One Saturday night during Art Beat, downtown Oxnard's monthly art walk, I struck up a conversation with a woman while at the Carnegie Art Museum. Having driven from her home in Thousand Oaks, she shared that she often made the pilgrimage to the Carnegie because it was, for her, an Art Institute of Chicago of her own.
I knew exactly what she meant by that comment. While a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we were given memberships to the museum, allowing us to come and go as desire would direct. I often spent a visit in the company of just one work of art. In contrast, trips to huge museums, whether in Los Angeles, Paris or Florence, feel pressured, and overwhelming, as if that one-day pass demanded the consumption of the entire contents of the museum.
The Carnegie is different. The history of its building, as well as its size and setting, engender an intimacy and connection with the art work it shows. With its collection of fine art and ethnographic artifacts and its quarterly exhibitions, the Carnegie presents, promotes and preserves a rich breadth of California art that stretches across movements and periods. Painter David Gallup, whose show, Beneath the Surface: A Closer Look At Our Oceans, opens at the museum this weekend, explains that the strength of the Carnegie lies in its "embrace of the contemporary arts, which have strong ties to traditionalism, yet still advance the artistic directions put in motion by California's masters."
In 1906, Oxnard city leaders petitioned steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to underwrite a library for the growing town. He approved and Oxnard's Carnegie became one of the 1,678 public buildings he built across the country between 1891 to 1920. It was designed by architect Franklin Pierce Burnham who created twelve libraries for Carnegie in Southern California and was considered a "Carnegie specialist." His building in Oxnard is one of three whose original design is still standing.
The building opened in 1907 as a public library with the lower level serving as Oxnard's City Hall until 1949. After a new library was built in 1963, it served various functions until 1987, when it was transformed into the Carnegie Art Museum. Created to house and exhibit the city's formidable art collection, the Carnegie is Ventura County's first museum devoted solely to the arts. This year marks its 25th anniversary and the Carnegie is hosting a gala in September to celebrate.
The setting of the museum first hints at its more intimate relationship to city and citizens. Rather than being housed behind imposing, windowless walls and surrounded by a moat of parking, the Carnegie rises right up off the sidewalk of C Street and sits alongside historic Plaza Park, the small, well-loved green space in the center of downtown. The museum's white Classical Revival exterior boasts a wide and beckoning spill of marble stairs that seem to lift one up above the one-story structures surrounding the building and through a line of soaring Doric columns to a welcoming entrance portico and then inside. Museum director, Suzanne Bellah says she enjoys juxtaposing visitors' experience of the fancy formal exterior with exhibitions of modern, playful, bright and abstracted artworks.
As an adapted building, the interior has its unique quirks, offering nooks and crannies rather than continuous wall space. Bellah takes advantage of this by using the seven distinct display areas, which include rooms, floating walls and a mezzanine, to group pieces together in space and punctuate the exhibits. The walls are a warm French gray from which all things pop- the color, light and life of the artwork, as well as the white columns, moulding and architectural details of the interior. This gray fosters an alert quiet that encourages sitting and staying, which is a good thing, given the quality of work it supports.
The Carnegie uses the designation "California art" less as a box and more as lens or touchstone. Exhibitions may focus on an artistic style particular to California, like the recent selections from the Frederick Weisman Art Foundation that featured California Pop, Hard-Edge Abstraction, and Finish Fetish, or the exhibit, A Luminous Land, a group show of California plein air paintings "capturing California's resplendent light." The museum may present solo shows of nationally and internationally-known artists with deep connections to California, or show local artists with national reputations, like in Homegrown which examined the diverse works of the three Engel brothers, Oxnard natives who carved divergent careers in the arts from their shared childhood seeped in "pop culture, consumer packaging, cars, orange groves, neon and surfing." California collectors are also tapped to share their works.
