Spins Art

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

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
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

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

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
, 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
, 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

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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