With downtown Los Angeles seemingly sprouting a new art museum or gallery district every few months, it can be hard to remember that well before L.A. became a hotbed of art making and collecting, Santa Barbara was known as the most artistic city in the state south of San Francisco. With this new exhibit, Sullivan Goss aims to right that skewed impression and teach us to hold our heads up with pride in Santa Barbara’s profound influence on the art of our time.
Fittingly, the show begins with works by Henry Chapman Ford, the city’s first well-known resident artist and an influential figure in the Mission Revival. Ford traveled to all the missions of California in a horse and buggy, and used his skills as a painter and illustrator to reimagine what were at the time the ruins of an earlier era as the template for a new way of life. From there the show fills in the end of the 19th century with a series of splendid paintings by John Sykes, an Englishman who moved to Santa Barbara and responded to the beauty not only of the mission, but also of the coastline. His views of Castle Rock make an excellent entry into the sophisticated shoreline images of Lockwood de Forest, a transcendent early celebrator of the shoreline.
Following de Forest, the scene explodes with sophistication. Douglass Parshall’s 1932 painting of “Two Figures” combines neo-classicism with intimations of the burgeoning influence of surrealism. Channing Peake’s muralist tendencies are brilliantly reflected in his 1959 study for the mural in the Santa Barbara Public Library. An abstraction by Irma Cavat that predates her turn to representation signals the arrival of modernism and the UCSB Art Department. Before abstraction can become dominant, however, Ray Strong arrives and reinvents en plein air landscape. In coming weeks the show will expand to reach the present when another room opens featuring artists who are working today. The whole enterprise is a highly worthwhile exploration of our city’s distinctive visual culture.