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A Fine New Frame

Revamped UCSB museum is a worthy setting for school's well-respected art exhibits.

May 07, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Once upon a time, there was a fine little art museum out on the UCSB campus. Over its decades of service, the museum mounted many important shows, offered a respectable window on the art world at large and was a critical component in Santa Barbara's cultural map. But it had been dark since November 1998, when a radical face lift, to the tune of $2.5 million, began.

Last week, however, the museum reopened. The verdict: It's a bigger, better and finer place, a great destination for art watchers in the area. It was apparent in its earlier life that this museum was a contender in the larger Southern California museum scene, but now the physical entity has caught up with its advancing reputation.

Certain impressions of the old museum's shortcomings reveal themselves in retrospective contrast to the new layout. Before, the museum had a cloistered feeling, tucked, as it was, into a dark hallway of the art department. The new model opens on the other side of the building, to Storke Plaza, for more integration with its architectural surroundings and with an outside plaza that leads the eye to the lagoon, that underrated natural landmark on the university center's fringe.

Whereas the old space's interior was functional and drab--a bit dungeon-like--the first encounter for visitors to the new museum is with an open-feeling skylit courtyard, an axis from which other galleries spread (not unlike the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, actually). Here, at present, a Joan Mitchell abstraction rubs elbows with a 1680 painting by Mexican artist Cristobal de Vallalpando. It's a celebration, so who's keeping track of epochal coherence?

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Inside, a host of galleries presents multiple exhibitions. It was a sentimental choice, in more ways than one, to offer "Afterglow in the Desert: The Art of Fernand Lungren" as the inaugural show in the main gallery. Lungren was an important early 20th century American painter who came out by rail to paint the Southwest. He also spent many years in Santa Barbara and donated 300 artworks to the museum in 1964.

That is all well and good, but his work leaves something to be excited about, although his paintings of the Southwest and Santa Barbara sites, and especially his works admiring the arid, horizontal expanses of deserts and craggy rock formations, are pleasant and proficient.

He also spent some time in London and cavorted with James Whistler (his wife's cousin). His nocturnal urbanscapes are as murkily enigmatic as his desert scenes are pallid of palette and composition, and the Whistler influence becomes an homage in "Rockets," with shadowy revelers lurking and amorphous beneath little explosions of fireworks.

A lot of subtle firepower is packed into the small Alfred Moir Collections Focus Gallery, with works on paper by a range of artists including Philip Guston, Picasso, Miro, Rembrandt and Jim Shaw--the thrift store painting buff.

Also in the gallery are works by architects of local interest: Noted Santa Barbaran George Washington Smith's design of the Ambassador Hotel, circa 1921, was drawn by Lutah Maria Riggs. Venturans are well acquainted with the eccentric thinking of architect Robert Stacy-Judd, whose peculiar Mayan Revival style is well represented by the Church of Religious Science. Here, Stacy-Judd's drawing of a Mayan-esque living room for a Beverly Hills home is, at once, lovely and loony.

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Drawings by Rudolf Schindler and Irving Gill spice the space, and a Cliff May drawing of a classic ranch house evokes a pre-suburbia ideal. Julius Schulman's photograph of one of Albert Frey's sci-fi, retro-futurist houses in Palm Springs seizes our attention. (The old art museum hosted a fine Frey show, curated by the late architectural scholar David Gebhard, several years ago.)

Speaking of retro-futurism, the smaller, contemporary art-geared Thayer Project Gallery is being inaugurated with Kenji Yanobe's "Atom Boy Returns to Save the World?" Again, history justifies the art's presence: Yanobe was the star of the last show in the old museum, "Survival System Train and Other Sculptures," and the work here continues in that vein, which could be dubbed apocalyptikitschy. Yanobe's gizmos, vehicles, toys, staged photographic vignettes, cartoon sensibilities, doomsday prophecies and crackpot inventor's imagination blend to create an image of a world going (or already gone) gonzo.

But there is nothing gonzo about the new museum design, by architect Brenda Levin. An elegant space, it conveys a warm, clean presence, in cahoots with its environment, rather than risky conceptualizing. True to the mandate of a good art museum, the place feels like a home away from home--a sanctum, one hopes, for cultural comforts and challenges for decades to come.

DETAILS

"Afterglow in the Desert: The Art of Fernand Lungren" and Kenji Yanobe's "Atom Boy Returns to Save the World?" through July 9 at the UCSB Art Museum. Hours: Tuesday, noon-8 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; 893-2952. http://www.uam.ucsb.edu.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at joeinfo@aol.com.

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