WITH SOL: Historians have long mined art for important information about culture: what people in the past wore, how they lived, and what kinds of tools they used. But what can art tell us about the history of nature? Two very different, yet equally compelling exhibitions of paintings currently on view in Santa Barbara indicate that it’s quite a lot. At the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, the radiant early-20th-century sun is getting a very flattering close-up in Luminescent Santa Barbara: Lockwood de Forest (through March 2). These deeply satisfying representational landscapes coalesce around the artist’s reverent treatment of Central Coast solar energy, circa 1904-1923. De Forest, with his express ideal of painting from a “clear mind plate,” embodied one of the initial impulses of what was to become Pacific Rim Existentialism, the huge international cultural wave that swept along such diverse aesthetic path breakers as Isamu Noguchi, Miki Dora, and R. Crumb.
Through his involvement with the importation of fine sculpture and furniture from India in the late 19th century, de Forest absorbed the inner logic of Eastern design culture to a degree unprecedented among American artists of the period. When he reached middle age at the turn of the 20th century, de Forest rediscovered landscape painting and settled in Santa Barbara. At this point, his consciousness was saturated with the mystical undertones of Eastern art, and the resulting images are among the purest, most sincere paintings of natural light imaginable, utterly devoid of the sentimentality that has since rendered so much of the genre kitsch. Canvases like “Rincon Peak from Mission Ridge” (1922), “East Beach” (1912), “Rincon from Montecito” (1912), and “California Sunset, Santa Barbara” (1923) distill the essence of what was then an atmosphere untouched by the effects of carbon emissions, and the delicate colors and fine gradations of tone demonstrate this pristine status.
Fast-forward approximately 100 years and the sunsets of Santa Barbara are if anything more spectacular, yet at what cost? The amazing Technicolor light shows we witness now on a nightly basis occur in part due to the higher levels of carbon dioxide and other contaminants in the atmosphere. In The Carbon Paintings, Richard Aber’s new solo show at the Arts Fund (through February 15), this fact manifests as a series of large paintings in which the artist seeks to reimagine the medium to fit a new ecological epoch. These soft, stretcher-less behemoths were painstakingly assembled on a sewing machine in the artist’s studio, and then hand painted to resemble giant fragments of reflected atmosphere.
Aber grew up in Southern California as the son of an engineer/architect, and these works are the culmination of a decades-long quest to reveal the extent of his sophisticated, art-historically, and environmentally informed awareness of the precarious ecological moment in which we live. By drawing from painting, sculpture, and architecture, Aber has invented a new hybrid form that expresses his conviction that through self-discipline and innovation, the artist may become the proper medium for nature’s message. Although it would be easy at first glance to read these giant irregular grids as minimalist shrouds, upon reexamination and through sustained attention, their surface vitality explodes this initial misperception. While they certainly contain an admixture of warning about the perilous course we are on as a civilization, The Carbon Paintings are, in their own 21st-century way, every bit as celebratory of sunlight, sensation, and vitality as de Forest’s more traditional odes to natural luminescence. Best of all is that, seen together, these two shows form one impression, which is that Santa Barbara remains the center of a powerfully soulful movement in modern art, and one that will continue to make a difference.