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Spirit of Spring

Nature-oriented shows make their debuts in Ventura.


When spring springs, as it officially has this week, one thinks of the color green and of renewal echoed in the rain. In that spirit, two unpretentious landscape-oriented art shows in downtown Ventura seem right on time.

Robert Engel's show at Natalie's Fine Threads is called "Terrestrial Visions," an umbrella title for a series of oil-on-masonite paintings, graphite works and watercolors, with nature as the presiding theme. He also trains his focus on natural energies, as seen in clouds and waves, detailed with the kind of mystical affection found in surfer art.

As landscape artists go, Engel seems more intrigued by the trees than by the forest, and even more specifically, the leaves more than the trees themselves. In some of the works, the artist peers upward into the thickets of eucalyptus leaves, creating a dizzied perspective.

Rather than predictable compositional approaches, his views convey different aspects--and personalities--of trees and other natural scenes. In one watercolor painting, a clump of eucalyptus trees appears almost like a socialized horde, while another graphite piece celebrates the dramatic verticality of eucalyptus trees and their rough, leafy tapestry. The one departure in Engel's exhibition is a quiet, intimate study of a nude in a bed, representing a more anatomical definition of what passes for natural.


"Terrestrial Visions," paintings by Robert Engel, through April 21 in the Upstairs Gallery at Natalie's Fine Threads, 596 E. Main St., in Ventura. Gallery hours: 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Tue.-Sat., noon-4 p.m., Sun.; 643-8854.


Fairy Dust: In contrast to Engel's cryptic nature visions, Carol Merrick's pastel works at the Buenaventura Gallery take on a cheery view of nature that freely departs from realism into a perspective that one could call fairytale-dusted. Her palette, though mostly grounded in apt natural colors, can lean toward the irrational hues of enchantment and a sense of fantasy hiding in the everyday.

Thus, "Lighthouse at the Beach" depicts the structure at hand like a mystical beacon, and the partly obscured cottage tucked away in a wooded acreage in "Hidden Away" hints at a secret hideaway. Tinges of mythology creep in even when the view is as familiar and local as "Ojai Orange Groves." In that piece, a sparkling view of a verdant grove in the valley below feeds directly into Ojai's Shangri-La mythology.

Another landscape, "Image de la Provence," is a modest appreciation of a slice of French countryside. And on local turf, the piece titled "Highway No. 101" is a view of the Rincon, its hills surrealistically flecked with shades of orange, pinks and other colors we know aren't true to life.

Among the standouts in the monthly rotation of artists in the outer gallery are the impressive and dreamily vivid paintings of Fatima Ronquilo. In "La Fiesta," two plump, Botero-esque girls, detailed with festive overkill, fill out the compositional space. The painting "Heaven and Earth Still Life" is also a dense image, but in a different direction, teeming with Buddhas and decorative excess with a meditative undertow.

In a somewhat startling variation from the general pleasantry of the outer gallery work, Eve Riser Roberts goes experimental with her piece "And she lived happily ever after." A bride is painted on the backside of the glass in a frame, with the image of a garden below. It's not entirely a happy scene, though, with genitalia replacing facial features--quoting a similar painting by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte--and raising questions about sexism, in art and in life.


"Pastel Impressions," by Carol Merrick, through April 7 at the Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara St., in Ventura. Gallery hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Tue.-Sat.; -648-1235.

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

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