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Santa Monica Artists Highlight the Figurative and the Abstract  

By Melonie Magruder
Lookout News

August 5, 2011 -- Despite its somewhat opaque title, “Cultural Abstraction, Contemporary Figurations: The Works of Seven Contemporary Figurative Painters in Santa Monica,” the latest exhibit at the Annenberg Community Beach House shows enough figurative, easily identifiable images that even your five-year-old will appreciate the “pretty pictures.”


But let your eyes linger a moment longer and you’ll start to question just what it is you are seeing.

Artist Katheen Melian’s oil painting “Dog Days” features a young woman in a white swim suit reclining on a bright green sofa, her white-framed sun glasses and white bracelets seeming to adorn another California “It” girl lazing away another entitled afternoon. But what’s with the oversized hand, the bottle of purple soda pop, the decorated background?

In Francisco Cabas’ “The Elusive Experience of Healing,” a thick-maned lion is devouring a man headfirst, his placid face giving way to a trail of arteries ripped from their housing in a graceful ballet of innards and forest flora. The colors are lush and elemental… but healing? Mmm, not so much.

Co-curator of the exhibit (along with Abdul Mazid), Cabas said he hopes that the ambiguity seen in such images will “open up the conversation” for casual viewers, who come in to enjoy just the aesthetic value of the art.

“There is a narrative in the paintings that draws you into it, if you take a minute to look at it,” Cabas said. “Yet, the color and imagery will appeal to a child who knows nothing about art. People connect with figurative art, but the abstractions here carry you into the story. It’s very complex, very emotional.”

Cabas, Mazid and the other featured artists are current or former students involved with Santa Monica College’s widely praised Art Mentor Program.

Beyond networking, it’s a curriculum designed to help talented students achieve post-graduate programs and transition into professional careers. They work intensively with faculty members, visiting artists and fellow students in developing individual bodies of work.

The works here can spur an uneasiness, like waiting for the other shoe to drop, or an unexpected end to the story.

Elizabeth Weber’s oil on canvas, “I’m Coming,” depicts a woman floating almost spectrally down a stairwell. From the set of her mouth, you’re not sure if it’s reluctance or defiance that is pulling her slowly toward you. But whoever is waiting at the bottom of those stairs apparently has a lot to atone for.

Quinne Larsen’s ink illustrations on paper have a hint of the graphic novel, innocent fairy tale scenes with a perturbing patina. Alice is presiding at another tea party, but you’re not sure whether her (much larger) surrounding companions will protect or gulp her down. Red Riding Hood, deep in this forest, hasn’t a chance.

But perhaps the most riveting is a large portrait by Kathleen Melian called “Travis,” an inscrutable young man whose face leaps out at you in thick smears of orange and blue. Artist Chuck Close, whose work this pays tribute to, is known to have the disease Prosopagnosia, a disorder rendering sufferers unable to recognize faces. You will always recognize “Travis.”

“Most artists are attracted to creating figurative art at some point in their lives,” Cabas said. “Here, we’re trying to shine a light on the process of abstraction, by zeroing in on the different parts that make up the whole.”

“Cultural Abstraction, Contemporary Figurations: The Works of Seven Contemporary Figurative Painters in Santa Monica” is part of the Beach=Culture program supported by the City of Santa Monica Cultural Affairs. The exhibition runs at the Annenberg Community Beach House through November 13. More information may be found at


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