It started in a dark hallway of Chula Vista High School more than four decades ago. Its first exhibition was a one-man show of paintings and collages by an obscure National City artist that offended and outraged most of the faculty, administration, and local art lovers. As a true child of the turbulent sixties, its exhibitions were controversial, generating public demonstrations and stirring much lively discussion. More than 40 years later, the Southwestern College (SWC) Art Gallery, the only one in South San Diego County, continues to be a mecca of cultural activity.
“The Southwestern College Art Gallery is a world-class gallery with physical attributes as good as any other gallery in the county,” said its co-director, Vallo Riberto, also an adjunct instructor at the College’s School of Arts and Communication. “The SWC Art Gallery is a hidden treasure more people should know about.”
Established in 1961, the Art Gallery was created to com-plement the Art Program at Southwestern College. It occupied a dark hallway of the Chula Vista High School, the first home of Southwestern College. Three years later, the College moved to its permanent home in East Chula Vista and the Art Gallery went with itgrowing along with the rest of the College.
“It just seemed to be automatic, the responsible thing to do,” said Bob Matheny, founding faculty of the Art Gallery and its director until 1968. “We wanted to give the students more exposure...We went ahead and had shows that I thought were important.”
The Art Gallery’s first exhibit was a solo exhibition by John Baldessari, a then unknown artist from National City, who in 1966 went on to become an SWC faculty member and whose work is now nationally and world-renowned. His contemporary, abstract-expressionist pictures were not very well liked by the College administration, faculty, and local residents. The Gallery’s monthly exhibitions, which were often accompanied by panel discussions, lectures, and art purchase awards, were hailed by critics as “riotous” and “provocative” and generated so much controversy that they often led to protests and demonstrations.
The stimulating 60s gave way to a more subdued period for the Art Gallery, which in later decades offered fewer shows. During the 80s and 90s, its profile diminished somewhat, but those early interactions became part of the rich history of Southwestern College and its strong ties to the South Bay community. Today, the SWC Art Gallery offers a variety of visual arts exhibitions, promoting local artists. However, Riberto and co-director, Elizabeth Sisco, are hoping to begin a new era for the Art Gallery.
“We want to get the campus and the overall community more excited about art,” said Sisco, also an art professor at SWC. “Its great to show local artists but we also want to bring artists from throughout the country and across the border.”
To do that, the Gallery recently went through an extensive renovation of its more than 2,400 feet of exhibition space and, for the first time ever, it will be open on Saturdays in an effort to attract more visitors and recuperate the visibility it once had. The Gallery’s directors also hope to establish an endowment, secure an operational budget, and conduct a series of fund-raisers, which will include a “Night with the Collector” and the sale of some pieces of its permanent collection.
“The Gallery is a dynamite venue for displaying name brand exhibitions and we are the only art gallery in the South Bay,” added Riberto. “The South Bay is a burgeoning community and we want to present shows that are going to be significant to the region.”
Riberto and Sisco are already taking the Art Gallery in a different direction.
The Gallery launched its 2004 season with Political Pathways, a politically charged, mixed media exhibition addressing current issues such as energy use, gender, and sex, and the U.S. involvement in international conflict. Now it is preparing for The Human Figure, a figurative art exhibition by Hugo Crosthwaite, K. D. Benton, and Andrea Steorts.
The work of these three artists, each with a dramatically different approach to interpreting the human figure, will be on display from March 11-April 7. All exhibitions are free and open to the general public.
The Human Figure will highlight Crosthwaite, a Tijuana artist and SWC alumnus, whose work consists mostly of large-scale pencil and charcoal drawings on wood panels of varied sizes and which contrasts classical figurative representation with the Tijuana landscape. His work also represents the stressed drama and turbulent emotions of 19th century romanticism.
Steorts’ work also explores a classical approach to the human figure and takes its inspiration from the early Italian Renaissance. Her exquisitely detailed portraits of woman are also inspired by her travels in the Middle East and Latin America. A San Diego resident, she spends her summers in Tuscany, Italy, and is currently preparing for exhibitions in Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
For her part, K.D. Benton presents a series of paintings and pastels that employ a fleshy realism that depict a cacophony of colorful characters, which she refers to as “my beautiful people.”
The Human Figure will be on display from March 11 through April 7. An opening artists’ reception will take place Thursday, March 11 at 6:00 p.m. in the Art Gallery Patio*. Gallery hours are 10-2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6-8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 1-4 p.m. Saturday.