Whether the dialogue centers on politics or religion, art or psychology, there’s one question that’s always relevant: “What’s really happening right now?” It’s the question that brings the conversation back to the very moment we find ourselves in, saving us from rehashing the past or fantasizing about the future, and grounding us in the present. That’s exactly the question gallerist Edward Cella hoped to answer two years ago, when he helped launch Santa Barbara’s contemporary art biennial, Off-Axis.
That same question is as relevant today as it was two years ago, as galleries and artists across the city gear up for the second installment of the festival of new art, which will run throughout the month of October.
“There is a core group of artists working in our community, pushing the boundaries of contemporary art,” Cella said recently. “It is my hope that Off-Axis can serve as a means to highlight their efforts.”
As in its first year, Off-Axis 2008 encompasses a range of art openings, exhibits, lectures, and happenings; there is no central hub of activity. The festival’s name was inspired by Santa Barbara’s unusual geographic position-a rare, transverse mountain range provides the region with an unusually temperate climate-but the metaphor extends to the festival’s place slightly off the main grid of West Coast contemporary art centers, as well as its emphasis on art that doesn’t fit the typical mold. Among the shows and events included in this year’s festival are exhibitions of contemporary visual art in well-established venues such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the UCSB University Art Museum, live art events at the Contemporary Arts Forum, performances at artist cooperatives, and public art displayed on State Street. Though many of the artists featured throughout the month are based in Santa Barbara, Off-Axis organizers are engaged in international collaborations, with participating organizations hailing from Orange County to the Republic of Georgia.
“It’s kind of a community dialogue,” Cella explained. “It’s an international conversation with people who are aware of what’s happening with art at this moment in time.”
Each participating venue and organization represents a distinct voice in the conversation of new art. At Sullivan Goss, contemporary art curator Susan Bush has drawn together a show of 10 artists under the age of 30, each of whom represents a new angle on contemporary painting. “Showing emerging artists at Sullivan Goss is a totally new thing, and something we hope will become an annual event,” Bush said. Three of the 10 artists featured in 10 Under 30 have connections to Santa Barbara, and four of the 10 are women. “My desire is to show people what younger artists are doing and to support younger artists themselves,” Bush said. “My job as a contemporary curator is to help bring in the next generation of artists.”
Among those emerging painters is Julika Lackner. Daughter of well-known Santa Barbara theater director Peter Lackner and costume artist Barbara Lackner, Julika spent her teen years in Santa Barbara before moving to Berlin to paint, and then to Los Angeles, where she completed her MFA at the Art Center in Pasadena. Lackner’s subject matter has shifted along with her geographic shifts. “At first I was really into painting artificial light, especially in subway station tunnels where the lighting was drastic and dramatic,” Lackner said. “When I lived in Berlin, that was perfect. But when I moved to L.A., I realized my subject matter needed to change. I started to do night paintings, looking at things like the haloes around street lights, and how the sky in L.A. is never dark.” Lackner’s most recent series represents a shift in perspective; she is now looking down at the earth from the sky. “They are about how we see things, how they get abstracted,” she said. My paintings are based in landscape, but they’re never about the landscape itself; they’re more about how we see the landscape.”
According to Off-Axis coordinator Tristan Blodgett, one of the festival’s main goals is to foster links to other communities. “We’re showing that the Santa Barbara art scene is connected to the international arts community,” Blodgett said. “I think we can forget sometimes in Santa Barbara that we exist in context. We don’t want to be insular.” To that end, Off-Axis has joined forces with groups like Lit Moon Theatre, which holds its World Shakespeare Festival again this year, including performances by the Marjanishvili State Theater of Georgia, which has never before visited the United States.
Off-Axis has also partnered with the Orange County Museum of Arts’ California Biennial, with the University Art Museum serving as a satellite space for the prestigious festival. Among the artists whose work will be displayed at UAM as part of that collaboration is Shana Lutker. Lutker’s work examines the collective unconscious through the lens of politics, focusing on campaign speeches and the ways in which public figures shape our culture. As part of Off-Axis, Lutker will also deliver her multi-media installation and performance piece Hear It Here, at the Contemporary Arts Forum.
Any Santa Barbaran who’s visited State Street in recent weeks has likely seen the works included in this year’s State of the Art Gallery, an annual exhibit mounted by the County Arts Commission and another strand in the Off-Axis dialogue. Over at the commission’s Channing Peake Gallery, longtime Santa Barbara gallery owner Ro Snell is the curator of an exhibition of works by 31 emerging and mid-career Santa Barbara County artists. Titled Edge, this collection of non-representational art ranges across several media and deals with liminal areas, boundaries, and the fringes of things, with each artist producing a unique reaction to the theme. “Edge is about what’s really happening right now,” Cella commented. “It’s interesting to have as the curator somebody who has had more than a decade of work as a gallerist in town-an artist who is sensitive to the evolution and progress of work in this city. The idea was to find the next generation of artists who are making new work right now. It’s very exciting.”
Of course, any informed vision of the present has to take into consideration both the past and the future. “I think Off-Axis is going to continue to get better,” Blodgett said, noting that he welcomes public feedback via email, and that the lectures scheduled as part of the festival will include opportunities for open dialogue about the nature of contemporary art today. “I’m sure 2008 will surpass Off-Axis 2006,” he added, “and I imagine Off-Axis 2012 is going to be great.” Cella echoed the same sentiments. “Looking ahead,” he mused, “what does 2010 look like? We’re looking at a city with a new director at SBMA, a new director at Westmont, Elyse Gonzales [at UAM], plus Kathryn Kanjo, Dane Goodman, Miki Garcia : a whole group of new resources, and institutional and professional talents. I look forward to 2010, and I think there’s a huge opportunity to inspire and open up a conversation between these institutions and organizations.”
Exactly how that conversation will unfold-and who will take part in it-remains to be seen. Cella calls Off-Axis 2008 “a 30-day conversation among practitioners, curators, museums, and aficionados of contemporary art.” And he poses questions to guide that dialogue: “What are artists doing in their studio right now? These people who are part of our community, how are they engaging in the world around them?”
Doubtless, the question “What’s really happening right now?” will continue to guide the discourse. And as far as Cella is concerned, “2010 could be extraordinary.”
Off-Axis 2008 will take place throughout the month of October at venues across the city. For a complete schedule of events, visit sboffaxis.org. For more information, call 966-5373, x101.