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Rev-up Your Engines: Museum Shows in Southern California

There are plenty of interesting museum exhibitions right now in Southern California, enough to fill your schedule for a weekend or two of driving around. A mouth-watering selection of Old Master paintings from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford can be seen at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Among the sixty masterpieces, there are works by Frans Hals, Goya, Zurbaran, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Caravaggio and Tintoretto. When the Wadsworth Atheneum opened its doors in 1844, it was one of the first public galleries of fine art in America. These days the museum building has been closed for remodeling, and the collection hit the road with the latest stopover in Santa Barbara. This exhibition is definitely on my list of things-to-do in the coming month.

Meanwhile in the San Diego Museum of Art, there is an exhibition of seventy ancient artifacts, excavated from ancient Roman seaside villas. Among the rare objects are twenty-four frescoes, including a spectacular three-wall dining room. I have not seen it yet, but flipping through the exhibition brochure makes me want to jump in the car for a rendezvous with the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Rome.

A few weeks ago, I went to Newport Beach for the Orange County Museum of Art's opening of the travelling exhibition "Landscape Confection," with about fifty landscapes by thirteen contemporary artists from around the world. The interesting thing about this show is that traditional landscapes are nearly absent in it, with the exception of those by British artist Rowena Dring. She created her landscape by stitching together hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of fabric. Another artist with his own twist on this traditional genre is the Los Angeles-based Kori Newkirk, whose "curtain paintings" consist of strings of plastic beads suspended from an aluminum strip at the top. From a distance, his landscapes look like shimmering paintings made with thousands of tiny brush strokes. But actually, each stroke is a tiny plastic bead of a different color. So, you get the idea of what the curators tried to convey in their intriguing selection of artists who push the envelope every which way but loose. New Yorker Jim Hodges stitches together thousands of silk flowers that cascade like a translucent medieval tapestry from the ceiling in the middle of the gallery. Jason Gubbiotti from France literally wraps his abstract paintings around the gallery corners. And Pia Fries from Germany, who studied under the famous Gerhard Richter, rolls an amazingly generous amount of paint over the expanse of her panels, which she seemingly handles with anything but a brush. These huge blobs of paint make you think about a baker squeezing, twisting and kneading his dough. Some of the artworks in this exhibition, though interesting in their own way, didn't seem to fit into the big picture, but overall the curators did a good job in presenting a number of contemporary artists who are having a love affair with one of the oldest genres of painting.

The new exhibition, "Painting in Tongues," at MOCA presents seven artists: three from Los Angeles, and four from Germany and Britain. The curatorial premise of this exhibition is that there is a new trend among young artists to avoid a so-called "signature style." Each artist has been given their own gallery, but you would never guess that the works were done by the same hand. My first impression was that these artists are working too hard to avoid being pigeonholed into a recognizable style, and I suspect that none of them is passionate enough to commit to the artistic journey along a single path. To me, most of them seemed lost in the forest. Or to put it differently, this is a group of ambitious artists who are committed to the idea of not being committed.

"Renaissance to Rococo"
Through May 28
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1130 State Street
Santa Barbara
Tel. 805-963-4364

"In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite"
Through May 14
San Diego Museum of Art
Balboa Park, San Diego
Tel. 619-232-7931

"Landscape Confection"
Through May 7
Orange County Museum of Art
850 San Clemente Drive
Newport Beach
Tel. 949-759-1122

"Painting in Tongues"
Through April 17th
MOCA
250 S. Grand Ave
Los Angeles
Tel. 213-621-1749

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