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Off-Axis: A Celebration of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara


You may have already seen the paper versions of these clever postcards around town. Iconic beach town images get the graffiti, mustache-on-the-“Mona Lisa” treatment. But it’s the virtual versions of these images currently displayed on the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau Web site that really say it all. Through the miracle of modern digital animation, we see these wholesome images go cutting-edge as the animated overlay appears and spreads before our eyes: a 1940s-era sunbather appears and is then covered in tattoos. A clean-cut Gidget-era surfer sprouts a Mohawk and stylized licks of flame. The images were designed to promote Off-Axis, the big new contemporary art festival coming to town this month, and the caption for all of them reads the same: “Edgy. Progressive. Mind-blowing. Not the adjectives you’d necessarily expect from Santa Barbara.” Exactly.

As a cultural center, Santa Barbara is known for its architecture and landscape, as well as for its world-class wines, upscale boutiques, and palm-fringed beaches. While the resort image of Santa Barbara lingers pleasantly in the popular imagination, better-informed connoisseurs of traditional art identify the region as a fount of finely rendered landscape paintings that capture those swaying palms and cerulean waters. California impressionists such as Henry Chapman Ford and Colin Campbell Cooper developed a rich plein air tradition, continued by artists such as Ray Strong and the Oak Group.

What is perhaps less well-known about Santa Barbara is that there has been an equally important movement of non-traditional contemporary art making in the region. In an effort to raise the profile of this other, more unconventional Santa Barbara art scene, galleries and artists have chosen September 2006 for the inauguration of Off-Axis, a month-long, community-wide biennial celebration of contemporary art. Artists, art collectors, curators, critics, and art enthusiasts from the Central Coast and around the world will come together for a diverse series of groundbreaking events, performances, installations, and exhibitions encompassing painting, sculpture, performance art, photography, architecture, design, lectures, installations, home tours — in short, an intensive immersion in cutting-edge art and culture, Santa Barbara-style.

Making Off-Axis a Reality Off-Axis now involves many people and organizations, but originally it was the brainchild of Miki Garcia, the dynamic new executive director of the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF). There was a flurry of activity in the CAF gallery as I spoke with her about the project, and her excitement and enthusiasm were contagious when she told me how her initial idea took flight.

“When I first came here, all these people told me that CAF was very important as a magnet for activities in the 1970s, and then I also heard about Blur, the ‘temporary contemporary’ show curated by Carey Berkus at the Bekins building in 2004. All of the contemporary artists I talked to here knew about that show. They had participated in it, had a great time with it, and were so excited by it … and then nothing else like that happened. So I knew there was already a foundation and a desire for something temporary, contemporary, and cooperative.”

Another influence on the concept for Off-Axis came from the annual Contemporary Art Month (CAM) in San Antonio, where Garcia held her first job as a curatorial intern. “I didn’t come to Santa Barbara thinking, going to do this,’ but when I heard about the history and the recent response to Blur, I put these things together and drew from my own personal history, and that’s how I remembered Contemporary Art Month.”

Garcia approached Patrick Davis and Ginny Brush at the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission with the idea a year ago and found them to be very interested in collaborative partnerships. “Because CAF’s 30-year anniversary and our Call for Entries group show both happen to be in September,” Garcia said, “I thought, ‘We’ve got this great program and it’s our 30th anniversary … let’s really make September an artist-centered month.’”

Ginny Brush, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, works tirelessly to energize and promote the regional art scene, and she said that for her, Garcia’s initial pitch of Off-Axis came as an epiphany. “She approached us and said, ‘I’ve got this idea. CAF’s 30-year anniversary is coming up and I think it would be great if there were a community focus. How can we do this?’ CAF’s 30th anniversary was the initial impetus, but Miki was the little spark. As soon as I heard it, I said, ‘Well, yeah!’”

Brush also credits the recent donation and exhibition of the Berkus Collection with energizing the community around regional contemporary art. “I’m very encouraged by the resurgence of community support for contemporary art,” she said. “The focus on the Berkus Collection ever since we had that exhibition has made us revisit our 30-year history of artists in the region … Obviously the 30-year anniversary of CAF does the same thing. So we’re continuing the momentum with Off-Axis.”

