With Venice artist Laddie John Dill as juror, the Santa Monica gallery displays the 49 winners of its annual California Open

By Michael Aushenker

Former aerospace engineer Jack Barnhill’s “African Schoolgirls”

Former aerospace engineer Jack Barnhill’s “African Schoolgirls”

The call for art went out from Santa Monica all over California, and more than 500 artists responded.

This week, TAG Gallery at Bergamot Station begins exhibiting the 49 winners of its 9th annual California Open Juried Competition.

The exhibit, which soft-opened yesterday, kicks off in earnest with Saturday’s opening reception. Among the 49 winners, Venice’s Marian Crostic and Playa del Rey’s Jack Barnhill and Jenie Eitel will be greeting guests.

Last year, art critic and KCRW personality Edward Goldman (“Art Talk”) chose the winning entries. This year’s official juror, Venice-based fine artist Laddie John Dill, had the daunting task of choosing winners among 1,997 entries from 540 artists. A total of 53 pieces hangs in TAG’s show.

“I felt I had to find criteria in which to set up boundaries so that I could make intelligent choices that were relevant to each individual work. Not an easy task,” Dill said of sifting through many, many jpegs.

He deemed the group “a healthy diversification of the definition and approach to art-making, whether it be a self-portrait in oil or a social statement in technology.”

A graduate of Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles (later CalArts), Dill has forged a 40 year-career in art, employing a variety of natural elements, including cement, glass, metal and oxides, in ways that garnered him the mentorship and support of master abstract expressionists Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Robert Irwin.

Crostic’s “SALT | AIR” series of photographs were snapped at Venice Beach pre-sunrise in 2013 and this year.

Eitel, who grew up studying fine arts on the small island of Kauai, has been inspired by her mother’s watercolors of native flora. She creates non-representational abstractions reminiscent of the vibrant landscapes of her childhood home.

A decade ago, Barnhill, then 50, began studying at Otis College of Art and Design.

“I took drawing classes from Linda Jo Russell and Chris Warner, and painting lessons from Franklyn Liegel and Laddie John Dill,” Barnhill said.

“Having lived all over the world, I was always drawn to the diverse beauty and complexity of the human face. Portraiture expresses this fascination with humanity,” continued the artist, who paints in oil and acrylic. “My process involves photographing my models and manipulating the image in Photoshop. I then produce a detailed drawing on paper or directly on the canvas or panel.”

Dill vividly remembers the quality of the work submitted by Barnhill, Crostic and Eitel.

“Jack Barnhill, aside from being a master draftsman, approaches oil painting as if it were alchemy,” Dill said. “Marian Crostic’s work had a genuinely surreal feeling to her landscape. I also found her use of medium unique. The most contemporary of the three was Jenie Eitel, whose work addresses today’s issues in painting with a sure-handed approach to her medium.”

This is the second California Open appearance for Barnhill. The former engineer, who retired from the armed forces and the aerospace industry, had work selected in 2010.

Also that year, Barnhill returned to Otis’ Westchester campus — this time as an instructor. He currently leads the class “Trompe-L’Oeil and Realism,” teaching Renaissance masters’ techniques.

For the current California Open, Barnhill submitted a self-portrait that has won top honors at various shows and a portrait of African school girls, also a crowd-pleaser.

“I enjoy seeing people’s reactions to my work,” he said. “It’s fun to go to a show and stand to the side and see how people react to it. It hits different people in different ways.”

Barnhill, Crostic, Eitel — “all three artists stood out amongst the 2,000, not only based on local criteria, but, more precisely, on a national or international criteria, proving Los Angeles to be considered seriously in the international arena,” Dill said.

TAG’s California Open officially kicks off with a reception and awards ceremony from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday and continues through Aug. 29 at TAG Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Ste. D3, Santa Monica. (310) 829-9556; taggallery.net