A sure sign of the new art and culture season in Ventura, and summer's end, comes with the opening of the art galleries at Ventura College.
The spaces usually showcase artists visiting from outside the area, giving us something fresh to look at and think about.
Last week, the gallery doors opened on two very different shows, in Gallery 2 and New Media Gallery.
Painter Emigdio Vasquez's work in Gallery 2 represents what he calls "Chicano Social Realist" art, descending from the historical lineage that includes the Ash Can School and the Social Realists of the Depression era. Orange-based Vasquez documents the daily life and urban landscapes of Latinos.
With these paintings, Vasquez shows a frank and compassionate eye for the texture of life in the barrio. He chronicles telling scenes, with an almost photo-realist style. In "Operation Gatekeeper," crestfallen would-be immigrants in handcuffs hang their heads, appearing the very picture of dejection.
"Day Laborers" finds men lying in wait, seeking work, like figures in suspended animation propped up in an intentionally static composition. Orange pickers in a grove in "Las Piscadores" also appear wooden, in a theatrical way, as if worker drones in a too-orderly composition. He also depicts people basking in the sublime "trivial" slices of life.
Beyond the human element, Vasquez is intrigued by storefronts and surface effects, whether the shadow-draped, pulpy pink wall in "The Orange Deli" or the optical trickery of reflective shop windows in "La Calle Cuatro."
As a diversion to this composite portrait of a culture, Vasquez also pays respects to a Mexican art icon by including a portrait of Frida Kahlo.
Realism, of the social or other variety, is the last thing on Pat Merrill's mind. The Cal Poly-based artist's mixed-media print works in the New Media Gallery wrestle with male archetypes and gashes in America's psychosocial fabric.
A common thematic element in his works is a recurring image of a man, depicted in the expressionistic medium of woodcut, contorted and struggling within a box. The gashing, rippling surface effect suggests exposed sinew, which simultaneously evokes vulnerability and superhuman strength.
A dark comic aspect is evident in Merrill's approach. In one piece, our literally muscle-baring man is surrounded by smaller, floating images of comic book superheroes, with a subtle text delivering a message at the bottom: "the hero as source of legitimization of male dominance."
More often than not, images of conflict filter into the work, in terms of personal and global instability. We find, in the margins, an image bank referring to the World Trade Center tragedy, stills from violent Hollywood films and American landmarks, which, post-9/11, seem to suggest fragility as much as grandeur.
Glints of hope shine through too, as in an image with the central male figure surrounded by bouncing, blissful infants.
* "Emigdio Vasquez: Life in the Barrio" and "Pat Merrill: Printmaker," Ventura College galleries, 4667 Telegraph Road, Ventura, end Sept. 27. Call for hours: (805) 648-8974.
Spanish Songstress: Ojai's pearly voiced Perla Batalla has long been one of the reliably stirring musical figures calling Ventura County home. Her resume, which includes work with Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang and the Gipsy Kings, has expanded to a solo career in the past decade that has benefited the cause of mixed-culture mestiza music, blending Mexican traditions and pop sensibilities.
When she kicks off this season's Pieces of the World performance series, Saturday in the Oak Grove Pavilion in Ojai, she'll have her latest musical field report in tow.
Her new CD, "Discoteca Batalla," is an impressive, mostly acoustic forum for her rich and evocative vocals and her roots in Latin music.
The title refers to her parents' record store in Los Angeles, a second home as she grew up, soaking up diverse sounds and gaining a sense of cultural belonging.
A mixed feast of material from Mexico and then some, the album is a fresh, sonorous treat and even includes a cool, new, percussion-driven take on "Guantanamera."
Check it, and her, out.
* Perla Batalla, Oak Grove Pavilion, 220 W. Lomita Ave., Ojai, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Advance, $18; $20 at the door. (805) 646-8907.