Monday, September 27, 2010


Art is a strange animal, the proverbial elephant perceived by an infinite number of blind viewers. (As envisioned in this great sculpture by local fabric artist Susan Else, "Bent Fable IV: The Blind Men and the Elephant.") We all have our private prejudices. Some people don't get realistic art, when a photo would do just as well. Others believe abstract art is the work of the devil. I was shocked to learn that a good friend of mine—who collects a lot of art—doesn't like figurative art. Why, she asks, would she want a picture of somebody she doesn't know in her house?

Me, I love paintings with human characters in them. I'm not much for static portraits, but I'll pick a pair of Chagall's floating lovers over—well, just about anything else. Two of our most popular local artists (judging from the way their studios are mobbed during Open Studios), Anna Oneglia and Katharina Short, are beloved by their legions of fans (including me) for their figurative art.

What I think people are looking for in these images are reflections of themselves. Not like a physical portrait, a painted figure that looks like them, but something in the narrative of the piece—human figures caught in some simple moment of living, or else navigating a wonderful dreamscape—that captures what the viewer perceives as his or her true inner spirit.

At one of Art Boy's earliest Open Studios, he showed a painting called "Esta Casa esta Benedicto," in which a vaguely hominoid, vaguely female character (with his trademark big hair) is dancing in a room with a dresser, a large potted flower, and a kitchen table set for a meal with a cat prowling across it. I loved it so much, I was secretly hoping no one would buy it. I was doing pretty well steering people away from it—until a woman marched over, took one look, and cried "That's me! That's my kitchen! That's my cat!" It was obviously her painting, and I just had to get over it.

That's what we're looking for. Maybe the figure is blue with hair like a Brillo pad, but there's something in the essence of the piece that prompts us to cry, "That's me!"

(Above: "Clouds Rest" by Katharina Short, and "From the Sea #2 by Anna Oneglia.)


Dropped in to the Open Studios Preview Show at the Art League yesterday. It's absolutely essential viewing for any intrepid art lover planning to take the OS Art Tour this weekend (or the following two weekends, through October 17). But I have to say, with well over 300 artists participating in this year's even, the exhibit is even more daunting than usual. Every kind of art media is represented in that small space: jewelry, sculpture, fabric, metalwork, paintings prints, photography, glass, handmade musical instruments, ceramics, woodwork, you name it. Yes, it's amazing to have so many skilled artists right here in our county, but a person can reach maximum input overload very quickly.

The good news is, the Art League has finally installed air conditioning! (Yay!) It's especially welcome on these roasting Indian Summer days (our consolation prize with a vengeance this year, for not having had much of an actual summer). But the bad news is the show feels crammed to bursting. Granted, with so many artists, space is at a premium, but in some places the pieces are stacked up three or four deep on a wall; one label is so high up, you'd have to be Yao Ming to read it. In another overly congested area, one label is affixed to a light switch. One small piece of 3-D wall art doesn't even make it onto the flat side of a wall; it's stuck on the outer edge of a wall, like an afterthought.

Believe me, I know how hard the crack OS Committee and its army of volunteers works to get this exhibit (and the event) up and running. But it seems like one more pass could have been made by the hanging committee before the show was opened to the public to make sure each piece of art had a little more room to breathe.

None of which should discourage potential OS Art Tourists from visiting the show. There is absolutely nothing like seeing examples of the work in real life to help you plot a sane course through this extraordinary event. Work in the exhibit is grouped more or less according to region, to help you decide on destination areas to visit. So by all means, see the show; just remember to breathe deep, stay focused, and thank your favorite gods for the AC!

Another great way to see local art is on the monthly First Friday Art Tour, coming up this Friday (October 1). Since the ratio of artists in town to designated gallery space is about 8.6 thousand to one, the art community is always trying to find new spaces to show the work. This event, which began a few years back as a 12-Stop program downtown, involving a few cafes, commercial hallways, and a rickety bus, has blossomed into a busy and popular monthly celebration. It stretches from the Eastside of Santa Cruz across downtown to Harvey West Park, The Tannery, UCSC, even Davenport. Alongside traditional venues like the Art League, and MichaelAngelo, Felix Kulpa, and The Mill Galleries, you'll find art on display in clothing stores, hair salons, tea shops, design shops, wine bars, banks and brokerage firms, even Camouflage. The bus is gone, but you can probably use the exercise as you sip, nibble, and schmooze your way across town.

(Above: "Three Painters: Figures + Form" Artwork by Tom Maderos, Barbara Downs, and Claire Thorson, at the MichaelAngelo Gallery. First Friday Reception, Oct 1, 6—8:30 p.m.)

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