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Journeys Exhibition Review – Joseph Woodard, Santa Barbara Newspress

October 26th, 2012

Interested art-watchers and public observers have been privy to what has been going on at Westmont College, via its steadily advancing art department over many years now, partly through the student art shows at the end of each academic year. There is a related, but different and broader story behind the current new exhibition “Journey: Westmont’s Alumni Artists’ Invitational,” an impressive group show at the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art.

Primarily, the agenda of the culling of alumni presents a fascinating “where are they now and what are they up to, artistically?” proposition, showcasing a dozen Westmont students now out in the world. But on another level, the exhibition, curated by museum director Judy Larson, serves to showcase the remarkable growth of Westmont’s art department and focus over the past quarter century, in terms of solidifying the art department and building its exhibiting life from the modest Reynolds Gallery to one of the more exciting new small art museums on the West Coast, which opened only two years ago.

Artwork for “Journeys” comes from alumni as fresh from the campus as last year (Joel Phillips) and goes back to 1969, years before there was an art degree program at the school. From that year, we see work by Judy Neunuebel, whose deftly-made watercolor and collage pieces rely on the power of antiquated photos, letters and other materials to conjure up impressions of nostalgia, half-baked in truth, and all the more evocative for the artful dodge-play involved.

In this smartly laid-out show, the museum’s long entryway presents an ideal introduction to the variety of impulses and media to come in the show, but sparsely. On one wall, we have the beautifully and observantly-painted still life canvases of John Morra, including a pop art-y and iconic valentine to a blender, “Black and White Sunbeam.” On the opposite wall, Cheyenne Ellis shows her loveable and compassionate color photographs in the “Kissi Kids” series, artfully documenting her experience at a Kenyan orphanage, and with diaphanous colored fabrics adding to the visual allure.

In between these, and presenting the visitor with a palpable gesture of welcome, is the starkly epic gesture of David Shelton’s sculpture “Alluvian Plain,” with its large wedge-shaped metal frame cradling the form-fitting substance of gravel. Mr. Shelton’s smaller “Angle of Repose” — its title a nod to the mechanical principle and the fine Wallace Stegner novel of the same name — takes the aesthetic principle of metal and gravel to a humbler end.

Continuing inside the museum’s main gallery, each artist’s interests and stylistic approach vary, establishing a collective built on highly individualized aims. There is no prevailing school of thought afoot here.

In painting, the closer to home element is inherent in the briskly-painted, friendly series by Sharon Shock, who shows regularly in town. She nicely plays up light-and-shadow scenarios, around Santa Barbara and beyond, from harbor sightings to vintage buildings in the bracing, basking light of late or early sun.

Across the room and from an entirely alternate universe of painterly thought, Robin Eley’s “Hypostasis” series consists of three impressively super-realist paintings of crumpled materials, a dazzling technical feat in itself. These mystical objects assume spiraling, Nautilus-like shapes, creating a marriage of form, content and allegorical meaning.

Cory Steffen’s varied touches as a painter range from a mosaic of 36 small square paintings — like a cavalcade of album cover designs for imaginary albums — to the fine landscape canvas “Salinas Valley,” all rolling golden brown and luminous hills in a rhythmic vista.

Mr. Phillips, last year’s graduate, takes over one main gallery wall, but delicately, with his nearly life-size drawings of homeless men in their element. The artist gently draws us into these figure’s world, conferring attention, artistry and, ultimately, dignity to people consigned to societal margins.

A very different and more cerebral drawing tactic is at work in Nicholas Price’s imaginative sound-and-vision pieces. He translates sounds to imagery, using a unique methodology of capturing the respective sound vibrations of, say, a vacuum cleaner and running water, in patternized granules, fixed into prints.

Chris Rupp, who also installed the exhibition, serves as a conceptualist comic relief factor in the show. A hill-like clay protrusion on a pedestal in the gallery takes its winking meaning from the title “My Inner Fuji (Negative Space of Belly Button).” Mr. Rupp’s “Man’s Best Friend” appears in the outlined shape of a crouching pooch on the wall, but is  “drawn” with gelatin capsules, suggesting twin American loves — pets and pills.

In sculpture, besides Mr. Shelton’s strong yet cool minimalist statements, the artists include Cheryl Ann Thomas and Benjamin Rollins Caldwell, artists who lean in decidedly disparate perspectives.

Her work in the “Artifacts” series involves tangled-up constructs in bronze with patina. They appear like unruly enlargements of magnetized metal shavings, but adhere to a distinctive code of brusque beauty. In her video piece “Relic,” we watch the artist slowly building up an elaborate conical sculpture, only to crumble, but of course, the work-in-progress-and-regress transforms into the stuff of a video art document.

By contrast, Mr. Caldwell’s sculpture almost invites us to have a seat. Key word: almost. He craftily creates chairs, at once funky and elegant, out of “found” materials, including piano keys and hammers, and, in “Binary 01,” computer parts. Functionality, of building materials and implied end product, takes a loopy and imaginative course in this art.

Implicit in this exhibition is the idea, and the verifiable fact, that Westmont’s art alumni body is a sturdy work-in-progress. Ditto for the college’s own maturing life and culture in art.