MAD MAX: Amid all the conversations sparked by the development of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone as the city’s “cosmopolitan sub-destination,” one key point seems to keep getting lost. Whether or not the area remains affordable for artists (whatever that means in this town) and regardless of how many tasting rooms and restaurants open, what matters most in the final analysis is what’s on the walls. From that point of view, the Funk Zone is answering the call and providing the kind of experience that will both educate us locals and have the potential to attract intelligent, art-savvy visitors. Two recent shows, one at MichaelKate and the other at wall space gallery, demonstrate the Zone’s complementary strengths. Together they add up to a potent formula for aesthetic progress. At wall space, there’s fascinating and deliberately controversial work by Maxine Helfman, a Dallas-based photographer with a national reputation. That show succeeds in providing the kind of excitement associated with the art that’s typically shown in larger urban centers. Over at MichaelKate, Brad Nack has put together a sprawling salon of 36 of Santa Barbara’s top artists called, appropriately enough, All the Stars. Simply by spending some time in these two locations, viewers have a chance to see that we have not only access to the most cutting-edge work being done nationally but also a diverse and vibrant scene of our own that spans multiple generations and genres.

<b>BLUE BOY:</b> A photo from Maxine Helfman’s Fabrication series, now on view at wall space.

Helfman’s Confounding Expectation brings together three of the artist’s recent projects in portraiture. In these works, Helfman showcases her extraordinary technical facility with lighting and composition, skills honed to perfection through years of still life and commercial fashion photography, to bear on subjects of her own devising, each of which in some way violates a taboo of conventional portraiture. In the series known as Historical Correction, Helfman poses African-American models in the manner of Flemish masterworks of the 16th century. In addition to costuming these contemporary humans in the distinctive white lace and ruffles of the period, Helfman has added another layer of complexity to the images by having the subjects wear an extra-dark coating of theatrical makeup. The poses are regal, bordering on defiant, and the message is, as a result, quite mixed. There’s clearly a reference being made to slavery, but there’s also considerable black power unleashed in these challenging works. Elsewhere, Helfman takes this exploration of African-American identity in the postmodern era even further with two more series, Geisha and Summertime, both of which employ similar techniques of deliberate estrangement.

The series likely to provoke the most reaction, though, is one called Fabrication, which depicts young boys wearing dresses. Facing the camera, their eyes resolutely meeting those of the viewer, the boys in these remarkable images present themselves in a way that is at once gorgeous and unsettling. In a talkback with the artist at the gallery last Sunday, an astute visitor observed that if this gender role masquerade were reversed, with 8-year-old girls wearing boys’ clothes, the disjunction would vanish. Fabrication thus serves to make legible the asymmetry in our expectations for young men and women. These powerful images are among the most interesting on view in Santa Barbara right now, and anyone interested in the issues they raise would do well to experience them in person.

STAR POWER: The thrill at All the Stars at MichaelKate comes from a different source, or rather many different sources, and represents the complex, constantly evolving community of artists who live and work here today. One is hardly inside the front door before being confronted by a pair of bold statements. Hugh Margerum’s dreamy abstract “Horizon” takes the hallucinatory Technicolor of a Santa Barbara sunset apart and puts it back together as a shimmering stack of horizontal lines. Skye Gwilliam’s “Crystalline” pairs a Zen-like jigsaw puzzle of concentric trapezoids with a muted palette of gray and white to create a memorable image that updates the rigor of Jasper Johns for a new century.

“The Restructuring” by Ian Putnam, which is included in the current exhibit at MichaelKate Interiors.

With so many great artists in the mix, it’s hard to know who to single out; everyone’s list of favorites is likely to be different. Trevor Gordon’s ink and pencil drawing on paper of a camouflage-clad eagle clutching a tiny King Kong struck my fancy, as did Linda Saccoccio’s edgy, large narrative canvas titled “The Rocks.” James Paul Lambert created his majestic diptych “Miramar No. 1” especially for this show, and it is a tour de force of sculptural energy and wood-grain craft. And lest you think this is all about the abstract, Larry Iwerks contributes a pair of landscapes that look equally amazing, arrayed against the looser nonrepresentational gestures of Ian Putnam and R. Nelson Parrish. Finally, there’s a strange and delicate collage by Doug Pearsall called “Smilee” that combines the evidence of the artist’s hand with the throwaway quality of an objet trouvé.


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