The Artistic Mind of Santa Barbara

By Mitchell Kriegman   |   October 18, 2018

“I look for microbubbles, that lie among the wheat, and bake them into mutton-pies, and sell them in the street,” to misquote Lewis Carroll. I’ve always wondered why the Walrus didn’t mention microbubbles as well. He certainly didn’t mind talking of those other things, like shoes, and ships, and sealing wax. Whenever I see an exhibition of Assemblage Art, it puts me in the mind of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, Alice in Wonderland.

Assemblage for the uninitiated (or stock-buying readers), pronounced correctly, rhymes with arbitrage. Assembly is at the root of the word; it denotes a form of sculpture comprising “found” objects arranged in such a way as to create a work of art greater than the sum of the parts, literally. The aforementioned objects can be anything; a glass eye, a kitchen whisk, a discarded wooden box, old dice, a bunch of shirts pressed into submission, or little mouse people.

You either saw, just missed, or are rushing down to the Sullivan Goss Gallery to see the latest exhibition The Red-Headed Stepchild, which is a fantastic collection of contemporary and previously contemporary Santa Barbara assemblage artists dating back to the ’50s. I suggest you stop reading and go there now if it’s still open. 

Curator Jeremy Tessmer and assemblage artist Sue Van Horsen came up with the notion that artists who create assemblage are the stepchildren of every gathering in the Santa Barbara art world. I’m not sure why they’re red-headed, and I don’t find their status as stepchildren warranted.

These artists are clearly by any measure an essential element of the Artistic Mind of Santa Barbara. Art is created by artists, but it also comes from the physical place it originates. For example, there’s a reason Duchamp’s first readymade, a bicycle wheel, attached to a mass-produced stool, was created in 1913 precisely in Paris, France. It spoke to the world around him, what was available, and what might make a splash. 

I know this phenomenon of mind and place because in the late ’70s I found myself in New York City living a block from the Kitchen, the Performance Garage, and Franklin Furnace placing me in the art microbubble of the moment, part of the scene amid the abandoned lofts of Soho that artists colonized, decades and decades before the area was a twinkle in the eye of massive upscale brands such as Saint Laurent, Prada, and Chanel.

My loft in Soho on Broome Street with its 14-foot ceilings enabled my version of video art. “Jaw Story” was inspired by a box of doll jaws I found at a doll factory next door; “Anchor Story,” based around a discarded boat anchor, was about a man who carried the weight with him everywhere to keep from floating away. All of which is to say that artists and the artistic inspiration relates to what artists find around them. 

Santa Barbara as an environment and state of mind is compelling and has fostered four distinct artistic inclinations. The first is obvious, and most dominant: landscape. Among the many artists in this group, Hank Pitcher has absorbed the legacy of plein-air painting as a springboard for greater discourse. To say that Pitcher is a painter of California landscapes is like saying Monet painted water lilies, yet he’s squarely in the tradition. 

Architecture tends not to be considered in this context but should. The architectural aesthetic established after the natural disasters of the 1925 earthquakes by George Washington Smith and Lutah Maria Riggs are a milestone in design for an entire city. The style includes threads of Andalusian, Mediterranean, and Mexican Churrigueresque, adapted with the Native American materials of stucco and tile. The architectural requirements of Santa Barbara have fostered an exploration and stretching of the Santa Barbara Architectural idiom. Jeff Shelton’s unique Seussian spin and the recently completed Hotel Californian are examples of that artistic impulse. 

Muralling is another form. From graffiti to murals, this is a school of art without degree, complete with lessons in composition, size, color, and line that offers extension courses in skateboarding, spray painting, and surfing. From David Flores to Tosh Clements, muralling is a growing form clearly in dialog with the architectural formality of Santa Barbara. 

And finally, the so-called stepchild – Assemblage. The Sullivan Goss exhibit proves our irresistible fascination with found objects in our midst, each speaking literally, physically to our environment, and the artistic impulse that can imagine discards and thrift shop finds as disparate elements to be merged. If that isn’t the definition of the artistic mind, then what is?


You might also be interested in...