Roosters wait on a train platform holding briefcases and umbrellas, fish gather in an art gallery to admire modern sculpture, and a crocodile reads the newspaper while getting his shoes shined. In Ralph Auf der Heide’s whimsical works, animals often take the place of humans in scenes at once familiar and fantastic. The current exhibition at the Channing Peake Gallery celebrates the imagination and talent of the late Auf der Heide, longtime Santa Barbaran and Renaissance man who recorded and collected folk music, helped found the Wine Cask, penned a number of books, raised three children with his wife, Lisl, and began painting at the age of 72.
Auf der Heide discovered naive and outsider art while on a trip through Eastern Europe in 1982. For him, it was permission to experiment in an art form he had considered inaccessible. The technique in which he worked for the next 20 years, hinterglas, involves painting on the reverse of a pane of glass (or Plexiglas, in his case), requiring that the foreground be painted first before subsequent layers are added behind it. For an artist with no formal training, it’s an exacting process, but it yields luminous color.
Consider “Summer Solstice” (1993), in which a bright vermillion sun blazes in a cerulean sky, and a cast of colorful characters parades down State Street. The artist often constructed and painted his own frames, many of which serve as expanded canvases, as if the vibrant scene has burst its intended boundaries. This is also the case in the striking “Winter Cockfight” (1990), depicting roosters with rainbow-colored tail feathers scuffling under a brooding sky. A few stray feathers ornament the frame.
Part of the joy of this show is the presentation of Lisl’s clever limericks alongside her husband’s paintings. An accomplished poet and writer, Lisl penned many of these during Ralph’s lifetime, though some were written for this show. From Where’s Waldo?-esque scenes of the Farmers Market and the County Courthouse to abstract works to overt political commentaries, Auf der Heide’s vibrant visions have all the appeal of images in a beloved children’s picture book, scenes whose impact grows deeper with every viewing.