It’s not often that we find two Santa Barbara artists showing together in Los Angeles. Therefore, it is even more exciting to encounter Ken Nack and Michael Arntz sharing a large retrospective, Ken Nack / Michael Arntz: Santa Barbara, 1960s-1980s, at a contemporary space that’s as well suited to showing their work as the Landing Gallery in Culver City. Both men were not only important artists, as can be seen from the range of work created between 1960 and 1980 that’s on view in this exhibition; they were also both longtime art educators, Nack at SBCC and Arntz at UCSB. As a young man in the late 1950s, Nack showed his paintings at the Whitney, MOMA, and several top-notch galleries and was included on a number of critics’ “artist to watch” lists — including that of Life magazine.
For some artists, Santa Barbara, with its calm and beauty, can have a way of taking the edge off an active, creative mind. The lack of an artist cohort capable of offering meaningful critique, dialogue, and networking can have a devastating effect on ideas and production. That did not happen for either of these artists. For Michael and his wife, Penny Arntz, the city was an ideal setting in which to develop their own take on sculptural ceramics, a medium that was having a renaissance in California in those decades. As a result, their large-scale ceramic sculptures can be understood as existing within an identifiable school, the California Clay Movement.
Nack’s path was somewhat different. Instead of funneling his painting into museums and galleries, much of his large and brilliant output went into storage, and that’s where it might have stayed if it hadn’t been for Gerard O’Brien of the Landing Gallery in Culver City. To say Nack’s work fell into the right hands is an understatement. This show was so thoughtfully hung that it is clear O’Brien saw something in Nack’s work that no one else did until now. These colorful collage paintings freely illustrate a lightness that can only come from someone who believes art is vital to daily life. To see these paintings in a contemporary context breathes life into them in a way I’m sure the artist always imagined. It is a vibrant tribute, a lovingly documented show that honors the achievement of two of Santa Barbara’s best artists.