At Oceanside Museum of Art, ‘A Kind of Heaven’ explores alternate worlds

"Ubuntu" by Kirsten Zirngibl is a part of an exhibit at Oceanside Museum of Art titled "A Kind of Heaven."
(Courtesy of Oceanside Museum of Art)
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The exhibit, which opened Saturday, brings together some of Southern California’s best contemporary visionary artists

At the Oceanside Museum of Art, the future is here. Sometimes it’s bright and shiny, other times it’s dark and foreboding. Either way, it’s strange and captivating.

“A Kind of Heaven,” which opened Saturday, brings together some of Southern California’s best contemporary visionary artists. Their colorful look at alternate worlds of mysterious landscapes and supernatural creatures are part “Blade Runner,” part Salvador Dalí.

“I was particularly interested in finding art that’s beautiful and appealing, but also kind of alien,” said Michael Pearce, the exhibition’s curator who is also an artist, author and a professor of art at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

“Visionary artists are usually interested in utopian visions and an idealized fantasy world,” he said. “But that has mutated. Right now, we’re in this very interesting place where the visionary artists are making stuff which is visionary from the point of view of alternate intelligences, so the utopian aspect of it is kind of beautiful but disturbing to us, which is really interesting. 

“I think that there are forces in our society these days which are changing our aesthetic quite dramatically with artificial intelligence and machine art. Artificial intelligences don’t understand beauty in the same way that humans understand beauty.”

"Finding Myself" by Mandy Cao is a part of an exhibit at Oceanside Museum of Art titled "A Kind of Heaven."
(Courtesy of Oceanside Museum of Art)

The nearly 60 pieces in the exhibition range from oil paintings to interactive media to computer-generated art. Although the 16 artists are very different in style, they all offer escapism to an alternate reality.

“I wanted to capture this idea of a questionable kind of heaven, which isn’t quite what we thought it was going to be … we have come to this place where we’re not sure about what the world looks like in the future.  The future has become uncertain and fraught with mutation and strangeness. It’s unfamiliar. We don’t know where we’re going.  And so I chose ‘A Kind of Heaven’ because it’s not necessarily our kind of heaven. It’s a different kind of heaven.” 

Pearce’s own work in the exhibition, titled “Presence,” is an oil painting based on an image created through artificial intelligence. It’s a landscape with a pond and a large ominous bubble floating over it and a series of smaller tuftlike bubbles. Artificial intelligence images are created through keywords and algorithms.

“It’s a very different kind of beauty, and there’s a sort of tendency towards mutation and strange forms that one wouldn’t think of as being beautiful,” Pearce said.

Kirsten Zirngibl creates fantastical computer-generated cityscapes and uses artificial intelligence in her artwork. She thinks of AI as a tool that you can converse with, and she used it to create the painterly effect she wanted in a piece called “Plantistructure.”

“One of my goals is to depict the deep future,” Zirngibl said. “There’s a balance between the structural and the fluid.” The San Diego-based artist calls her colorful art where geometric patterns repeat and flow “scifidelic,” but her inspirations are rooted in the present, and include nature, microbiology, minerals and mathematical fractals.

And while artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly sophisticated in imitating the human imagination, the works in “A Kind of Heaven” are mainly the product of the human brain.

Cliff McReynolds, who is also based in San Diego, is one of the founders of the California visionary arts movement. Visionary art began in the psychedelic ’60s and found its footing in film and music with posters and albums covers.

McReynolds, a devoted Christian, paints his vision of heaven as a place of mystical power and beauty. His pieces include whales floating in the clouds and a glowing tree rising from the ocean. His paintings are often named after the scripture that provided the inspiration.

“His kind of heaven is still very odd,” Pearce said. “It doesn’t match to stereotypical versions of heaven.”

"Second Chapter of Eden" by Guy Kinnear is a part of an exhibit at Oceanside Museum of Art titled "A Kind of Heaven."
(Courtesy of Oceanside Museum of Art)

Guy Kinnear also touches on the spiritual in his paintings, inspired by golem, an image that is given life in Jewish folklore. Kinnear, who lives in central California, creates large clay and paper figures and lets them age and crack in the sun. Then he puts them into the landscape and paints them in oil, sometimes setting them on fire.

In Kinnear’s apocalyptic “Breathe Against Babel,” a fiery tornado-like structure towers over two small paper figures.

“That’s a pretty amazing painting,” Pearce said. “It has such deep roots into our history, but he’s doing something with it which is so very contemporary. You’ve got these fragile little paper figures that are kind of sheltering in the foreground. They’re very sympathetic. And then there’s this kind of tornado of fire in the sky and a very impressive-looking machine-like tripod, sort of like H.G. Wells in ‘War of the Worlds.’”

Many visionary artists find work in sci-fi world of the movie and video game industry.

Victor Adame Minguez has been so busy creating otherworldly creatures for fantasy games, he rarely has time for his own art. When the San Diego artist painted his first personal work in years, he combined his love for the West and cowboys with the movie and comic book aesthetic he grew up with. The result is “Night Smoke,” with a fully armed cowgirl riding an airborne vessel that is part horse, part motorcycle.

“I want to create worlds that inspire people’s imagination,” Minguez said. “I want people to look at (a painting) and imagine a story behind it.”

“A Kind of Heaven” will be the first exhibition where Minguez will have personal work shown.

“It’s a new refreshing show that it hasn’t been seen before in a museum context,” Pearce said. “Visionary art really was born in California and it’s good that California is leading the way into visionary art again.”

‘A Kind of Heaven’

When: Through Aug. 21

Where: Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way, Oceanside

Admission: $10; $5 for ages 65 and older; free for students, military and children 18 and under

Phone: (760) 435-3720

Online: oma-online.org

Schimitschek is a freelance writer.

"Night Smoke" by Victor Adame Minguez is a part of an exhibit at Oceanside Museum of Art titled "A Kind of Heaven."
(Courtesy of Oceanside Museum of Art)