painted at a time when the Pasadena air was good and plain, not subject to noxious pollutants on a bad day.

We get a strong sense that these painters loved what they were looking at: Alison Skinner Clark's "Californian Farm" is all soft edges and gentle air, and George Gardner Symons' "Winter Stream" relishes the tranquillity of its snow-covered rural scene. Donna Norine Schuster's "Los Feliz Hills" (not to be confused with the bustling thrum of the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, as we now know it) is a definitively impressionistic depiction of a scene, as notable for what it leaves out as for what it chooses to include.

The specifics of place are less important than the sheer, implacable force of nature in Edgar Alwin Payne's "Midocean Wave." It's about nothing more than the inspiring agitation of waves and the shifting clouds overhead, elements still visibly unaffected by progress.

Working early in the century, these artists could hardly have known that, decades later, their paintings would suddenly take on the appearance of cautionary tales. These images index what is lost, and what could still be lost.

BE THERE

"Venerations in Tatters, by Alberta Fins," through Jan. 18, "Early California Impressionists: The Ronald E. Walker Collection," through Feb. 22, at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 C St. in Oxnard. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday; 385-8157.

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