03/14/2013 04:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Escape to Santa Barbara, Malibu, and Oxnard

What would you say about a person who--in the matter of a few hours--would zoom in and out of three cities? In my case, Malibu, Oxnard and Santa Barbara... The only excuse for such a mad dash, of course, is the promise of a good exhibition further down the road.

Pepperdine University's Malibu campus, with its gorgeous ocean views and lush grounds, is a well-known SoCal landmark, but finding its Frederick Weisman Museum of Art, tucked away in a corner of the vast campus, requires a little effort.


The current exhibition, Illustrating Modern Life: The Golden Age of American Illustration from the Kelly Collection, deals with a particular period in American history--from the late 1800s to the 1930s--a period that coincides with the rise of popular monthly magazines, well before radio and TV became our major source of information. One of the jewels of this private collection is an image used as a Saturday Evening Post cover--a superb painting by Norman Rockwell, Dreaming of Adventure, with its middle-aged office-worker daydreaming of a seafaring escape.

Going through the exhibition, one admires the technical virtuosity of most of the work, but it also becomes clear that, along with most of the American public at that time, these artists were not interested in the latest developments in modern art. But as the private collectors who've spent decades assembling this treasure trove of cultural material, Richard and Mary Kelly deserve a compliment for finding a focus and direction for their collecting, a feat rather rare amongst private collectors.


To get from Malibu to Santa Barbara is less than an hour drive along a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most picturesque roads in the country. One of the current exhibitions at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art consists of more than fifty black and white photographs by Danny Lyon, presenting him as a leading figure in the American street photography movement of the 1960s, along with such contemporaries as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.


While the artworks I saw at the exhibition at the Weisman Museum emphasized the privilege and aspirations of middle and upper middle class life, here at SBMA, Danny Lyon embraces America at its margins. His iconic photo of a leather-clad motorcyclist speeding across a bridge, head turned back into the wind, evokes Jack Kerouac himself, "on the road" again.

In another photo dealing with the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South, you see black prisoners searched by a white guard. Whatever their crimes might be, this image screams of the shameful inequalities that stained this period of American life.


The SBMA also has a distinguished history of celebrating Latin American modern art. Several years ago, the museum pulled off an impressive retrospective of the Mexican master Rufino Tamayo. But now the museum grand hall is showcasing a more comprehensive exhibition, Myth and Materiality: Latin American Art from the Permanent Collection, 1930-1990, with aesthetic styles ranging from figurative, to surrealist, to folk, to abstraction. With its paintings, photos and sculptures, this exhibition demonstrates the unique ability of these artists to digest the latest developments in modern art without losing the uniqueness and earthiness of their national cultures.


I have passed the city of Oxnard probably hundreds of times, but never stopped. But this past weekend, I finally had a good reason to make an inaugural visit to Oxnard's Carnegie Art Museum, where a good friend of mine, the Ohio-based artist Gary Lang, has an exhibition of several dozen text-based acrylic paintings on wood panel and paper. All of them serve as the pages of his personal diary, with words and thoughts streaming--and sometimes screaming--at you and into the space. It's not always easy to read these paintings, but there is still enough pleasure there in absorbing the syncopated rhythms of his compositions and the dynamics of his vibrant colors.


I was fascinated to learn that the museum building, now more than a hundred years old, was originally a part of the famous Carnegie library system. It was one of the 1,678 public libraries funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie all across the United States between 1891 and 1920. Yes, those were the times when millionaires had not only huge egos but also a sense of noblesse oblige. You cannot help but love the neoclassical architecture of this Carnegie Art Museum--a feverish romantic vision of a Greek temple sprouting in the middle of the American Wild West.