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Offbeat Look of Love

The new Nichols gallery exhibit combines wit and whimsy.

March 17, 2001|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Santa Paula, John Nichols' bookstore and gallery are always a desirable destination. The sprawling Main street storefront, which contains the John Nichols Gallery, the Snapshot Museum and other antique concerns, offers plenty of artistic, collectible and whatnot items.

Nichols, a fine-art photographer, curator and storekeeper, has maintained a gallery presence in Santa Paula, off and on, since the mid-1980s. "The Look of Love," his first official new exhibition in the gallery in some time, was culled from entries around the country and is presented as a competition whose winners are being voted on both in-house and on the Internet at http://www.johnnicholsgallery.com.

A light-headed smattering of art about love, the exhibit is pleasant enough, if wildly uneven in quality. But it's hard not to be distracted by other more alluring imagery around the space. Overall, the art here presents an idle view of love, without much questioning involved. It goes in one eye and out the other, so to speak.

Sweet and nostalgic, Chris Fitzpatrick's "Encapsulation of Memories" is an assemblage suspended from the ceiling, with a material list that includes acrylic, resin and, most importantly, baby's pajamas. The bright red one-piece outfit has been glazed and effectively preserved, turned into a wistful found artwork in which innocence lords over irony.

A different kind of emotional kitsch emerges in Tim Claire's "Fruitcake Shield," made from tin and nails on wood, along with patches of antique Victorian-era fruitcake tins.

"A New View of the Flatirons," an oil-on-wood painting by Karen Gillis Taylor of Colorado, incorporates stretched-out hearts in a wind-swept landscape scene. Nature love?

Other sculptures in the show include Ventura artist Susan R. Kaufman's "The Binkleys," a happy, frumpy older couple on a gingham-covered love seat. In Simi Valley artist Myphuong Ly's small bronze, a nude mother and her two babies, furled among hair and fabric, are lost in the sleep of the content. Sleep, and loved ones lost in that state together, is also the thematic gist of Chae Kihn's photograph "Utica," a close-up image of a man dozing, with a lover's hand draped casually, and naturally, on his chest.

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One of Nichols' more recent passions has been the acquisition of found pictures, whether a growing collection of snapshots or other modes of "vernacular photography," including a nicely framed triptych of slick commercial photographs of '50s-era delivery trucks. In these, otherwise bland, pragmatic images suddenly assume a mythic aura of bygone Americana.

In one fascinating corner, literally, is the nook-sized Snapshot Museum, in which private images are made public, and anonymous, unidentified scenes assume unexpected importance. Actually, though, the current show in the Snapshot Museum focuses on a specific and historically loaded subject in Santa Paula, the St. Francis Dam disaster. The infamous breaking of the dam, on March 12, 1928, and its path of destruction through Santa Paula and elsewhere in the county were captured through the lenses of local amateurs, as seen here.

In another area of Nichols' gallery, art photography states its case persuasively. Nichols represents work by the late, great Ojai-based photojournalist Horace Bristol, including a disarming shot of a nude dancer at the "Forbidden City" in San Francisco's Chinatown in the late '30s. Also on view are dreamy images by Brian Stethem, movie set stills by the late Mel Traxel and some dazzling examples of new digital printing technology, used to an artful end, by Washington state photographer Charlotte Watts.

As usual, you don't go away from Nichols' place empty-headed.

DETAILS

"The Look of Love," through March at the John Nichols Gallery, 935 Main St., Santa Paula. Gallery hours: Wed.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun., noon to 4 p.m.; 525-7804.

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

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