The success of agriculture -- the ability to produce a surplus of food -- is said to have birthed civilization. Art through the millennia has returned the favor by contemplating the connections between man and food source, whether animal or soil, and the labor and technology that bridge them.
The Art About Agriculture exhibition, on display now in both the Santa Paula Art Museum and the Museum of Ventura County Agricultural Museum, taps this impulse. The show, which closes this Sunday, March 17th, is curated by John Nichols and Gail Pidduck of the Ag Art Alliance. The show began in 2007 when the two artists were asked to create an art exhibit for the Ventura County Fair. Unsure that they could fill the large room with just their work, Nichols and Pidduck put a call out to others and the response, in terms of the number and quality of the work submitted, was overwhelming. They decided to make it annual and it has become a highly reputable show in "rinky dink Santa Paula," says Nichols affectionately.
"Agriculture is like any other topic in art," explains Meg Phelps, Education Director of the Santa Paula Art Museum, "it is never neutral and always reflects the context and culture in which it was created." Art About Agriculture features two and three dimensional works by over 50 artists using different styles and approaches to reflect on both the region's agrarian heritage and the significance of agriculture today. The show stirs conflicting experiences: deep longing and fear of change, pride over the fruit with discomfort over the labor. It also gives a sense of the deep well of knowledge held in the community, and different ways of imagining life in Ventura.
Reflecting on heritage has the dual affect of eliciting longing for an unknowable past while pointing to the inevitability of change. Most places in Southern California paved over their agrarian past long ago. But Ventura still offers vistas of agricultural fields. In the arts works, these vistas are expressed as expanses of land, shouldered by mountain and quilted with orchards and fields. They attempt to fix these views to something, to stop time, understanding that housing and industry are encroaching, and rising property values mean technology will play a bigger role in getting profits from smaller parcels of land. The landscapes evoke "nostalgia," says Phelps, "because we know it could be lost."
Art About Agriculture wouldn't be complete without still-lifes. In this context, surrounded by other images of land and sky and labor and tools, their focus on the bounty was made deeper. Gail Faulkner's rich watercolor, "Peaches and Pears," elicited a pause to feel gratitude for this verdant land- and a bit of mouth watering, as did Jane Clare's Salvatos delightful textile piece, "The Grapes of Cali." The show also features some abstractions and playfulness. Nichols' photo, Seed Signal, reminds us not to take the work too seriously. Quoting the Italian Futurist manifesto, Nichols says, "every day you must spit on the altar of art," because, he insists, "you can't have fun if you're stuck in some mind trip between two PhDs."
Many of the works feature the industry of men and women pulling a living out of the dirt. One of the most poignant and important pieces is Chris Provenzano's Trabajadors, an installation of four figurative sculptures- three people being led by the coyote. The artist, a portraitist by trade, renders the faces with extraordinary detail and grace. The bodies are abstractly built from limestone fenceposts. The give weight and dignity to the people pulled to come here to pick our crops, and their armless bodies remind us of their vulnerability.
For many of us, our detachment from the world of agriculture is so strange given that it feeds our economy and our families while having global impacts. Phelps identifies this as the "gap between maker and user" and the show organizers recognize that being in Santa Paula provides a unique opportunity to bring people from different walks of life together. Arts patrons get a sense of the deep reservoir of knowledge found in the agricultural community. For Nichols, this is a measure of the show's success. "By raising awareness of this complex system," says Nichols, "we are enabling social change through art."
This makes for interesting conversation. The photograph, Frost Blankets on Mandarins, by John Krist served as grounds for an argument. The semi-abstract black and white image features an orchard covered in a long shroud of gauzy cloth. It is sensual: the
eye breathes in the light and wave of line, while the body senses the contrasting textures of tree and fabric. During the opening, Nichols overheard an argument over the photo between two visitors, one insisting that the image was not of frost blankets, but of barriers to bee pollination so that the fruit would be seedless. The artist wasn't there to settle it but, given that he is also the CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura
County, bets were probably made in favor of his title.
The unique perspectives that artists and agricultural workers bring to a piece of art is the subject of a video project that the museum is launching. In the first of ten videos, Victor Shiro's oil painting, "Pleasant Valley Lemon Orchard," is discussed by the artist and by Al Guilin, an agricultural professional. Shiro talks about his technical approaches to color and composition as well as his desire to memorialize the lost groves of his childhood, while Guilin takes note of the well tended and topped citrus trees, beneficial insects and other farming details.
Art About Agriculture's historic location in the heart of a town built by oil prosperity and preserved by recent economic troubles, creates an even deeper resonance between the art and the imagining of place. Santa Paula, and its newly established cultural corridor, becomes a piece in the show itself. The Santa Paula Art Museum, opened in 2010, is in the historic Limoneira headquarters. The Oil Museum is around the corner in the former Union Oil headquarters. Across the railroad tracks in the Mill Building is the Agriculture Museum, which just opened in 2011. Its location is a community landmark. Built in 1887 to store agricultural products for shipment by train, the building then served for fifty years as the local feed and supply store and displayed the owner's "unique collection of saddles, tack, photos, newspaper clippings and cattle brand boards," which still remain. Interwoven in this walk are the Murals of Santa Paula, nine multi-cultural murals throughout downtown "by some of the nation's most accomplished muralists," says the website. Top that off with a ride on the Heritage Valley Train and you would have quite an adventure on your hands this weekend.