No matter how many birthday parties you have attended, you have never seen a piñata like any of those included in Roberto Benavidez’s vibrant and provocative summer show at the UCSB Art, Design & Architecture (AD&A) Museum. Hailing from Texas, where he handcrafts these subtly subversive works of art, Benavidez brings a light touch and a mischievous sense of humor to the clash of high and popular culture. He began the series on view at the AD&A in 2013, inspired by the 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, and in particular by the fantastic figures in his masterpiece “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Using delicate materials in a traditional, balloon-based piñata-making process, Benavidez replicates specific aspects of the painting, including not only animals and fruits but also some of the more bizarre, human-adjacent creatures of Bosch’s extravagant imagination.
A large reproduction of the painting, complete with magnifying glass, allows visitors to play detective in an art historical identification game of finding the piñatas in the picture. At the opening, a specially designated piece was smashed, releasing its esoteric contents in the familiar piñata cascade. Beneath the festive surface of this delightful show, there’s a fiercely satirical sensibility at work, sending up both the art scene and consumer culture’s magpie approach to Mexican life.
There’s another summer treat in store in the gallery next to the piñatas, where two distinguished Santa Barbara artists, Mary Heebner and Jeff Shelton, have collaborated with curator Silvia Perea on a show called The Muse Project. Heebner and Shelton were invited to display their own work alongside objects and images selected from the AD&A’s permanent collections. The twist is that Heebner, who is primarily a fine artist, was encouraged to search for her “muses” in the collection of architectural drawings, while Shelton, who is best known as an architect, was sent to find what he could relate to in the art collection. The result blends the warmth of familiarity with the joy of discovery, activating the museum’s collection and reinvigorating our appreciation of two of the city’s most representative artists.
Jeff Shelton thinks of the buildings he designs as vessels for life, so it makes sense that one of the objects he has chosen from the museum’s collection is a vase by Ojai ceramicist and avant-garde trickster Beatrice Wood. On a large table at the center of the room there’s a wealth of materials that offer a glimpse into Shelton’s creative process and the social world in which he orbits. In addition to prints and drawings that display the distinctive style that makes Shelton’s tile work so expressive, there are other paper artifacts from his practice, including both the small notebooks he uses to track the weekly attendance at his James Joyce/farmers’ market day confabs, and the folded paper signs he uses to enhance the conversation in client meetings. Whether he’s designing a font or a chair, Shelton never loses his sense of humor or his sense of personal style, which allies him with an unexpectedly wide range of artists, from Claes Oldenburg to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Mary Heebner’s intense study of archaeology and ancient art informs every aspect of her work, which involves not only drawing and painting, but also papermaking, collage, and poetry. Pairing her work in series such as “Veiled/Unveiled” with drawings by the landscape architect Lockwood de Forest brings out the degree to which Heebner’s work is about the excavation of existing beauty and the refashioning of the deepest patterns of culture. To see her monumental collages alongside de Forest’s blueprint for the garden at Val Verde in Montecito is to step into a dream of Santa Barbara’s unique place in the evolving map of thoughtful dwelling.
4•1•1 | Creations by Roberto Benavidez, Mary Heebner, and Jeff Shelton are up at UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum through September 1. See museum.ucsb.edu.