Air Sick

Focus is only half-good for you!

Pot by Lynn Kubasek
Photo by Jack GouldDon't ask the sky caps where to find the art exhibit at John Wayne Airport; for once, it's the Orange County sheriffs holding up the wall who can give you the lowdown. Thanks, sheriffs!

Stay on the upper level—don't listen to those sky caps! They lie most convincingly!—and head through the metal detectors toward Gate 14. Pass the ads for the Hyatt Hotel and Fujitsu Corporation and a book by a former Reg writer about an "undercover cop on the run." They're not part of the exhibit, so far as I know.

Once you get there, feel free to ostentatiously peruse the glass-encased artworks in "Focus VIII: Constructure." Walk slowly. Circle around each work a few times, viewing it from every possible angle. Nod sagely. Cock your head. For a super added effect, take notes. Thoughtfully.

Look at your neighbors, people waiting to get on flights to Las Vegas at Gate 13. With a focused indifference, they are actively avoiding the artworks. It's not the contempt one has for the everyday like those students at UC Irvine have for the triangle-and-cube sculptures they don't even see anymore; it's the disdain for forced culture. Their right to have blank, Zen walls at which to stare has been violated with something that's "good for you," and they don't appreciate it. Not at all.

If those commuters only knew that "Focus" is, in fact, only half-good for you, they might pay close attention.

It's sad to have to point out that respected artist and guest curator Kim Abeles put together what is largely a dull show. I mean, it doesn't all suck, but Assemblage (I'm still physically and psychologically incapable of pronouncing it "Ah-sem-blahj") is so 1995! And quite a few works here aren't even Assemblage anyway.

Jose Lozano's Family Tree is really a charming painting in which he offers up a cartoon image of his grandfather, with quotes like, "My grandfather was a mailman. He involved himself with the wives and daughters of fellow mailmen. He'd meet them in places where my grandmother would find them and cause scandal." Disembodied fingers point at the grandfather, who is hapless and helpless in the middle of the canvas.

I don't usually approve of paintings incorporating words and poetry and such; why paint at all if you have to make your point with words? But in the cases of Lozano (who had a show last year at the Ron Breeden Gallery that featured heartfelt masked Mexican wrestlers and ugly little girls) and Suvan Geer, they're poignant.

Geer, who has several almost identical works in the show, usually manages to incorporate mysterious bits of text into her works (which otherwise are generally visually boring) with an '80s grimy industrial aesthetic. Once one reads her words, you can hear the electricity humming through her works.

In this case, her works aren't mechanized. Rather than point toward a rusting iron future, these works seem like artifacts from an archaeological dig; her rows of open books are coated with substances like dry milk. Even the dustiness seems like it could have come from Mesopotamia. Here and there, bits of text are typed clearly over the otherwise obscured pages. One says, "Hour after hour, they nibble at the shape of the words I'm speaking, they snatch at my breath." It's disquieting, even for Geer, who has a talent for "disquieting."

Some works are less appealing. While Paul Darrow's October Moonhas a nice, encrusted-garbage sunset ambiance to it, the same artist's Relic looks like an old, half-decomposed bedpan. And Ed Giardina! How lazy are you going to get, painting three planks and arranging them in horizontal parallels? Let's hear some cockeyed Conceptual explanation for that! Perhaps the sedimentation of time, or the walls we erect as fortresses around our fortified homes? Call me up, Ed! I want to hear it! I did like one of his pieces, though. Up and Down #3is painted cocoa and then crisscrossed with two chocolate-brown 2-by-4s (or something like a 2-by-4; I don't really know lumber), adding up to a pleasing Mondrian-like geometricism that feels a bit like it has some history to it.

Laurie Hassold's "Rocks Won't Fly" series is equally mixed. The first installment features small pebbles in beakers, water forcing their particles from them in an ooze of sediment. Row after row, they sit like organs in jars, or dead li'l specimens of cow fetus. But they don't do anything—except, of course, prime you to be pleasantly surprised by the next piece.

Her thesis—that rocks don't fly, not because they can't but because they just won't—is better illustrated in the next case. There, large, heavy stones are dressed incongruously in wings Hassold has cut off dead ducks and crows (the next time you talk to her, ask her about the crows that chased her down the street like Hitchcock's The Birds—terrifying!). These sad, dead rocks in their borrowed plumes are both macabre and whimsically absurd. Also, they reminded me of strippers who wear angels' wings to clubs, if the strippers were Russian peasants. Hassold is cool. But it is frequently tough when creating Conceptual pieces to discern the line between ham-fisted and inscrutable other. Happily, Hassold errs on the side of inscrutability—it's always preferable to being hammered on the head with a neon sign. In conversation, Hassold says themes of the piece include the earth-boundness of the OC art scene, of the idea that some messages aren't appropriate for OC audiences, of being forced to swallow other people's notions; she accidentally swallowed some stones once. They were awful.

Now head back toward Gate 1. Notice on the way Janice Ledgerwood's "Campus Cuties" series, which aren't shown to their advantage without her wealth of hysterically pointed background material and boxes of trophy-shaped chocolates. Appreciate them anyway.

It's between Gate 8 and Gate 1 that the exhibition feels truly fleshed-out and yummy. There, the apparently brilliant Susan Schwartz Braig expands on her "COMA" (County Museum of Art) series, which she let us have a taste of back by Gate 12. With diabolically good dollhouses, Braig fashions a world of such appalling nouveau-riche taste that it might as well have been created by a New Jersey mob wife. It's really splendid: a large dollhouse announces an attraction, "Giotto, the Friendly Dolphin," before leading you inside to a parlor velveted and gilded within an inch of its life, guarded by tiny Rambo action figures. The parlor, with embroidered cozies for rugs and fancy light-switch plates for frames, backs onto a shop that reads, "Let COMA's designers help you select a sofa and upholstery fabric to match your new painting," while teeny rolls of fabric spill forth from cabinets. Even more amazing is The Sistine Chapel Re-Creation and Michelangelo Memorial Escalator. In that, little dolls of all kinds wait patiently in a Phantom Menace-length line to enter and see the Sistine ceiling (complete with his putti from the Sistine Madonna—you know, the ones on all the Christmas wrapping paper). Outside, protesting before the patient masses, three dolls in gorilla masks wave picket signs reading, "Only 3 women artists in COMA." They are Guerrilla Girls. Braig does amazing things with linoleum, too. But I didn't get the baseball players.

"Focus VIII: Constructure" at John Wayne Airport, upper level, 18601 Airport Way, Santa Ana, (949) 252-5200. Open daily, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Through Nov. 28. Free.

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