A Serene Space for Experiencing Art

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Posted by Wendy Barker on March 3, 2020

This article by Anca Colbert was originally published in the Ojai Valley Guide Magazine – Summer 2019 issue. Colbert is an art adviser, curator, writer, and long-time resident of Ojai. It is published here with Colbert’s permission.  ©2019 Anca Colbert – All Rights Reserved. 

canvas and paper                  photo©Stefan Roth

People walking into canvas and paper are in for a surprise.

The approach is slow.

From the outside, one friend thought it was an art supply or a stationery store. Another, a framing shop. The name is simple and it can lead to various interpretations. Spelled in white lower-case letters on a square, grey sign, the name is clearly visible from the street.

Located on Montgomery Street a couple of blocks north of Ojai Avenue, this small California bungalow house looks renovated and appealing. Soft greys, white trims. Two large, square windows flank the entrance. A flagstone path carves its way through a sea of pea gravel, leading to the front door.

So, past the two olive trees, left and right of the paved walkway, you arrive at the front door, which is wide open. You enter into a spacious room, softly lit. You feel you’re about to discover something different.

Indeed, you are.

There are three art works on display. Only three: one on the left wall; one on the right wall; one on the back wall facing the entrance, each identified by the tiniest possible numbered marker, or a small label. The space is deceptively, purposely simple; quiet; spare, but inviting. Natural, filtered light mixes with recessed gallery spots to create an ideal environment for viewing artworks. A sense of warmth and serenity gently embraces the visitor.

The color of the paint on the wall is a light, warm grey, almost white; an ideal choice for showing art. Georgia O’Keeffe’s biography mentions the keen attention she dedicated to choosing the right color for the walls of Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery in New York, and for her own studio: “a neutral grey, a tone that was best for thinking visually.” The color of the wall behind artworks is a serious matter for any art professional. In some circles, it is the subject of endless debate and subtle considerations. The muted tones of the oak wood floor mix light shades of greys with blues and earthy neutrals, adding to the serenity of this visual oasis.

In the center of the space, under six recessed skylights, is a round, soft grey ottoman sofa: the proverbial Circle in the Square concept embodied in this design. Here is a fine place to sit and slowly look at art, if one wants to. Or, just to sit.

In the window alcove, to the right of the entrance, a stylish young woman sits behind an elegant wooden desk with her MacBook, fresh flowers in a small vase, a guest book, and a one-sheet of information about the works on display.

There are no prices listed as the works are not for sale. But for those curious to learn more about the artists or their work, a short bibliography is provided on the verso of the list. She (Alex Jones) welcomes you to take a sheet, if you wish. She will fully engage in conversation and offer information, if you wish. You can talk. Or not.

canvas and paper – “Giacometti: portraits on paper” installation                  Photo©Stefan roth

Is this an art gallery?

It could be. But there are no openings, no parties, and the art is not for sale.

Is this an art museum? Yes, it is, but one with a twist.

What exactly is it then?

It is a gift. A surprising, enigmatic, generous gift from an art-loving Ojai resident to this town renowned for its art-loving artists, residents and visitors. The space is open and free to visit, Thursday to Sunday afternoons.

The website simply states: “canvas and paper is an exhibition space showing paintings and drawings from the 20th century and earlier in thematic and single artist exhibits.”

The first exhibit opened in October 2018, and showcased landscape paintings by modernist British artist Ivon Hitchens. The website documents this and every subsequent exhibit, facilitating online visits.

It was followed by paintings from the 1950s representing three key painters of the Bauhaus and abstract movements: Josef Albers, John McLaughlin and Max Bill. As a group, their works created a palpable, vibrational effect in the space. One could feel the desire to look and to be in a quiet state of mind, inclined to contemplation and meditation. Quoting Josef Albers: “I am interested particularly in the psychic effect-aesthetic experience caused by the interaction of colors.”

The third show offers “portraits on paper” by Alberto Giacometti. Three pencil on paper drawings of three writers – James Lord (Giacometti’s biographer and friend), Jean Stein (author, editor and oral historian) and Jean Genet (French novelist and playwright) – focus on a lesser known aspect of the famous sculptor’s talent. Rather small in size, their presence nonetheless fills the space with a strong evocation of these significant writers and their exceptional lives.

