‘Sisyphean Justice’ at the Arts Fund

Woke Show Features Artists of Color from Santa Barbara

“Untitled” by Kevin Claiborne

Kevin Claiborne

“Untitled” by Kevin Claiborne

At this point, most of the expectations generated by the Funk Zone are being met. There’s an abundance of craft beer, local wine, delicious food, and roving bands of festive pedestrians to soak it all up, especially on weekends. It would be easy to assume that, given the ubiquity of good times, serious art might be on its way out of the neighborhood, but Sisyphean Justice, the latest show at the Arts Fund, shows that this is not the case. Artist and curator Kevin Claiborne has landed what has to be one of the most woke shows on the West Coast smack in the middle of the Funk Zone party, and he has done so without leaving town. While the four artists involved — Claiborne, Toni Scott, Matt Brown, and Elisa Ortega — may hail from all over the world, they all currently call Santa Barbara home.

The show’s premise stems from Claiborne’s observation that certain aspects of American race relations seem as stubbornly intractable today as that great boulder did to the mythological Sisyphus at the endlessly repeated moment when it reaches the point when it starts to roll back down. For Toni Scott, a recent graduate of the UCSB MFA program in fine arts, a detailed knowledge of her African and Native American heritage comes together with a densely gestural aesthetic in a suite of works in several media. There are large abstract paintings executed in a single shade of blue, “busts” that more nearly resemble masks wrapped in enigmatic strips of metal, and a single striking sculpture of a woman, armless, larger than life, and labeled simply “Eve.” Like the American transcendentalists of the 19th century, who sought to incarnate an American Adam who might inaugurate a new epoch, Scott appears intent on inverting the sense of cultural belatedness into an ever-early dream of aesthetic priority. Her Eve strides confidently out of some primordial splendor and into a future that we can only imagine.

Around the corner, Elisa Ortega has crafted an elegant and moving installation titled “My American Flag.” Red and blue lengths of yarn stretch in parallel lines of varying length both across the white gallery walls and through wooden boxes. Combined with the white “default” color of the walls, these strands imply that there’s a jazzy tension concealed within the original American symbol of the stars and stripes. Ortega, who became an American citizen in 2018, demonstrates her acute awareness of the high-strung nature of our national DNA, and “My American Flag” is her tribute to that evolving and often awkward aspect of life here. At the other end of the space, Ortega’s piece “The Knot” hangs from the ceiling as, among other things, a reminder of the reality of pain. She’s an important artist and unquestionably one to watch going forward.

Matt Brown’s vivid, colorful paintings externalize some of the contradictory impulses that animate the mental and emotional mindscapes of African-American males today. For Brown, painting offers a way to process the rapid transformation of consciousness being affected by social media. Using emojis, phone fonts, spray paint, and street style, Brown declares that “the future is zombie” without giving away whether he believes that to be a good or a bad thing.

With his contribution, curator Kevin Claiborne continues to straddle the media of painting and photography, balancing crisp, iconic black-and-white photos with messy, dark, and obscure paintings reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg or Edward Kienholz. Thrift-store flags provide Claiborne with a resonant ground from which to conjure his decidedly anxious objects. Sisyphean Justice finds multiple new ways to ask the classic question: “Are you glad to be in America?”

Sisyphean Justice shows at the Arts Fund through March 1.