The University Art Museum opened its doors to four new exhibitions last Wednesday, all of which will be showing through Jan. 31, 2010. The distinct and diverse exhibitions deal with enticing themes, all confronting larger discourses in art in general, that on a more microcosmic level are sure to automatically incite interest in anyone, art lover or not.

The first exhibition, entitled “Forms and Symbols,” deals primarily with abstract objects with recognizable forms and functions that have been re-contextualized so as to distort meaning and create ambiguity, irony, humor and non-recognition, even mere meaninglessness and arbitrariness. The implications here of semiotics and language are compelling, as the artists are essentially playing with a lexicon of symbols and signs and “translating a lost language,” hinting at their own meanings and implications of what various things can evoke or connote and perhaps commenting on the structure of language in general. It’s also interesting to note that many of the objects are isolated, purposely alienated, complicating the spectator’s response to something seemingly familiar or ordinary.

The second and largest exhibition is an amalgamation of various media from various places and times, called “Holiday: Nineteenth Century Travel Photography and Popular Tourism.” The most striking element of these artworks is indubitably the inherent iconicity of the images that one associates with the embodied role of the “tourist” or traveler. Another inevitable facet of the experience is the story it seems to tell, chronologically illustrating mythological imaginaries of history, civilization and the development of industrialization, modernity and urbanism. The effect is grandiose, as one encounters one celebrated monument or ruin after another, and it is certainly large-scale, as with the exotic narratives of Egypt and Japan. While interesting in theory, it is entirely possible that many spectators will easily find the overarching concept cliché and overdone, despite the importance of the images. The surfeit of travel books, guides, maps and narratives are probably the most compelling, as there is something inherently anachronistic, vintage and mysterious about them.

The third exhibition is an installation called “Jillian Mcdonald: Horror Make-Up,” which shows scenes from her 2006 performance-based video. This installation features the artist putting on makeup in the subway and gradually transforming herself into a zombie, and it foregrounds the onlookers’ experiences of becoming voyeurs. It’s also important in the story she tells of the cult of the horror and the ritualistic stylization of beauty practices, and the role this has on contemporary culture.

The fourth installation, “After Life,” deals with death in a very direct, clear-cut way, depicting rituals and events of mourning and death in a highly aesthetic and publicized way. Things that strike one as belonging in the private sphere become oddly performative, resulting in a morbid and violating response, in a distanced, unaffected feeling, and sometimes in general mystification and questioning of whether any of it is supposed to be making any kind of cohesive statement. This collection features art from UCSB’s own Richard Ross, as well as French sculpture and a 1941 painting by the Russian artist Eugene Berman.

Despite your own opinions, reactions or ideas about the presented themes, they are compelling and culturally relevant by default of their nature and worth examining, regardless of point of view.