ART REVIEW: 'Urban' outfitted-Perspectives range in the impressive 'Visions of the City'By Josef Woodard, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
'THE URBAN MYTH: VISIONS OF THE CITY' When: Through Oct. 7 Where: Sullivan Goss, 7 E. Anapamu St. Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily Information: 730-1460, www.sullivangoss.com In local galleries, landscape art flows freely, and contemporary art of different ilk can be found in many exhibitions. But locals might not realize how rare it is to encounter art about urban realities in Santa Barbara, until a show like the large exhibition at Sullivan Goss, "The Urban Myth: Visions of the City," goes on display.
Around here, the city takes a backseat to the landscape. For that reason alone, what's seen in the pleasantly rambling and visually tonic "The Urban Myth: Visions of the City" wins points for freshness of purview.
More importantly, though, this is the strongest group show yet in the new, improved and expanded Sullivan Goss gallery. Gallery director Jeremy Tessmer has engineered a feat of smartly pitched variations on a theme, using available resources wisely.
Tessmer has organized the vast and varied show into three categories, each in its own gallery space. But while there are clear delineations and artistic codes among the rooms in "Romantic Cities (City of Lights)," "Gritty Cities (Gotham)," and "Deconstructed Cities," ideals spill over, as well. Romanticism filters through the show, urban grit is of the palatable, soft-edged type and even the "deconstructed" concept can be applied to most of the art: It's generally deconstructed, the better to soothe the senses. In the first room, the very idea of a city is a gentle one, as seen in Brian Reynolds' small canvases with cryptic detail views of Italian cities and Sarah Vedder's "Western," which is only peripherally urban, with its soft-focus view of a vintage train car, an emblem of Americana.
Fittingly, one of the four photographs in the show belongs to the rightfully celebrated architect Julius Shulman, whose classic image "Case Study House #22" fools the eye, beautifully. He depicts a glass-lined house in the Hollywood Hills by night, the canny blend of angle and light making it appear as if two women lounging in a living room are in a floating spaceship, about to descend on a city below. A sense of utopian splendor and ease are implicit in the image.
A different tale is told in James David Thomas' "Empire of Light #1," a tall vertical painting in which the Hollywood sign below is almost a footnote to the vast, color-changing sky above. Toward the top, stars render the machinations of Hollywood trivial by cosmic comparison.
In the larger, middle gallery, the artistic eye is often trained more on the geometries of crowded architecture and grids verging on chaos. Nicole Strasburg's long panoramic New York City views, circa 2007, tap into a timeless tradition of artists bedazzled by the city's post-industrial mazes.
From a similar sentimental place, Peter Ruta's huge paintings, from the 1970s and '80s, nod to the '20s-era NYC painting lore of Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis. Ex-urban, small-town life is more the subject in John Davies' picturesque early regionalist painting "Stevenson Street" (1931). Interestingly enough, '30s-esque regionalism sneak into Bo Bartlett's cagily desolate 2005 gouache-on-paper "Santa Barbara Greyhound Station." He takes the local bus station out of context, away from its location across the street from the swanky Hotel Andalucia. No harm done: It's the artist's prerogative to fudge details for the sake of the narrative.
Romanticism, in another form, hovers again in the final of the three rooms, despite the "deconstructionist" affiliation. If a deconstructionist ideal is at work, it's never enacted in a cool, intellectual way. Irma Cavat, one of Santa Barbara's most gifted painters, celebrates and metaphorically charges up the visual clutter with "Storefront Window." The goods and junk in the window signify kitsch and randomized nostalgia, while serving as fodder for the artist's roving eye and hand.
Patricia Chidlaw is another local painter with sensitivity to the poetic power beneath seemingly bland urban surfaces. Here, her crisply realized "House of Spirits" conveys a certain spiritual equipoise, in spite of the painting's subject: a gaudy liquor store -- temple of a different type of "spirits." Architect Barry Berkus' "New Urban Form" are speculative sketches of what might be; challenging forms nodding to the gravity-defying recent work of Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas. Abstraction makes its way into this show only sparingly, notably in the large puzzle piece of a canvas that is Matty Byloos' "Cube Houses, Rotterdam: Remembered Year." With its exploding and imploding structures, the post-cubist image oscillates between the abstract and the architectural. This could be the one piece in the crowd that questions urban stability while bowing to urban ingenuity and planning.
If there is a moral to this exhibition's story, it has to do with romantic visions of the urban landscape, with indictments of urban life kept to a minimum. Maybe that approach is easier to take in Santa Barbara than in the thick of a metropolis with inherent conflicts beneath well-maintained surfaces. Another message is that myths are easier to maintain than infrastructures and complex urban systems, and artists are ideally suited for the myth-keeping task.
Images in order: Julius Shulman "Case Study House #22" James David Thomas "Empire of Light 7" Peter Ruta "New York Waterfront" Bo Bartlett "Greyhound Bus Station" Patricia Chidlaw "House of Spirits" Barry Berkus "New Urban Form 2"
City air makes free” was the slogan of medieval serfs, who could escape their enslavement to the great rural landowners by migrating to the city, where such customary obligations did not apply. Out of this early modern political anomaly has risen what this group show terms “the urban myth,” a complex and ever-evolving set of ideas and assumptions about what city life has to offer. The exhibition is organized into three sections in order to show the urban myth in historical process.
The first room is devoted to romantic ideas of the city, and contains both the show’s oldest image: a marvelous Fernand Lundgren gouache from 1888 depicting elegantly attired ladies and gentleman promenading through a gas-lit Central Park; and one of its most self-consciously modern ones: Julius Shulman’s iconic 1960 photograph of Case Study House #22.
The second section, labeled Gritty Cities, brings the analytic and descriptive tools of realism and precisionism to bear on the urban landscape. Although the work included once again spans a long stretch of time, the dominant note in this room is one of isolation. Even the riders on the subway in David P. Cooke’s “Downtown Gig,” who have the instruments and the talent to communicate, appear to be each lost in his or her own thoughts. Peter Ruta and Nicole Strasburg both contribute stirring visions of the so-called border vacuums that grow up where the city meets its limits, whether these be natural, as is the case with the waterfront, or artificial, as with the empty concrete foreground of Strasburg’s monumental new painting, “New York” (2007).
The final room is termed Deconstructed Cities. Often fragmentary or otherwise interrupted, these pictures and objects attempt to conjure a vision of the urban present and future. Barry Berkus contributes some spectacular drawings for New Urban Forms, and underlines them with a model/sketch made from a single sheet of crumpled paper. Wayne McCall’s “Bifurcation” (2007) captures the unlikely appearance of a wrecked automobile stood on its end and bursting through one of the interior walls of an otherwise average-looking apartment. It’s a great and haunting image — sort of John Chamberlain meets William Eggleston. The entire show is of genuine interest, particularly now as Santa Barbara faces the reality that, like it or not, the urban myth includes us.