COME TOGETHER: Two of the summer’s most exciting group shows opened on Friday, June 10, in somewhat unconventional venues that are nevertheless gaining ground and attention as up-and-coming art centers. Over at the Santa Barbara Tennis Club (2375 Foothill Rd.), Natural Anthem brings together the work of Dan Levin, Blakeney Sanford, and Casey Underwood to great effect, turning the lobby of this athletic institution into a home for organic shapes, bold compositions, and breaking waves of aesthetic pleasure. Levin’s assemblage sculptures repurpose objects both natural and manmade and share the quality of having been worked over by the elements. Levin animates driftwood, porous rocks, bits of bark, old fishing reels, glass bottles, and an assortment of danglers through a mix of organization, orientation, and painting. Some are spectacular. “Waka Tanka,” a reddish brown and turquoise vertical slab of something vaguely organic, gets a slick coat of resin that renders it a close cousin to the finish-fetish objects so beloved by surfers and custom car commandos.

Sanford also demonstrates a native’s feel for sun and surface in her Shark Park series. Available either as grids of small rectangles or as a single, life-size image, these silhouettes of a woman in a bikini effortlessly traverse the twisty gap between painting and graphic design. Gold leaf backgrounds render the California sunlight even in the midst of June gloom, and the combination of bright primary colors and vigorous, gracefully athletic poses offer a version of the California dream girl that’s more rugged and independent than glossy and untouchable.

Finally, recent Westmont grad Underwood contributes a strong set of mostly horizontal works focused by the imagery of curling waves. By building these tantalizing compositions out of carefully layered stratas of text and image, Underwood revises the landscape tradition at the same time that he taps the source of collage. Overall this is a strong example of how well Santa Barbara artists play together, and organizer Susan Tibbles is to be commended for putting the Tennis Club’s Second Fridays so firmly onto the calendar.

Holly Mackay's "Donut".
Courtesy Photo

Meanwhile, over at MichaelKate Interiors (132 Santa Barbara St.), painter Brad Nack takes on the curatorial role for New Ideas in Photography 2011, a big show in a big room that displays the considerable talents of four artists—Adam Brown, Erica Urech, Matt Straka, and Holly Mackay. Of all the new ideas involved here, Mackay’s is probably the most boundary-pushing, as she is working from her own small oil paintings of donuts, which she then photographs and blows up to poster (40”x40”) size. More than just a coy update of Wayne Thiebaud’s iconic pastry paintings of the 1960s (although they certainly are that, too), Mackay’s pictures offer their haloed subjects as otherworldly apparitions gifted with magical powers that transcend the limitations of any medium, whether it be painting, photography, or dough. These groovy images are, to borrow the title of Tracy Letts’s hot new play at the Geffen Playhouse, Superior Donuts.

Brown and Urech have each found intelligent ways to refocus the attention of the viewer on the expectations that we bring to photographic representation. Lest that sound dauntingly intellectual, be assured that such works as Brown’s “Seascape Quintych” and Urech’s delicious self-portrait “Moi” are also hopelessly, decadently pleasurable to the senses. Finally, there are several noble works by the always interesting Straka to consider. A descendant of William Eggleston at the height of his swaggering powers as both colorist and master of composition, Straka makes images that are beautiful, poignant, and unforgettable. Witness “Roadside Norcal,” a big bold shot of two abandoned cars sinking slowly from sight into the leafy green overgrowth—it’s cinematic, it’s tight, and it rocks.


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