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The Art of Music

Exhibitions in Ventura offer variations on the theme of the chamber festival.


For the last 10 days, the sound of music has been wending its way through venues all over Ventura, as part of what has become a high-water mark of the annual cultural calendar here.

But the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, which closes with two concerts today, has also spread its tentacles beyond the sonic realm, into sensations for the palate--with food receptions at every event--and also the palette (pardon the bad pun), with its sponsorship of the Biennial Exhibition, now at the Buenaventura Gallery.

Some 170 entries from the tri-county area were winnowed down to this exhibit. What we find here is a strong showing of artists, many of whom will be familiar to anyone on the local art scene but with some surprises as well.

The show's first-place winner, and the festival's theme artist, is Norman Kirk of Santa Paula, whose "Variations" is an image of a cellist, a clarinet and abstract design elements, suitably general and pleasant as a poster image. Work that's more interesting can be found in Kirk's separate collection in the Buenaventura's showcase gallery.

Aptly, music is the thing in Kirk's show, whether incorporating images of musicians into poster-like pieces or breezy landscapes flanked by classical titles, a la album cover art. In the painting "Variations Ensemble," a string quartet is tucked subtly--almost imperceptibly--into a landscape painting.

Jazz lovers, especially artists, tend to savor the imagery of musicians in action. It's a different sort of intrigue than simple pop star poster lore: The improvisational imperative makes jazz musicians similar to athletes, prepared for action--and for the unexpected.

Kirk shows portraits of Sarah Vaughan, Benny Carter and, close to home, the Trad Jazz scene that can be found every Saturday night at the James Joyce bar in downtown Santa Barbara, where the Ulysses Jazz Band plays.

In the painting "Saturday Night," the collective improv stew of that early style of jazz, with its multiple, simultaneous soloists, is captured in a densely packed composition. Its subjects are packed together to suggest collective heat, visually and, by extension, musically.

In the outer gallery, where the fruits of the competition are displayed, diversity rules, as it should. Second place went to Jane McKinney's "Dawn Like Thunder," one of her appealingly enigmatic landscapes, and third went to Shirley Ransom's "Hundred Acre Wood," nudging toward the realm of fantasy with its exaggerated red and orange hues. A similar effect is found in the pumped-up palette of Betty Saunders' "Apricot Trees--Upper Ojai."

On one wall are large works by two of Ventura's more notable artists, both with links to Ventura College. Hiroko Yoshimoto, whose inventive sets were a highlight of the festival's production of Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat," teaches art at the college, and her deceptively casual painting of young art students in the midst of art-making evokes the spark of creativity.

Gerd Koch, who retired from the college last year after many years, shows an evocative, muscular painting, "Encounter II," one of his new series of dynamic quasi-figurative paintings as seen at his recent show at Studio Channel Islands Art Center. Here, a mythic figure appears swathed in a flaming yellow thicket of expressionistic brushwork.

William Woolway's paintings are funky and folky, in the best way. One invitingly quirky portrait of the Ventura Mission is all rustic shapes and colors, with several actual keys adding a found-object element. (Are the keys symbols of the church's promise of spiritual access?)

The sculptural corner ranges from Randall Johnson's wry little piece "Willi in Danger," a bronze maquette with a corpulent woman endangered by an anvil overhead, evoking classic cartoon angst, to Elizabeth MacQueen's "Persephone." In that, a realistic female form, nearly life-size, crouches in a position of coiled energy and palpable introspection.

Fine as it may be, what does this all have to do with chamber music? Probably everything and nothing, if you believe in the idea of the implicit connectedness of the arts. Music is a theme that periodically pops up in the art here, as in Kirk's show and Seco's fittingly quixotic portrait of Miles Davis.

But the main point here has to do with the flow of creativity, whatever the medium. Judging from local art roundups like this exhibition, that flow seems to be healthy in our region, thank you very much.


Biennial Exhibition, through May 27 at the Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara St. in Ventura. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. 648-1235.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at

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