Naive Painting That's Anything But Naive

IN everyday parlance, the term ``naive'' calls up lack of savvy. In art, ``naive art'' describes untrained artists who work without rules or sophistication, letting their imaginations romp. They produce fantasies full of delightfully awkward perspectives, crude but charming drawing, and queer subject matter. The term ``naive'' was specifically coined to describe 19th-century artists who came to art late in life from unrelated careers with no formal art education. Their whimsical scenes, filled with childlike freshness and mystery, inspired the name. And it was this unfettered art of the late 1800s that helped move painting from the traditional and academic into modern art - whose very essence rests on the freedom to imagine anything.

The naive impulse sits at the core of art movements such as Surrealism, Dada, and German Expressionism, and the unencumbered vision of naive artists thoroughly fascinated the early modern artists. Picasso is said to have held a coming-out party for the awkward and shy Henri Rousseau after seeing one of his small, queer paintings propped in the corner of a Parisian currio shop.

In the topsy-turvy world of 20th-century, artwork by primitive artists like Rousseau command prices that are anything but naive. The rare, truly gifted primitive artist who actually hits the art scene today is quickly absorbed into the commercial whirlwind.

The question becomes: In jaded 20th-century urban culture, where innocence is fleeting, can anything approaching a ``naive'' artist exist? I tend to think not, but Santa Barbara, Calif., painter Ralph Auf der Heide disagrees. Under his name on his business card are the words, ``naive under glass painting.''

Auf der Heide meets at least one criteria of a naive artist. He spent his professional career selling audio equipment and has no formal art training. He's always been fascinated by art and tinkered with jewelry making and silver smithing. He's traveled extensively in Europe, and his resume ingenuously lists international museums whose holdings he's ``seen first hand.''

``I was on a camping trip in Eastern Europe in 1984. We visited hundreds of museums and saw miles of madonnas. Then I bumped into the work of the local peasant artists in Yugoslavia and Hungary who painted these wonderful rough little scenes on sheets of glass. I thought to myself, `that's great, that's something I can do.'''

Inspired, Auf der Heide came back to the United States and began painting for the first time in 1987. Instead of the too-fragile glass he began painting on Plexiglas. ``The demands of painting on the reverse side of a smooth transparent surface are rigorous and unexpected. That makes you keep your mind open and it doesn't allow you to fall back on old tricks used by artists for eons.

``Because the paint is applied to the back side of the transparent surface and intended for viewing through it, you're really painting in reverse,'' explains Auf der Heide. ``The process of laying down imagery is quite the opposite of traditional painting. You put down the images closest to the viewer first. For instance, the foreground trees are painted, then overlaid on top of these go the mid-ground figures, and last the distant mountains. You can't mix paints on the surface like you can on canvas so there's not a lot of margin for error. You really need to figure everything out in advance.... Sloshing around paint like some of these abstract artists today just wouldn't work.''

Auf der Heide says the technique is physically demanding. He uses tiny brushes with exceptionally long bristles that absorb the shaking of his hand and allow for the minute, sharp detail which is his trademark.

But for all the trouble with his technique, there are benefits. There is no canvas to absorb light or diminish the luminosity of colors. Light travels through pigments so that colors are brilliant and acute. There is no texture on glass so every line and contour sings with a crisp clarity that gives Auf der Heide's work its sharpness.

His painted scenes often continue onto handmade wood frames which Auf der Heide carves. A tiger's tail or the branches of a bare winter tree will coil out all over the frame's wood borders. ``When you listen to a piece of classical music, like Debussy, there is nothing to dictate where it ends, it could end at any number of stanzas. I figured I could give that same quality of continuing indefinitely to my painting. I like the idea of the scene or the energy continuing on and on like the lingering cadences in music....''

The charm of the paintings, however, is that the artist gives free rein to humor. The small painting, ``Turnabout,'' has the pristine charm of an Indian miniature and the silly wit of Hanna- Barbera. A brilliant yellow tiger lounges like an odalisque on a bright pink divan while the mounted heads of a hunter and his native guide adorn the animal's comfortable sitting room. ``I was going to put the skin of a woman under the couch but my wife said that would be tacky,'' kids Auf der Heide. That is his particular gift, to keep everything looking outrageously innocent, yet just this side of corny.

Much of his work chronicles the southern California lifestyle: a landmark fountain tilts down precariously like the drawing of a preschooler; in ``Santa Barbara Bowling Green'' a huge tree canopies a lush span of grass where lawn bowlers look like colorful confetti dots and a tiny greens keeper lifts up the corner of the lawn like a carpet to sweep dried leaves underneath.

AUF DER HEIDE also exhibits in Santa Fe where his pieces are sold almost as quickly as they are hung. Particularly popular (and wry) are his ``Low Maintenance Fish Tanks,'' made of three layers of free-standing Plexiglas onto which he paints tropical fish.

Some of the artist's most compelling works have an eerie mystery one can only liken to the strangeness we sense in old fairy tales, where trees come to life in darkened forests and inanimate objects have sinister charm. In ``Night Wind'' a palpable breeze sweeps through a moonlit courtyard while a female tuba player rides past on roller skates. When I ask how he came to such a strange image, the artist laughs, there's a knowing pause, and then, ``Don't all women play tuba in the moonlight?'' Naive indeed.

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