Garcia, like all of the collaborators who have labored for the past eight months to make Off-Axis a reality, cares deeply about sharing the bounty of contemporary art opportunities in the region with residents and visitors alike, particularly given the imperiled status of art in our society. “More than ever in this country, the arts have been relegated to unimportance and are at stake. In recent years, the funding for the arts by the community at large and our government has been so crippled that it’s dependent on even little art spaces, it’s dependent on individual artists, it’s dependent on our pulling together to make sure that art is still acknowledged and important in the broadest sense,” Garcia said. “There needs to be a vital space for criticism and expression, where people work in an uninhibited, exploratory, experimental laboratory sense. This is crucial. I know it sounds really conceptual and ideological, but without that kind of exercise, I don’t think that we’d be the same people and have the same values that we do today. That interchange is one of the most important things about being alive. Otherwise, we’d all be drones.”

“Contemporary” is the buzzword modifier used to distinguish the focus of Off-Axis not only from historical or pre-modern work, but also from the pervasive genre of landscape painting. Garcia and Brush concur that when the general public thinks of art in Santa Barbara, landscape painting is the first thing to come to mind. Brush, who appreciates the Conference and Visitors Bureau’s efforts to market Santa Barbara as an art/cultural destination, hopes that Off-Axis will expand on that and give it a new twist. “Off-Axis is a more hip version of the same idea and brands Santa Barbara as a more global artistic community so that people realize they don’t have to only buy landscape paintings here,” Brush said. “It’s a rich and important history, but we’re trying to highlight the broader creative community a little bit more.”

“Santa Barbara is very much under the weight of the plein air school,” agreed Garcia. “I think that our mission is to push it a little bit further. None of us want to deny our history; this is basically embracing it and moving forward. Off-Axis is about creating a more prismatic vision of the area: it’s this, but also this and this, and this too!”

Brush believes that Off-Axis has great potential to better facilitate the Santa Barbara art experience for residents and visitors alike. “If you come to town and you’re interested in contemporary art, it’s hard to know where to find it,” she explained. “You’d probably go to SBMA, you’d probably go to CAF, and maybe the University Art Museum. But beyond that, when people come to town, they don’t know where the art is. They want to know where our Canyon Road or Melrose, our ‘art trail,’ is. The Cultural Arts District is developing, but having this event helps link the arts community in a way that makes it easier for visitors to access the type of artwork that they’re interested in, whether it’s traditional landscape painting, or contemporary art, or performance, or whatever.”

“What Ginny is saying is so true,” Garcia concurred. “It’s been proven statistically that cultural tourism is on the rise. When people travel, they buy things, and it kills me that they’ll walk into chains like Z Gallerie and buy something in a frame that’s not handmade. We’re showing artists who are doing some really interesting things at the beginning of their career, and you can buy four photographs for $300! There are people who go to Pier 1 Imports and buy a print for that much, and instead they could have an original work of art. It’s not really about buying; it’s about collecting, it’s about learning, it’s about supporting, it’s about philanthropy.”

Building the vision was very much a grassroots process. Early in 2006, Garcia and Brush pulled together a steering committee of visionary people who they felt had not only enough history, depth of experience, and perspective, but were doers, not just talkers. They invited representatives from such core institutions as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the University Art Museum, and the Arts Fund, as well as Tom Morey, Wayne McCall, Dane Goodman, and Edward Cella. The steering committee drafted a mission statement and came up with a name — Off-Axis — that seemed suitable for the event.

Unlike most coastal cities in California, Santa Barbara’s coastline runs more east-west than north-south. Off-Axis is thus both a tongue-in-cheek reference to the area’s distinctive geographic orientation and a way to focus the month on the experience of art outside the boundaries of the city’s established art venues. Even the events and installations that are taking place at such venerable locales as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art have an out-of-the-box edge to them.

Underscoring the collaborative nature of this undertaking was a series of town hall meetings. The first drew about 60 gallerists, artists, media representatives, and otherwise interested members of the community. “They had some important questions but I don’t think they really understood what we were doing,” recalled Garcia. “At that point, I don’t think we really understood what we needed either.” The subsequent meeting saw many of the same people returning, as well as many newcomers. The buzz was spreading. “That’s when it started to be this really important, positive, cerebral exchange where people approached one another, asking how they could get involved.” The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission hired Rebekah Altman to coordinate the event from that point forward, and Off-Axis was officially in the making.

