Once upon a time, before printing presses and cameras, let alone the Internet, viewing art was the province of the wealthy few. Yet in 21st-century American society, all people have access to great art—or do they? Now on view at the Contemporary Arts Forum, Visionaries: Contemporary Art from Santa Barbara’s Private Collections brings into the public eye a group of master works held by Santa Barbara art aficionados in their private collections. Exhibited together, these works make for an impressive show—a reminder both of the sophistication of regional art collectors and of the rare privilege of owning such works.
On entering the gallery, you’ll find yourself faced with a glass box on steel legs, inside of which stands a human head made of black chenille. Its empty eye sockets and gaping mouth suggest horror or torture, yet its fabric surface recalls the innocuous stuffed animals of childhood. This untitled piece from the collection of Mike Healy and Tim Walsh is the work of Louise Bourgeois, a New York-based and internationally acclaimed artist best known for giant spider sculptures.
Nearby hangs a photograph by Cindy Sherman, from the collection of Carole Lieff. Sherman is a major figure in contemporary photography and is known for appearing in her own images, usually in a disguise of some kind. Here, she wears an ill-fitting business suit. Her hands are clenched into fists, and she gazes out from beneath a platinum blond wig with bloodshot eyes. Like Bourgeois, Sherman’s work touches on themes of femininity and suffering.
Some of the artists whose work is featured in Visionaries have more direct ties to Santa Barbara. Photographer Richard Ross lives in town, although he shows and works internationally. His “Lion Bath, Tiberius, Israel” from the collection of John and Jill Bishop captures a vacant bathing pool, its turquoise paint peeling. From the ceiling, diffused light filters through tiny circular windows as if through an upturned colander. The real subject here is light itself. Alison Saar’s sculpture “Inheritance,” also from the Bishops’s collection, was created here in town during Saar’s guest residency at Santa Barbara City College. It’s a female figure cast in bronze which seems to strike forward while balancing a giant ball of linen on her head—she is at once mighty and miniscule, evoking the graceful power of African water bearers and the injustice of slavery.
In the back room hangs “Ewe Cloth,” a work by Nigerian artist El Anatsui, and a gift to its owners, Herbert and Shelley Cole. From a distance it appears to be a textile, but on closer inspection it’s made entirely from metal taken from the caps of liquor bottles, “sewn” together with copper wire. The artist has cut and folded the thin sheets of metal into rings, strips, and squares, mimicking the style of tapestry woven in his community of Nsukka. Against a vermillion wall it seems to undulate, alive with its own transformation from trash to treasure.