Matt Straka, <em>Straka Size</em>
Courtesy Photo

DE LA GUERRA AND CANON PERDIDO: It’s possible to travel from one world to another without walking more than a few blocks in downtown Santa Barbara, and it’s especially true on 1st Thursdays, the monthly series of art openings and happenings sponsored by the Downtown Organization that have become enormously popular and successful in the last few years. On Thursday, June 7, I managed, in the space of just three blocks on Canon Perdido and De la Guerra streets, to take in shows that were by turns hip and streetwise, ambitious and avant-garde, and traditional and inspirational. If I had stretched a bit and walked one block farther, I could have encountered yet more variety and excellence in the visual arts, but there’s only so much you can do in a single Thursday evening.

The trail began at Elsie’s (117 W. De la Guerra St.), the cozy tavern with the purple pool table that has been a mainstay among the city’s hipsters for decades. Although it was not an official 1st Thursday event, Matt Straka’s photo show Straka Size still brought out the friends and fans of this master photographer and former Independent staff member. Amid some familiar older images — the unforgettable “Elusive Bearded Tranny,” for example, and the wonderful series of decommissioned neon signs — there were some great new large-formats, including two “Flair” pictures, “Bakersfield Flair” and “Oxnard Flair.” The strength of Straka’s work stems from a solid foundation in the traditional photographic skills of composition and fine printing. Combined with a quirky street sensibility, Straka’s work falls in line with that of recent New York City pacesetters like Bill Cunningham, Deborah Feingold, and Joel Meyerowitz, all of whom work in the grand tradition of the great Beat breakthrough artist Robert Frank.

From there it’s only a few short steps and one big set of brightly tiled stairs to the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF), where the 2012 UCSB MFA exhibition, Headgear for Tony, is currently on display. However, as 1st Thursday regulars will know, the name of the game at CAF on 1st Thursdays is Forum Lounge, Heather Jeno’s consistently mind-expanding performance series. This week the performer was L.A.-based artist Cindy Derby, who presented the amazing 25-minute multimedia piece she calls Edward’s House of String. Combining stop-motion animation, live music, puppetry, and lots and lots of colored string, Derby cast a spell on the packed room with her otherworldly imagery and tightly choreographed, life-size puppeteering. The puppet Edward is a kind of paper and cardboard skeleton who eats string, and his obsessive-compulsive existence is enabled by a team of women dressed in leotards, their skin covered in monochromatic layers of makeup. The ethereal music by composer Ellen Reid was particularly memorable in this, another surprising and inspiring event in the Forum Lounge series.

Over on the east side of State Street, things were warming up at the Project, located on De la Guerra Plaza, where the theme for the main gallery was that quintessential late-spring color yellow and the show-within-a-show was Hugh Margerum’s Tic-tac-toe series, a project that was chronicled in these pages a couple of weeks ago.

Up a block on East Canon Perdido, the students from SBCC’s life drawing and stone carving classes had gathered at the offices of CASA Magazine to celebrate their achievements and share their work with the public. From Dennis Kirby’s stately “Greek Helmet” to Kinley Peijor’s remarkable “Slip Not,” it was the alabaster marvels that stole this show, although not without a fight from the varied and accomplished life drawings on display.


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