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ART: Ventura County | SIGHTS

Early photos of ancient sites in Palestine convey more than facts, historical style.

Visual Evolution

March 05, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the opening this month of a newly expanded compound, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art now enjoys a certain luxury of space that can be readily measured by regulars who compare it to the old museum. There are enough galleries, nooks and crannies now that a trip to the museum affords a fresh sense of discovery, an important part of the museum experience.

Currently in the galleries, lavish exhibitions culled from the museum's permanent collection, as well as a big, comfy show of French paintings from local collections, create a proud statement about the artistic riches in this city's art holdings.

But, wait, there's more. Almost tucked away in a corner is a subtle but fascinating little exhibition threatening to get lost in the razzle-dazzle.

"Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine" in the Peck Wing, the main-floor gallery now devoted to photography and works on paper, is a modest gem of a show, celebrating early photographic work with a particular thematic spin.

At first glance, the curatorial idea might seem obscure, based as it is on photographs of Palestine in the 1800s, in the dawn of the medium. Of course, what this new medium allowed, presumably, was a more rational way of capturing impressions of the concrete reality than other visual representations. And for Western visitors making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, whether venturing there out of religious fervor, idle curiosity or with other agendas, photography was an ideal tool for bringing home images from the front.

The effect, at this point in photography's evolution, is an intriguing layering of antiquity--of the medium and the subject matter--as we look at these often sepia-toned images of ancient sites, loaded with significance as a unique crossroads of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

As in no other city, the ancient structures here convey meaning beyond hard facts or historical style. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a particular point of focus. Some of the most striking images are by German photographer Auguste Salzmann, who captures the spirit of the buildings by closing in and cropping, demonstrating a poetic eye for well-framed architectural details.

Gustave de Beaucorps' portraits of indigenous Palestinians from the 1850s are disarmingly sharp, triggering that strange sensation of glimpsing figures now long dead. From another perspective entirely, there is the religious kitsch-ifying of Frank Mason Good, who posed people in period garb, reenacting Biblical scenes. Sgt. James McDonald chose to go panoramic, pasting together three photographs to depict a land with plenty of space--and width.

In another case of mixed antiquity, we're invited to don 3-D glasses and enter an enclosed booth, where stereoscopic views of Palestine are assembled into a slide show. It's a nice, fitting addendum to a show that settles into a niche of its own, and it says something about the way contemporary technology alters the general view of the world.

Today, we could surf to the Holy Land, virtually, on the Internet. A hundred years ago, photography, the domain of artists, craftsman and voyeurs, was the new window on the world. Both are next-best-things to being there.

* "Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine," through March 29 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St. in Santa Barbara. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m., and Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; 963-4364.

*

Asian Etudes: We in the West might view Taiwan as a fragile satellite to China, as a nation born of the revolutionary aftermath. But Taiwan enjoys its own social and cultural history. That is brought home in the intriguing exhibition "Tracing Taiwan: Contemporary Works on Paper," in which young Taiwanese artists approach Chinese art traditions with both reverence and its opposite.

The exhibition is doubly marginal as a show of art from Taiwan and as a gathering of works on paper. In that marginality is power.

This was the last effort of curator Alice Yang, who died last year at age 36 in an accident. Originating at the Drawing Center in New York City, the show has its sole West Coast appearance at the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara.

The works on paper here are anything but demure, balancing elements of being Taiwanese and Chinese with the pervasive sting of Western influence. Entering the gallery, the visitor is seized by the sight of Huang Chih-yang's huge, vertical banners, hung from the ceiling and almost touching the floor. Figures are depicted with a crude, feathery presence, as mythic characters.

In their own, more deceptively quiet, way, Hou Chun-ming's large block prints on fabric also leap up for attention. A certain audacious humor and eroticism--monumental genitalia meets sexual folklore--blend references to ancient tradition and pop culture.

Yu Peng's tall scrolls are dense with visions of nature and nudes. They're almost too casually drawn, like a series of studies for a larger, more coherent work, but they take on a distinctive identity.

On more discreet turf, Hsu Yu-jen's sparse ink-on-paper pieces enjoy plenty of open space and economy of means. These works draw the viewer inward, but the others in the gallery go in separate directions at the same time--hushed and outlandish, formal and subversive. Therein lies the appeal.

Another show in the side gallery, Alice Park-Spurr's "Northern Reflection" is unrelated but complementary, with its evocative quasi-abstractions linked to the nature of the Yukon wilderness.

* "Tracing Taiwan: Contemporary Works on Paper," through March 22 at Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo in Santa Barbara. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m.; 966-5373.

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