Let’s face it: Being an artist is often less about choice and more about obsession. In fact, obsession itself is deeply involved in the notion of art. Think of Jasper Johns and the American flag, Marcel Duchamp and chess, Magritte and his bowler hat; all artists who repeated materials, themes, and motifs, over and over, again and again.
“The willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions is what distinguishes artists from entertainers and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all,” John Updike once said.
But sometimes repetition and obsession are both the visual preoccupation of the art and essential to the process. Nancy Gifford, an artist herself, has curated an exhibit titled Obsession at the Arts Fund of Santa Barbara, on view now through April 5. The group show features work where repetition, obsession, and meditation are key elements to the artist’s process, sometimes obvious in the resulting artwork and sometimes not.
In “Country Meets Mid-Century Modern,” a four-paneled work by artist Dorothy Churchill-Johnson, the viewer encounters a kaleidoscopic vision of fabrics and patterns in three dimensions. While the fabrics in Churchill-Johnson’s works feel as if they could suck you in and swallow you whole, her hyperrealistic painting and drawing skills bond the real and the abstract, creating a vertiginous experience that’s obsessed with surface and its rendering. The three paintings are like ingenious surrealistic mousetraps, each a multi-paneled canvas depiction of fabric endlessly folding in upon itself in a hard-edged realistic style.
Artist David Cooley’s pool paintings and compulsively executed signature spikes — perfect brush tips of impasto paint — create an endlessly spiraling sense of chaos that is decorative, textural, optical, and sculptural all at once. Meanwhile, Rafael Gaete seems to be channeling a big-bang-style hybrid of Kandinsky, Miro, and Calder; his hundreds of amoeba-like figures render thoughts of the exploding cosmos as they escape our grasp.
It’s impossible not to experience a mind meld with artistic obsession when viewing Susan Venable’s copper-woven sculptures. These pieces have a meditative and healing sense of process — namely braiding and weaving — that contrasts and collides with the nature of the artist’s materials — metallic frames with extruding sharp copper wires. The wires stick out from the metal frame like hair from a crazy mattress, and examining them up close provides insight into the truly obsessive nature of her process.
Elsewhere in Obsession, artist David Diamant seems obsessed with airplanes, flying bodies, and smiling oriental dragons. His hallucinogenic and finely wrought fanatical drawings printed on metal plates warrant your meticulous attention as you stare into their miasma of comic-book frenzy and action. His “81 Moodheads” represents an extraterrestrial panoply of imagination with its depiction of a Star Wars–like lounge of characters.
Christopher Rupp’s two playful yellow and green dogs are an on-site installation, painstakingly built out of pills — yes, pills — over the course of two days. Glued one by one to the gallery wall, one can only imagine and perhaps hope that those pills contain an analgesic for some of the obsessions raised by Rupp’s exhibit.
The artist whose work seems most emblematic of obsession in execution and content is Stafford Taylor, whose pen-and-ink drawings depict tiny cosmologies that partake in Jungian imagery and notions. One 6”x7” work titled “I Love You So Much I Want to Throw Up” features three slug-like figures wrapped in a tight embrace. It’s drawn in thick and thin black ink lines that almost seem to breathe. The intimacy in size and detail and fanciful sense of reality in his “Coastline of the Manifestery” reminds the viewer of some of the larger drawings of imaginary worlds in Michelle Stuart’s recent show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
In all, Gifford and the Arts Fund have provided viewers with a fascinating collection of artists and the opportunity to journey into the compelling nature of artistic obsession.