Crossing 'Thresholds': Contemporary Art on the Central Coast

Artist Jamie Bruzenak poses with several pieces from the "Thresholds" exhibition, which runs Oct. 4 through Nov. 17 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. | Elliott Johnson-

This month, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art opens its doors to four young dynamic artists determined to foster a dialogue about contemporary art on the Central Coast.

"There's a massive community of people who are hungry for art that's original or contemporary or different," said Adrienne Allebe, one of three local artists featured in the exhibition "Thresholds." "That energy keeps building and building here."

Allebe, Jamie Bruzenak and Nick Wilkinson first approached the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art about three years ago with a proposal for a group show that would reflect "a larger, distinctly contemporary view of our surroundings ... as opposed to one stagnant, easily digested utopian vision."

"This alternative viewpoint is especially important to show in San Luis Obispo County," they wrote, "where unchanging, unchallenging and picturesque depictions of nature dominate." Not content with plein air landscapes of local landmarks, the "Thresholds" artists -- who are all based in the coastal community of Los Osos - take side excursions into the spiritual, psychological and archeological realms.

"Thresholds," running now through Nov. 17, coincides with an exhibition by another up-and-coming San Luis Obispo County artist: "Multifaceted and Polyamorous Paintings by Julia Hickey," which runs through Nov. 3 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. (Also showing at the museum in October is "BODYidentity," an interactive exhibition of photographs by Los Angeles-based artist and scientist Rita Blaik.)

"We are always very interested in finding up-and-coming artists whose careers are about to take off," said Ruta Saliklis, exhibition and development director at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. "We're happy to facilitate that by having them in an exhibition in this area."

According to Saliklis, the museum has made a concerted effort this year to bring in painters, sculptors and others who challenge popular perceptions of the local arts scene. "We've had a season of younger artists (making) more abstract, more process-oriented artwork," she said. "It's great for this area to see."

"Irreconciliable Differences" by Adrienne Allebe
"Irreconciliable Differences" by Adrienne Allebe

Adrienne Allebe: From Paranoia to Peace

Monsters, whether real or imaginary, have always appeared in Adrienne Allebe's work. "I actually love horror movies and violence and gore," said the Central Coast native, describing a childhood filled with ghost stories and UFO fantasies and fueled by personal and national neurosis.

As a graduate student, she'd drive around Los Angeles fantasizing about what huge, earth-shattering event might befall the city -- a mutation-causing virus, perhaps, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Allebe's most recent work, however, moves away from paranoia toward peace.

After studying art at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Allebe earned a bachelor of arts degree at UC Santa Barbara in 2001. It was there that she discovered a book of electron microscope photographs and decided to pursue biomedical illustration.

Unfortunately, Allebe entered the field at a time when publishers were migrating away from handmade drawings and toward digital rendering. After graduating from CSU Long Beach with a master of fine arts degree in illustration in 2004, she returned home to teach; she currently lectures locally at Cuesta College and Cal Poly and at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.

"There are things about living here that are very conducive to making art - the lack of distractions, being able to go into nature ... not having to drive in traffic," said Allebe, who shares a Los Osos studio with Nick Wilkinson. "Those things all allow me to be a better artist."

When her father passed away three years ago, an emotionally fragile Allebe sought solace in her art. "The whole point was to use my artistic practice as a way to meditate and calm myself down," she said, using meticulous, geometric patterns as a starting point.

Now, rather than drizzling paint on paper and interpreting whatever "weird, organic shape" forms there, she begins with a pattern - inspirations include feathers, leopard spots and sparkling waves - and disrupts it. "It's about creating this order and breaking up the predictability of the order with something different," she said, something psychedelic yet spiritual.

"My newer work is more about creating these peaceful connections between mysterious realms," Allebe, 34, explained.

"Small Refuge" by Jamie Bruzenak
"Small Refuge" by Jamie Bruzenak

Jamie Bruzenak: Nature Under Glass

As a child, Jamie Bruzenak would leaf through the pages of Architectural Digest magazine. "I would just imagine myself in these spaces," recalled the artist, who was entranced by "the idea of walking around a corner and finding something new."

In her work, Bruzenak, 35, presents visually stimulating environments for the viewer to inspect and explore - artificial yet organic, contained yet untamed. "I'm trying to create my own little garden spaces, my own little worlds," she said, drawing on an ornate aesthetic that's equal parts "Alice in Wonderland" and "Masterpiece Theatre."

Bruzenak, who grew up in Los Osos, graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2006 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting. Yet she didn't paint for a few years after graduation for "personal reasons," she said, before local artists encouraged her to pick up her paintbrush once more.

