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.

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