Report from Avant-Garde Ojai
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, DEC. 2015
Ojai, the not-so-secret secret hideaway town less than two hours from LA, is admired for its natural beauty, lifestyle of rustic luxury, and decades of history as a destination for bohemians of all stripes -- especially visual artists. The town’s main street is bursting with top-tier galleries showing an eclectic array of world-class visionary and vernacular work, with an admitted penchant for landscape and an appreciation for the echelons of craft and design as well, embodying the sophisticated yet laid-back appeal of beautiful things made well. Very often, the special charm of these galleries is that the artists exhibiting are avowed locals.
But in the name of shaking things up just a little -- and perhaps as evidence of LA’s and the world’s increasing obsession with Ojai culture -- a pair of galleries are bringing slightly edgier visions to the Ojai gallery scene, not only bringing artists from LA and beyond to exhibit in town, but also championing the more eccentric visions of certain locals. Don’t look for warehouse galleries, street art, or velvet ropes just yet -- but the infusion of an element of the urbane into the context of Ojai’s rural brand of sophistication makes for an intriguing mix.
For example, two very different recent shows -- Britt Ehringer at galerie 102 and Jeff Mann at Porch Gallery -- each showcased artists with commanding technical skills deployed in the service of quirky, surreal, witty and sometimes haunting images.
Jeff Mann spent 25 years as a designer at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, where he created characters, spaceships, creatures and miniature sets for iconic films and franchises like Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones, Forrest Gump, Star Trek, Men in Black, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future. But when it comes to the personal fine art practice he has returned to, all the technology, futurism, and sci-fi wizardry has been replaced by images from a very different kind of imaginary world, one with roots in the world around us. A world perhaps equally strange and even alien, but also romantic, poetic, and occasionally very funny. A world that looks to the past rather than the future for inspiration, as Mann rather channels the esoteric, unnatural naturalism of philosopher scientists like Ernst Haeckel, creating a universe of plants, animals, insects, and chimeras whose tendrils, claws, wings, antennae, barnacles, and branches are rendered in impossibly fine, minute precision and organized into elaborate patterns of asymmetrical balance, dense detail, and contain multitudes of symbols and meaning within their delicate majesty. Like Haeckel (who is evoked with the exhibition title “A Catalogue of Unnatural Works”) Mann’s fictions are founded in enough fact to take the mind to that liminal, what-if, place of wonder. Mann’s achievements in draftsmanship and motif are all the more impressive when you take into account that his only tool -- a far cry from the tech available back at ILM -- is a single, commonly available graphite pencil.
By contrast, Britt Ehringer’s work is known for both its bright, Pop Art color and its off-color humor. Primarily a painter, Ehringer has also done time in the worlds of cinematic media and design, where he gained an appreciation of his own for the interaction of fantasy and reality, nature and the unnatural -- particularly when it comes to examining social structures and standards of beauty as expressed in commercial visual culture. His frequent subjects are compromised denizens of marginal subcultures -- stoners, skaters, high school dropouts -- along with hypersexualized trash-fashion portraits and laughably macho tropes of art history. His special gift is combining the surrealist and satirical aspects of his wit, which he too accomplishes by dint of his exceptional technique; his lavishing of fully realized classical oil painting on assertively low-brow subjects creates a visual/conceptual tension in his compositions that routinely surprises and delights.
For this also aptly titled exhibition “Insanely Beautiful,” Ehringer continues his flirtation with photographic sources in a suite of large-scale oil paintings that proceed like monuments to post-modern life’s social media-fueled fever dream. But he also expands his material purview to include sculpture and experiments with digital printing on shaped metal panels. The aluminum dye-sublimations disrupt and fracture the suave and smooth images of pretty girls in satisfyingly abstract ways that resemble the optical interferences he generates in his paintings. The central sculpture is also in its way a study in contrasts, in which a whitewashed rubber tire acts as a Rauschenberg-inflected reliquary for an arrangement of silk roses and a rusty gasoline can found near the site of iconic earthwork Spiral Jetty, the whole balanced on a crisp yellow pedestal that lends both levity and gravitas to the proceedings. WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Huffington Post, The Creators Project, Vs. Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Montage, Desert Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, sometimes exhibits her photography and publishes short fiction, and speaks in public at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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