Bruzenak's paintings reflect both her appreciation for the decorative arts and her fascination with nature, depicting insects, ferns and flowers in cotton candy hues. "I'm obsessed with the idea of gardens and manicured nature," she said, which reflect "the human need ... to want to manipulate your space aesthetically."

As an example, she pointed to the popularity of the Wardian case, a sealed protective container for plants that was the forerunner to today's terrariums. Physician and botany enthusiast Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward invented the case around 1829 to protect his ferns from London's polluted air.

Bruzenak, who's moving in the direction of incorporating more historical architectural elements in her work, see parallels between "our contemporary culture's need for constant reminders of nature" and the Victorian-era urge to "bring these artificially controlled elements of nature inside the home," mirrored by prevalence of natural motifs in 19th century decorative arts.

There's a moral dilemma there as well, she added, a dichotomy between longing to preserve that pristine wildness and yearning to shape one's surroundings.

In "Threshholds," Bruzenak hopes to inspire the same sense of wonder and mystery she experienced as a child peering into tidepools at nearby Montaña de Oro State Park. "You don't know what you're going to find when you're looking in it ... It's like a treasure hunt," she said.

"Psychopomp" by Julia Hickey
"Psychopomp" by Julia Hickey

Julia Hickey: The Language of Layers

If, as Malcolm Gladwell once claimed, it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill,"I'm at hour 3,000," San Luis Obispo native Julia Hickey said.

Her "Multifaceted and Polyamorous" show represents a mini-retrospective charting her creative output from 2010 to 2013. (Her work can also be seen through Dec. 8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara as part of the group show "Call for Entries 2013.")

After graduating from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in studio art, Hickey, 28, studied printmaking at the Oxford Printmakers Cooperative in England. She spent four years on the East Coast with stints in Spain and the United Kingdom before returning to the Central Coast.

"This is a safe space to make stuff to not feel totally judged, to be able to take some risks, to even be able to be a bit lazy at times and have it be okay," Hickey said. "It's been a really nice place to grow."

Here, Hickey said, she's matured as an artist, overcoming the indecisiveness she once struggled with in college. She forced herself to find focus by returning to basics and then working her way back to subtle, self-assured work.

"For me, the paintings are about a desire for control but also a joy of spontaneity," the artist said. "I think a good painting is a combination of both of those things happening."

Indeed, Hickey's abstract oil paintings are designed to keep viewers on their toes.

She combines fast, frenetic brushwork that allows observers to speed through sections of the canvas with solid swatches of color that serve as visual road blocks. "I want the layers to let you in and repel you at the same time. I want the layers to be confusing," she explained.

Each masked, scraped and spray-painted layer represents "a record of decisions that I've made," she said. "When people see this object, even if they don't like abstract painting, there's going to be some interest for them in unpacking the way it was made," she said.

"This show really is a demonstration of somebody figuring out who they are as an artist," Hickey said. "My work has gone from timid and controlled to bigger and more instinctual. It's growth. It's confidence building. It's many hours spent in the paint."

"Tent Teepee Rug" by Nick Wilkinson
"Tent Teepee Rug" by Nick Wilkinson

Nick Wilkinson: Ancient Connections

For Nick Wilkinson, the image of the oasis holds special meaning. "It's meant to represent everything that is precious - life, literally," he said, a fragile, essential source of survival that must be protected at all costs.

That concept represents the jumping off point for his work in "Thresholds."

Wilkinson, who grew up in the Imperial Valley, spent about a decade in San Diego, graduating from San Diego State University with a bachelor's degree in painting and printmaking in 2003. He moved to San Luis Obispo County in 2005 to start Grow, a specialty nursery in Cambria.

"When I first moved here, I definitely felt not part of the art scene. And that was disappointing," recalled Wilkinson, who turned to his nursery as his creative outlet. But after moving to Los Osos and meeting other like-minded artists, he started making art again.

Wilkinson's work, which includes brightly colored, pattern-based paintings and sculptural constructions, reinforces the connection between ancient artists and their contemporary counterparts. It's a kinship he first realized on a trip to Mexico about two years, exploring cave paintings, rock circles and other sites with a group of archeologists.

"It was such an epic experience ... It's one thing to come across an ancient site and go 'That's cool,' but these guys were an inspiration (for me)," Wilkinson said. "Their research drove me to come home and do tons of research about the people of that time."

"When you look back at art from early cultures, a lot of it was rooted in this repetition of line" or symbol, explained the 34-year-old artist, who created his own symbol-based storytelling language. "With my work being a language-based abstraction, there's an idea of this story to be told."

Yet, in much of his work, Wilkinson's meaning behind that abstract and representational imagery is intentionally hidden. "We all want people to have a connection with the work, but it's not important that you come in and you see what my inspiration is," he said. "It's really more about making fabulous abstract paintings."


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