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First Thursday in Santa Barbara

In the early evening on the first Thursday of this month, a small group of art enthusiasts congregated at Wall Space Gallery, a homey little venue on west Ortega Street, and the only gallery in Santa Barbara dedicated solely to photography, and waited, some looking at the exhibit within, some sitting on the stoop (yes, there’s a stoop) without, for the arrival of Nathan Vonk, curator of sculpture at Sullivan Goss, amateur art blogger, and, on this particular night, docent of The Downtown Organizations 1st Thursday Art Crawl.

I was admiring the Ken Rosenthal retrospective—enigmatic, haunting photographs, the clarity of which is attenuated by a sort of umber haze, as if a dirty, steamed window separated the viewer from the view; the owner of the gallery, Crista Dix, told me that Rosenthal refuses to share the process behind this obfuscatory trick, allowing only that he agitates the photographs during development—when Vonk came shouting into the building: “Rally the troops! Rally the troops!”

Vonk is a tall man with a short man’s demeanor. He speaks in hushed tones; he is slightly slump-shouldered. Even his style on this particular night—a sort of understated dressy-casual: jeans, loafers, leather jacket over blue and white striped button up—seemed to downplay his height. It was with slight surprise that I noted, upon approaching him with a question, that he stood a good three-inches taller than me. As Vonk rushed around inside, I walked outside and sat on the stoop. The sky was an electric shade of orange and dappled with small purple clouds: a psychedelic sunset. Across the street, a grouping of tall palms swayed in the gusting wind, their shaggy heads nodding and bobbing like the heads of agreeable but unkempt old men. After a few minutes, Vonk reemerged from the building, shepherding two stragglers. “All right!” he said, and in the voice of a shy general delivered a quick briefing: we would be going to lesser-known galleries; this was intended as an introduction to, not a tour of, these galleries; and time was short and the walk was long and, well, let’s get going. And going he got, walking briskly off into the twilight, his jacket aflap in the chill wind.

Our first stop was The Press Room, a faux-dingy bar on East Ortega Street, which had agreed to allow a group of worthy students, mostly from SBCC, to display their work on its walls. Happily for the students, the bar was so clamorous with televisions and revelers, and so poorly lit, that it was hard to pay anything like serious attention to their work. Shortly before we left the bar, one of my fellow tour-takers, a woman in her mid-thirties, pointed to a photograph of crushed nutshells and said, “Can you tell what that is?” “Those,” I said, “are crushed nutshells.”

Next was Gallery Acero, a small gallery-offshoot of Santa Barbara Forge + Iron which is run by Dan Patterson, who opened Santa Barbara Forge + Iron after Dan and Charles Craviotto vacated the space in 2000. The little display was lovely—including some very impressive metalwork—but of greater interest was the forge itself; I encourage everyone to go check it out.


Somewhere between Gallery Acero and our next stop, The Project, a young man with gelled black hair and a large watch (let’s call him Ed), struck up a conversation with me. Did I like art? How had I heard about the Crawl? Why was I there? I told him that I planned to blog about my experience. Then followed a brief discussion about art-appreciation and aesthetics. I said that I thought one should pay more attention to one’s immediate reaction to a piece of art, that theories and standards often occlude rather than deepen one’s appreciation, and that the making of art, on a very basic level, is about forging some kind meaning out of the world’s meaninglessness, and that one’s reaction to a piece of art should be first and foremost based upon whether or not the artist’s representation of meaning somehow aligns with one’s own conceptions. He informed me that he didn’t really like art, and that the only reason he went on these things was to pick up hotties, and if none showed up in the near future, he was out of there. Whether or not the fascinating and perhaps unsettling implications of thus dovetailing aesthetics with women was lost on Ed, I will never know, for he fell silent soon after confiding this and sallied over to mingle with the group’s female contingent.

We soon arrived at The Project, a non-profit art gallery that was opened in June of this year; it is owned and run by nine women—Donna Asycough, Liz Brady, Erika Carter, Theresa Carter, Lloyd Dallett, Ashley Dart, Virginia McCracken, Lisa Pedersen, and Susan Tibbles—all of whom are artists. The gallery was the largest so far, brightly lit, with wine and cheese to hand, and a three-man band (guitar, accordion, oboe) playing gypsy-jazzy tunes, music akin to a Woody Allen soundtrack. I got myself a little plastic cup of wine at the wine-bar and made the rounds. Erika Carter’s paintings instantly drew my attention, and remain my favorite: droll portrayals of straight-faced individuals either unaware of or accustomed to the roosters perching on their heads. I enjoyed the dynamic, almost playful pieces of kelp in Liz Brady’s paintings titled “Kelp.” It was hard, however, to not give in and spend all my time enjoying Ms. Carter’s surreal whimsy. And then it was time to go.

If one is into fine antique art or is looking to buy some fine antique art, James Main Fine Art is the place to be. Located less than a block away from The Project, it is a small and semi-stuffy space that boasts an impressive collection of—well—fine antique art. Though fine antique art is not exactly my bag of peanuts, I did find the nocturne paintings of local master Thomas Van Stein striking. Capturing night on canvas is no easy task; I certainly haven’t seen it done with more mastery.

