"Grazing Time," above, "Venus Rising," below, and "Tejado Rojo,"
at bottom, are the work of San Diego native plein air painter Benjamin Brode, who
captured the still-undeveloped region outside of Lompoc.
June 18, 2010 7:15 AM
BENJAMIN BRODE, 'RANCHO SAN JULIAN — A YEAR IN PAINT'
When: through June 30
Where: The Barn, 828 Santa Barbara St.
Gallery Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and by appointment
Information: 689-4870, studiobrode.com
To find painter Benjamin Brode's fine and evocative exhibition "Rancho San Julian
— A Year in Paint," head up Santa Barbara Street to Our Daily Bread and look
left down a driveway. There, one finds splendor on canvas, in one of those charming
tucked-away spaces in town, a converted garage, as part of Christopher Detzel Architecture.
Somehow, the casual inspiration of the semi-makeshift gallery context feels just
right for this particular project, an impressive example of plein air painting with
a cause and a concept. The venue itself is a jewel hiding in plain sight, not unlike
the Rancho San Julian itself, a treasured natural expanse not far off the 101 in
Santa Barbara's North County.
Rancho San Julian is a prized and historic parcel of unspoiled land up by Lompoc,
with roots going back to the De La Guerra family and the Spanish land grants of
the mid-19th century. It was on this sprawling property that Brode set up his easel
and spent a year — so far — seeking out scenes and accidental epiphanies,
at the invitation of the working ranch's owners, Jim Poett and Marianne Partridge.
In addition to the inherent allure and varied terrain of the property itself, a
prized subject for any plein air painter, Brode found himself registering nostalgic
connections with his own nature-encrusted childhood growing up on rustic environs
near San Diego. His childhood stomping grounds have long since been denaturalized
and torn asunder by the proverbial developer's bulldozer, but San Julian prevails
against Californian odds.
More than just a random group of paintings, "A Year in Paint" comes together in
macro and micro ways. Images of singular scenes on this property are diverse and
continuous enough to add up to a grand visual essay on the sense of the lay of this
particular land. To an appropriately lesser degree, he makes passing acknowledge
of the ranch's modest structures. As a whole, the set of paintings is filtered and
given focus through one artist's vision and semi-impressionistic style.
He takes in the scenery by day and also by night. "Venus Rising" is a nocturnal
scene, with Venus and a misty moon perched on high above the low-key ranch house
with its lighted porch. Another night scene, "Moonlight on Wisteria," takes in the
fragile, mysterious moon-beamed light on the apparitional violet plant life of wisteria.
The painting puts the wistful back in wisteria.
Many of Brode's canvases are less concerned with the trees than the forest, so to
speak, which is to say massed tree life holds a sure sway over his visual interests.
He specializes in atmospheric observations of resident sense of place and light,
as in the self-descriptive "Foggy Moon." In "Grazing Time," we get a fleeting glimpse
of the ranch's "cash cow," being cattle, but those animal subjects, in a lolling
clutch of bovine, are seen only as a distant implication of a few well-placed brushstrokes.
Brode seems more intrigued by the swaths of pasture and trees, interlocking pieces
of a natural scenario.
In some paintings, the presence of man-made elements appears only as a mildly significant
footnote. The civilizing sight of a white fence is dwarfed by dramatic trees and
shadow play in "La Entrada," while the red-roofed structures in the oddly poetic
"Tejado Rojo" appear to be almost lurking, crouching in the green growth and resplendent
leafage, taking center stage in the composition.
A newer painting, "La Senda," is one of the strongest of the lot, a moody exploration
of natural space, light and shadow, with a gentle burst of pink blossoms in a pool
of deep green.
Implicit in the general sweep of Brode's selection of paintings in the show is a
bittersweet paean to a more rural California that is fast disappearing. He makes
the theme explicit in the title of the painting "My California," a deceptively calm
and simple scene with a swooping, rolling expanse of dried brown grass — aka
the euphemistic "California gold" — fringed with green, a vision of scenery
once far more common in the Golden State.
"A Year in Paint" is thus both a lament over endangered landscape realities and
a meditative appreciation for the ample spread of beauty before him — and
now, by extension, us.