PERFECTION QUESTION: Living in Santa Barbara, one gets used to having people say that it is “paradise.” This cliché operates so promiscuously that there’s not even a specific type of person to expect it from. Weather-challenged out-of-towners say it. Sincerely optimistic boosters do, too. Modishly liberated neo-pagans make the same claim as avaricious developers. Even the no-growthers say it—right before they warn us we are about to lose it, especially if we build affordable housing. (I wonder if Adam and Eve ever discussed density?)
The thing that too many of these proponents of the cult of perfection seem to forget is to ask the right follow-up question. It should not be enough to tell someone that their home is paradise. And that’s why Eating Apples in Paradise, on view now at Contemporary Arts Forum through May 1, packs such a wallop. Instead of asserting the cliché and leaving it at that, CAF director Miki Garcia invited 12 of Santa Barbara’s top artists to consider the question of whether or not we live in paradise an open one, and added the provocative follow-up: “And what are you going to do about it?” In an unusual strategy designed to elicit public discussion in ever-widening circles of response, Eating Apples began as a seminar and grew into an exhibition through reading, discussion, and sometimes even heated argument. To be in this show, artists had to be willing to read and suggest texts for a reading list, and then gather for a series of three-hour meetings that took place during a period of months. Established painters and photographers sat down with talented young artists working in a variety of mediums and agreed to talk things over, things ranging from the authenticity of Santa Barbara’s many Hispanic metaphors, both seasonal and architectural, to the social costs of an economy that renders the split between rich and poor more dramatic daily. From the welter of voices in the room, nothing like a consensus emerged. Instead, certain ambivalences, heretofore processed through perhaps less public means, came to the surface. In terms of artwork, the result is a show saturated with meaning and likely to inspire even more controversy as it lands with a splash in the giant reflecting pool of our community’s collective consciousness.
With its deliberately outrageous reference to the grave, Saul Gray-Hildenbrand’s “What Are We Going to Do After the Orgy?” serves as a powerful sentry, guarding the sanctum of the exhibition space. This life-size painting of an ominous male figure wears a frame of dead flowers like a discarded funeral wreath, offering the viewer the uncomfortable sensation that the question in the title might have an obvious answer after all. Nearby, Elizabeth Folk has constructed a palm tree out of appropriately colored T-shirts. If there were a bar on State Street called Snarkees, this palm would look great there. As is, it could still find a home wherever cheap cotton meets the heat.
In the back room, James Van Arsdale kicks up the show’s stakes a notch with his mixed-media installation called “Blitzed,” which plays on the history of California as a birthplace of psychedelic utopianism. Before you get too comfortable, notice all the “wasted” spaces the artist has included in the form of bombed-out or otherwise vacant buildings.
In the main room, Hank Pitcher serves a different form of intoxicant through his two large pictures of the Coral Casino, one of which, from 2010, is titled simply “Cocktails.” Seen apart from the rest of Pitcher’s oeuvre, and in the context of such overtly political pieces as Kimberly Hahn’s “Bloodlines” (2011), Pitcher’s Hockney-esque neo-realism acquires a brooding, sinister quality that undermines the transparent appeal of leisure even as it seems to celebrate it. Contributions from Warren Schultheis, Cyndee Howard, Penelope Gottlieb, Jonny Troyna, Macduff Everton, and Nancy Gifford further develop the ramifications of this insightful exploration of Santa Barbara’s status as the real Eden.