Jane Deering Gallery, our next stop, disappointed on the art front, but compensated for its shortcomings with snacks and drink. Ed, upon seeing the snacks, told me that this was the other reason he came out here. I went inside and looked at the exhibit. Isaac Resnikoff’s sculpture “Foundation for a House Made of Air”—wood blocks laid out like an uncomplicated labyrinth for infants formed the foundation, the empty space above constituted, perhaps, a house made of air—seemed like something snatched from the pages of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”: the City of the Houses Made of Air. It is a lovely and a clever idea—and, I think, one best left unrealized. Resnikoff’s sculpture wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t a success, either; it was what it was: an airy nothing. Outside, by the wine and snack table, a group of brown youths wearing red loincloths shivered in the cold; the young women of the group wore coconut shells over their breasts. There was to be dancing. I took a handful of nuts and another cup of wine. And then Vonk said it was time to go and we all marched off to accidentally crash a holiday party.

I was told that the gallery was called Viva. It was located somewhere off of Carrillo Street; the gallery, if I have it’s name right, seems not to have a webpage. And, apparently, it was not supposed to be open to the public on this particular night, anyway. On display were the photographs of Jeff Clark, with whom I later shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. I took a cup of mulled wine and a handful of cookies and looked at the photography. As I looked at a strip of cycling-related photographs, a man behind me asked if I knew about the work. No, I did not. But this did not last long. The man, a bearded fellow with round, rimless glasses, told me that Jeff had taken these pictures directly after the subjects (athletes, mostly cyclists) completed some staggering physical feat. Here was a sweat-drenched man in spandex posing with his sleek white bicycle; here was the determined face of Lance Armstrong, also bedewed with sweat. (The strip of photographs is currently on display at Handlebar Coffee Roasters.) I thanked the man, and made my way back to the mulled wine. Then Vonk was yelling and it was, again, time to go.

At this point I realized that the difference between an Art Crawl and a Pub Crawl is not as drastic as one might presume. This is largely due to the fact that the difference between a nice wine-and-beer bar and an art gallery on opening night is essentially nil. (Let it be known that by this point I had consumed three liberal glasses of Santa Ynez’s finest). An Art Crawl, I tipsily concluded, is basically a Pub Crawl for those who do not deign to participate in Pub Crawls—and who also happen to be interested in art. But the similarities abound in more obvious ways as well: both force one into a group of people with whom one probably shares at least one interest—either art or booze or, if one’s primary interest is art, potentially both (those with a primary interest in booze seem not to be interested in art, I’ve found); both involve social ambulation, which obviates the stress that one might associate with static vis-à-vis interaction; both provide a nice excuse to get out of the house and interface with some people with whom one might not otherwise have interfaced.

For instance, at Sullivan Goss, our final stop, I met a short, destitute-looking young man (let’s call him Sam), who approached me with piratic swagger, demanded my name, and spilled his drink on my shoes. At such close quarters I became aware of a uretic odor. He asked whether or not I liked this painting, gesturing with his drink to a framed grouping of multicolored rectangles; it was an oil painting, the brushwork thick and somehow violent in its deliberation. “That,” said Sam, “that’s my painting.” He then informed me that we were going to get wine. On our way to the bar, he fished in his pockets, grimaced, shrugged, asked if I’d loan him two dollars, and then exclaimed “Jesus” when I said that I didn’t have two dollars. He led me to the back of the gallery, to the permanent collection. “This,” he said, pointing to an etched monotype titled “The Corn Belt, or Corn Field, or The Grain” by Nell Brooker Mayhew, “this is the best piece in here.”

Sam then led me around the gallery, expounding on art. He dismissed an entire wall of diverse pieces of art by diverse artists as “immature,” he declared a red-white-and-blue boxing glove affixed to a bullet-hole spotted salver “pretty good,” and talked at length about how none of the “good” pieces had been allotted the space they deserved, his included. He then accosted a young woman holding an open wine bottle.

Though I found Sam’s presence unpleasant, his judgment seemed sound. The individual pieces of art didn’t have enough space; much of the work did seem like juvenilia. I wandered into the larger, back room of the gallery and looked at the bogglingly lifelike sea- and naturescapes of Nicole Strausberg. Standing there, impressed with the technical accomplishment necessary to achieve such verisimilitude, I thought back on my conversation with Ed. The paintings were stunning, but they did nothing for me; they failed to show me something I’d never seen before, or, rather, failed to articulate for me something I’d always sensed could be seen. There was no euphoric recognition upon encountering Strausberg’s work—just a bland admiration. From behind me came Sam’s voice: “See, paintings like this,” he said, indicating the Strausbergs, “people love this shit. But if I could”—Sam clenched his teeth and narrowed his eyes as if preparing for battle—“I’d just—“ he made a jabbing motion with his drink-hand and spilled more wine on my shoes.

Our group had dispersed; I’d thanked Vonk for the tour. I was ready to go home. But I decided to take one more look at the Mayhew of which Sam had been so enamored before leaving Sullivan Goss. I walked to where it was hanging in the back. It was simple, almost childish, a watery, colorful thing, some trees and some beige grass, a blue sky, something the mother of a precocious child might tape up on the refrigerator. I smiled at the etching, at what it showed me. The man was right: it was the best of the lot.


First Thursday is right around the corner; don’t miss it.