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Two Women, Two Visions

Artists Bonnie Caruk Riege and Wendy Maharry are featured in Ojai.


Walk into the Ojai Center for the Arts this month, and the first impressions will lead us into the not-so-deep annals of art history.

Next to the door, Bonnie Caruk Riege's "Waiting for Modigliani" depicts a lean, melancholic woman, slouching languidly in a cafe. The ghost of the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani lurks in the periphery. In another section of the gallery, artist Wendy Maharry's pleasantly fantastic scenes, whose oddly shaped figures alternately echo Fernand Leger's machine Cubism and the bulbous contours of Botero's subjects.

We, as artists and art watchers, can't really escape from the mainstays of modern art, whose imagery is etched into the collective unconscious. But there is more here: The two-person show in Ojai represents the sincere efforts of two artists finding their own way through the thicket of influences. At their best, they get somewhere.

Some may know Maharry from a different cultural corner, as the singer-songwriter who has released two albums on A & M. Her pastel-on-paper works have a softly mysterious, floating quality and invoke mythology of a kindly sort. "We Are As We See Ourselves" is, on the face of it, a red, glowing image of mother and child. Yet tiny figures scampering through the composition and random fluttering letters in the picture appearing like idle conversation or incomplete thoughts aflutter.

In Maharry's work, narrative strains seem to hum just below the surface. We don't know quite what is going on, but interpretations are welcome. "The Princess #2" is the largest piece, hanging over the fireplace in the gallery, and its girl with a tasseled hat and starry dress appears at once beatific and mischievous. In "Second Voyage," a squat woman fishes from a boat flanked by phantom figures and dreamy clouds. The voyage in question could be as much interior as marine-based.

One of the most impressive images here is "Spotlight," which might easily reflect back on Maharry's more public life as a performer. In this composition, a woman with a distinctly rounded, wide-faced countenance is illuminated in the center of a scene with club patrons hovering in the darkened blue periphery.

This piece, more than any other here, draws a parallel between Maharry's separate artistic pursuits, as if the poetic storyteller instincts have been funneled into the realm of picture-making. Or has her pictorial instincts crept into the songwriting? It's an open question.

Riege's work comes from a very different place, and relies on different modes of expression. In her own way, the artist aspires to dreamy qualities and places more emphasis on feeling than details. She is searching for ways to personalize her portraits, to make a rough-hewn realism that is her own. Often, though, the looseness and unfinished elements suggest more awkwardness than intention.

Some pieces do convey a certain intrigue. "Final Touch" is a voyeuristic glimpse at a woman, lipstick in hand, casting a disapproving glare at the artists'--and, by extension, our--intrusion. "The Last Potatoes" finds a man sitting with a bowl of spuds, the foreground and background melding into similarly pulpy, abstracting textural effect.

And then, of course, there is "Waiting for Modigliani," which could also be a metaphor of the artist waiting for the muse.


"Double Exposure," art by Wendy Maharry and Bonnie Caruk Riege, through Aug. 30 at the Ojai Center for the Arts, 113 S. Montgomery St. in Ojai. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tue.-Sun.; 646-0117.

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