Benjamin Brode

~Fine Art~

Santa Barbara News-Press


ART REVIEW : Ode to a Vanishing California - Plein air painter Benjamin Brode built up an impressive series of paintings in celebration of a place near Lompoc, as seen in the show 'Rancho San Julian - A Year in Paint'
"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


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,

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.

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"seeking the spiritual in nature, extracting the essence, putting it on canvas"