Getting the Art to the People Off-Axis will include a lot more than just art exhibits. There are also artist talks and panels, architectural tours, film screenings, and performances planned. Demonstrations and hands-on workshops abound. A four-day “Print-In” will be held at the Schott Center. Artists such as architect Jeff Shelton, videographer/collage artist Ethan Turpin, furniture designer/sculptor David Shelton, and stone carver Béla Bácsi will be opening up their studios and workshops to families. There is a curated day-long tour showcasing unique art and design collections in award-winning contemporary homes. SBMA’s Mary Craig Auditorium will become a virtual gallery showcasing the work of eight contemporary photographers, augmented by a series of afternoon films throughout the month and an artist talk. CAF will host multiple events throughout the month, including Something New for Another Sunny Day, an exhibition highlighting the work of four up-and-coming tri-county artists; as well as a symposium with workshops on artists’ survival strategies; a full week of portfolio reviews by Miki Garcia; lectures; discussions with Garcia in English and Spanish; and a children’s studio tour.

Off-Axis officially kicks off on September 1 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the State of the Art Gallery in the Cultural Arts District, featuring sculpture along State Street by eight regional artists. An opening reception for the highly regarded annual Art Faculty Exhibition at the Atkinson Gallery at SBCC is scheduled for later that evening.

In the middle of the month, the focus will shift to the Funk Zone. The Arts Fund Gallery presents Bright Young Things!, an eclectic sampler of compelling, provocative work from Santa Barbara County artists in their twenties and thirties. In several cars parked in the Funk Zone, Mitchell Thomas and the Westmont College drama department will present Car Theatre, a series of plays written to be short enough, for an audience small enough, to be performed in a car. To symbolize the transition from one world into another, the closing ceremony for Off-Axis will also serve as the University Art Museum’s opening reception for Mythic Visions, an exhibition of contemporary Huichol art featuring the visionary artwork of José Benítez Sánchez, one of the great indigenous shaman-artists of Central America.

Several experiential productions are planned as well. Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Painting Place offers audiences the unique opportunity to observe the progression of an artist’s exhibition and participate in its creation. Using CAF’s Norton Gallery as his studio, Mondini-Ruiz will invite gallery patrons and local residents to be his assistants — organizing supplies, arranging materials, painting, and selling his amusing and beautiful canvases to passersby. The Center for Tactical Magic will be touring the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, providing food and food-for-thought in the Funk Zone, near Casa de la Raza, and at the CAF family day. What looks like a regular ice cream truck is fully decked out for satellite, Internet access, and surveillance, and in exchange for free ice cream, they disseminate progressive literature on a variety of issues in both English and Spanish.

Several important exhibitions will be held in interesting temporary venues. Edward Cella Art+Architecture’s Explorations, featuring works by emerging and mid-career artists, will be housed in the Andalucía Building on lower Anacapa Street. The reception for Unearthed, photographic portraits of area notables by Graham Bury and Danielle Rubi, will be held in the garden of a private residence, where the pictures will be hung amid flora and fauna.

Off-Axis aims to create a global cross-pollination as well. SBMA is already partnering with CAF on Between Past and Future, their current joint exhibition of contemporary Chinese photography and video. For Espacio Central/Central Space, artist/curator Rafael Perea de la Cabada selected three installation artists to create site-specific projects in Santa Barbara, in conjunction with concurrent installations in Mexico City. Cabada has also been working with students from SBCC and two local high schools to create a mural as tribute to the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. The mural unveiling is scheduled to coordinate with Mexican Independence Day and with the SBMA exhibition Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, opening in Mexico City before coming to Santa Barbara. Ms. Homeland Security, an installation and performance piece at the Courthouse, will tie in with the celebration of Mexican Independence Day as well.

All this is taking place against the naturally majestic backdrop of Santa Barbara — the rustling palms, ocean, and mountains we all know and love. With luck, Off-Axis will bring about a harmonious balance between Santa Barbara’s vibrant and cosmopolitan contemporary art scene and the strong tradition of landscape painting for which the region is better known.

For Miki Garcia, that possibility feels within reach. “There is so much potential for Off-Axis to be really influential on a national scale in the coming years. It was a lot of work, but in the end … no, not in the end, but in the future, it can be transformative.”

4•1•1 An extensive brochure with event listings and a map to participating venues can be obtained in the fall issue of Seasons magazine, at participating venues, or by contacting Rebekah Altman, Off-Axis community coordinator, at raltman@offaxis.org or 568-3993. For further information, visit www.sboffaxis.org.

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