The next show unveils three still life paintings by Jacob Van Hulsdonck (17th century Flemish), and French modern masters André Derain and Georges Braque. It runs from June 27 to September 1.

Josef Albers (German-American) 1888 – 1976 Variant: “With First Green” 1947-1955 – oil on masonite
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Every three months a new group of three works appears, carefully selected by the man behind this project, Neil Kreitman. The art shown at canvas and paper comes from a collection of paintings and drawings assembled by him in recent years.

Born and educated in London, Neil traveled widely and lived in several countries, including years in Greece. He spent twenty years in Los Angeles. As for Ojai, he first lived in the valley between 1988 and 1992, before coming back to settle here in 2010. A quiet man, he speaks softly and slowly, fully engaged as he listens to the visitors.

Growing up Neil was exposed to art collecting by his parents, whose interest was primarily in mid-century modernist British artists. His own earlier interests drew him to South Asian art, mostly of Buddhist inspiration. More recently he re-discovered 20th Century British, American and Western European artists.

What prompted him to create this space?

His lifelong love of art combined with a sincere motivation.

Simply stated: The idea of sharing beautiful things with other people in a beautiful place, with the hope that it will resonate with them. The pleasure of seeing the space evolve as an expression of an idea.” His wish was to create “a space which allows the viewer to feel with no expectations, but the intention is to tell a small part of the bigger story.” Like its architecture and its gardens, this art space is a book open for interpretation.

It took two years for Neil to turn his vision into reality, transforming the property into its current incarnation. He credits the process and its result to four people closely involved with him in the creation of the space: “The architect on the project was Jane Carroll, the garden was designed by my partner Sarah Munster, Kerry Miller was the contractor, and the floor was made by Mike Bennett. It was a collaborative endeavor and it involved a lot of dialogue.”

Rear garden with fountain – photo©2019 Stefan Roth

There are infinite ways to discover art and to experience it. From the emotional to the esthetic, the connection to art covers the rich range of human perception.

Here, at canvas and paper, the space has been carefully designed to allow freedom for a close look at art. The environment engages the viewer in a singular, intimate relationship with the artwork and its maker. Go into the garden. Walk around slowly. It is a serene place for meditation.

Time stands still around here. If you allow it. So does the mind. Let the eyes be quiet, to look and to see.

In art as in music, significance is defined by what is present and/or absent, by what’s there and what’s not; we feel the difference and savor this rare experience whose meaning is shaped by its context.

In the increasingly fast paced, noisy environment of most contemporary art galleries, fairs and even museums, visitors crowd the venues and spent on average 20 seconds with any one work. There are expectations and demands as one enters these places, the traditional and ever more popular temples for art devotees: to look; to learn; to move; to comment; to buy; to take pictures and selfies and share them, fast. The noise and the movement replace the experience itself.

Not surprisingly, a contrarian trend has developed in recent years: the “slow art” movement.

Slow Art Day is “a global event with a simple mission: help more people discover for themselves the joy of looking at and loving art.” An annual event held in April, there were 175 “slow art day” venues around the world in 2019, most of them in museums. The formats vary, but “what all the events share is the focus on slow looking and its transformative power.”

What a surprise to find in our own town a space for experiencing art in an intimate setting, free of noise, demands and expectations, a calm place where we can enjoy a slower pace for contemplation, for spending five to ten minutes or more looking at one single artwork floating on an entire wall. Facilitating an authentic engagement in a tête-à-tête with art – and with oneself – is a rare occurrence. It makes for a refined art experience. Democratic, yes. Banal, no. Intimidating, it could be. Privileged, yes. Demanding, yes and no. Depends on what each person makes of it.

canvas and paper holds a delicate balance, a delicious line undulating between simplicity and complexity.

Step inside. Take time to look, observe and feel: you may be surprised by what develops.

Neil Kreitman photo ©2019 Norman Clayton
Back wall: Alberto Giacometti’s “Portrait of Jean Stein” – 1962, pencil drawing

Comment (1)

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Drew Mashburn March 9, 2020 at 4:44 pm

Wendy,

As you are aware, I just returned from Paris and London. While there, my wife, son and I visited the Lourve, the Orsay and the National Gallery. I just finished reading Colbert’s fine article. Now, visiting “canvas and paper” is on my list!

— Drew Mashburn

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