Bellah encourages collectors and artists to imagine their show in a different way or to include more personal works than they might in a gallery. "Often I will ask an artist, 'Do you have a series that you've never been able to show, or do you have a direction that suits the museum environment rather than the retail environment?' and then it becomes kind of exciting for them because they have a chance to tailor the ideas that are spinning in their mind to a different audience or purpose." This encourages conceptual or emotional themes, like Homesick, the group show organized by photographers Joaquin Trujillo and Brian Paumier, which featured contemporary photography, painting and sculpture that evoked feelings of displacement and nostalgia for home. Or sweeping visual themes approached from a variety of traditions and media, like Splash!: liquid energy spattered, a group show of diverse works by California artists "exploring the impact and experience of water."
Bellah explains that while the focus of the museum is California art, "we like to show diversity within that- diversity of form, medium, style, demographic." The season of headline shows, and the simultaneous smaller shows culled from the collection or sourced from regional artists doing museum-quality work, reflect this commitment to variety and depth as does the Carnegie's permanent art collection.
The City of Oxnard's collection began with the 1922 purchase of Desert Bloom, by Kathryn Leighton, a renowned female portraitist of the Indian nations. It has grown steadily since then and reflects the richness of California's artistic and cultural diversity while housing some unique focuses. As early as the late eighties, the Carnegie began showing and collecting works by California Latino artists, like John Valadez, Patssy Valdez, Gronk, Frank Romero, some of whom played very seminal roles in the Chicano art movement. Bellah says they recognized these artists as a "major force in California art production," before many other museums. The Carnegie also has a distinguished collection of California modernist works from the 40s to the 60s. Presented as In Focus: The Permanent Collection last fall, the exhibit featured smaller or earlier works of artists highlighted by the Getty Pacific Standard Time project, as well as works by professors and instructors that set the stage for that movement.
Running throughout the collection is "an allegiance to objective or broadly realistic painting traditions," that Bellah reminds us "were out of favor and little tough to maintain from the 60s on when abstract expression was so ubiquitous in the art world." There is now a resurgence of these traditions happening, and because of its reputation and collection, the Carnegie is poised to connect the threads of the earlier, interrupted conversations on realism to current movements.
David Gallup, whose show Beneath the Surface runs to August 19th, is very eager to get that conversation rolling. He feels that "the direction taken by the original impressionists was never fully explored, but was instead cut short by the wave of 'new' and 'Modern' art," and there are artists like himself "who seek to expand upon impressionism, to see where it could have gone and explore where it might go with lessons learned from the 'isms' of the 20th Century."
Gallup is a celebrated painter and his series documenting the natural history of the Channel Islands is now a nationally touring exhibit. His paintings in Beneath the Surface focus solely on marine life as seen from above, below or at the waterline, a shift in subject brought about by SCUBA training, which provides him the necessary comfort underwater to charge his memory and imagination with the essences and impressions of a scene. He works from that place in the studio, "capturing color, motion and composition" from his observations then referring to research to confirm anatomical and behavioral accuracy. These works possess the subtle violence of an awakening; mesmerizing light and color piercing consciousness to become form. His love of the surface of painting adds to the sense of otherworldliness.
It is at the surface of the painting where Gallup makes the distinction between commercial impressionism, which ultimately aims to be reproduced, "a process by which all surface qualities are lost or mutated." and the struggle for mastery over subject, imagination and material that brushwork reveals. He says that it is a rarity for a museum to focus a solo show on a living impressionist and that "Suzanne Bellah is one of the few curators of important Art Museums who understands this fundamental difference between commercial impressionism and fine art done in a contemporary impressionist manner."
While the Carnegie hosts this interchange between past traditions and new movements, it also plays a vital role for the community. Bellah calls it "a gateway museum," providing the public museum-quality art and education experiences, giving educators of all age groups opportunities to bring their students into contact with art rather than books, and serving as a gateway for regional artists to gain professional footing on the national stage.
The Carnegie could even serve as a gateway for a visit to Ventura County. Located right off of PCH's stint as Oxnard Boulevard as it runs from the coast to the 101, it is perfect for a drop-in trip. A trip to the museum could easily include a walkabout to take in the historic homes two blocks over, see the Gull Wings Children's Museum across the street, grab lunch in any number of nearby restaurants, or catch a movie across the park- a walkable city experience as nature intended it.