With more and more talented contemporary artists moving to the South Coast every day, the tri counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura have really come of age as centers for new art. As a result, the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum’s annual Call for Entries show, which asks an ever-changing and distinguished jury to pick five tri-county artists to participate in an exhibition, has become the most notable art world in our area. The judging for this show, which will be on view until December 23, was conducted in fall 2011. The selected five included Alexander Bogdanov, Ilia Ovechkin, Rimas Simaitis, Samantha Fretwell, and Jae Hee Lee. There’s no single theme or theoretical position that unifies the work; that would be too easy. But there are some tendencies and lots of interesting implications that tie together the disparate efforts that solicited this year’s judges — Grace Kook-Anderson, John Spiak, Shane Tolbert, and Geoff Tuck — to make these particular awards. The resulting show captures the spirit of contemporary art in a way that makes CAF’s space on the second floor of Paseo Nuevo feel like a part of the global fabric that includes (among many other places) the arts districts of London, New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico City.
Bogdanov has still not gotten back to me — as far as I know. His interactive piece, “If you wish to speak with the artist you may lift the receiver,” fills one entire room of the show with a stark overhead light and a single beige plastic wall-mounted telephone, avec cord, circa 1993. If you pick up the receiver, it calls Bogdanov’s cell phone, and in my case at least, that means you go to his voicemail. Bogdanov has made his young career by eliciting various types of audience input, and this piece succeeds not so much because of the interaction as the way that the situation is framed by the gallery setup. It feels like talking on a pay phone outdoors and in an inhospitable situation, like maybe a parking lot, and in the process Bogdanov rips a neat hole in the smartphone bubble we all tend to inhabit.
Over in the main room, Lee has created an unforgettable video installation out of the barest minimum of technical support. “To Remember My Grandma” loops a short video of the artist brushing her teeth until the foamy toothpaste overflows her lips and spreads down her chin. Apparently this was something that she did as a child and that bothered her maternal grandmother, who took care of her for months at a time when she was growing up in Korea. The subtitles for this piece, which has no actual dialogue, include the impossibly poignant line, “Grandma, what am I doing now?” In this work, and without being too grandiose, Lee manages to incorporate all the most compelling themes of memory, displacement, kinship, and transition that characterize the art of the Korean global diaspora.
Elsewhere, Simaitis contributes a complex assemblage that comments on SoCal’s surf culture, Fretwell revisits the way that video upends not only the gallery space but also the space-time continuum, and Ovechkin brings Macs and shells together by way of 21st-century wrap technology. If you care at all about the way that our area has entered the arena of contemporary art, this Call for Entries is a must-see and part of the emerging dialogue between the tri counties and the art world.