Nice Wheels!

Tibetan mandalas are as nice as Fullerton itself

Photo by Jack GouldI just can't seem to lay off the long-gone Huntington Beach Art Center (HBAC). I'm sorry, but with its demise (Huntington Beach cultural services director Mike Mudd toppled the leadership of the nationally recognized center, its shockingly avant-garde exhibits now replaced by juried watercolor shows) came a smoldering cigarette burn in the cultural fabric of OC.

The Fullerton Museum Center doesn't completely fill that void; the HBAC hosted flooring works by such folk as performance artist Tim Miller and MacArthur Genius grantee Kara Walker, whose fiercely obscene looks at race relations produced physical, visceral reactions in her viewers. And Fullerton—or "Little Dubuque," as I like to call it—is a nice city.

But while the Fullerton Museum Center is as gentle and sweet as other community centers, it nonetheless has what those others don't: a willingness to look beyond its own front door. "Diagrams of the Cosmos: The Art of the Mandala" is not an exciting show, neither splashy nor scandalous. But it's not supposed to be: Fullerton needs picketers about as much as it needs sporks.

But "Diagrams" is soothing, quiet and gently tolerant. Teaching points for the museum's docents include guidelines for discussing religion. "Be accurate," reads one. "Accuracy includes using proper terminology that is nonjudgmental. Buddhism is a religion, not a superstition. Tantra is a practice, not a cult." (Insert your own icky Sting joke here.)

Curator Lynn LaBate has fashioned an overly broad show for the small museum, but with the best intentions. The starting point, of course, is the mandala, a round depiction of the wholeness of the cosmos. The holy symbol is used by Buddhists, Hindus, American Indians and (in southern India, at least) Christians. But the exhibit too quickly branches out from its mandalas behind ropes to enlarged photos of the Dalai Lama's grand Tibetan Winter Palace. It seems messy; supposedly, this isn't an exhibit about Tibet's exiled, Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual leader or his stunning former winter digs. They're great photos—imposing and impressive—but they don't further the exhibit's purpose one whit. They're filler, like those hard little croutons in Chex party mix, except, you know, not tasteless and gross.

Nor are there very many mandalas in the exhibit: there are Stephen P. Huyler's marvelous color photos of South Indian women constructing Rangoli—rice-powder mandalas—on the streets before their houses. Intricate and lovely, they are prayers made material, meant to be trampled underfoot each day and then created anew. The images of women in soft-pink, flowered saris crouching and drawing in the streets are powerful and moving.

The exhibit moves on to paintings on fabric, called thangkas, depicting happy monks happily engaged in happy learning and ferocious beast gods eating the circle of life; warriors rush into a town, a woman squats out a baby, a couple embraces beneath a tree, and a guy makes pots. Also, there are some feasts and orgies.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a huge mandala by Cherokee artist Sara Bates. Abalone shells, pine cones, petals of all kinds and little shell people dancing form a symmetrical, detailed paean to nature and all its gifts and our place therein. It's sweet, like the museum itself, and will offend absolutely no one ever, unless some of those nutty fundies in Buena Park who hate Hindus decide to come a-battlin' heathens.

On the other hand, I haven't yet met a person who isn't offended by the crappy "artwork" purtying up the 5 and 405 freeways. At a cost of $900,000, Caltrans is sticking colorful floral tiles to the sand-colored sound walls.

I'm all for beautification at public expense, but these things are ugly—Red Roof Inn ugly. You get the sense that Caltrans figures that if we're going to spend more and more of our time on the freeway, we can at least spend that time in an environment vaguely like home. The terrifying thing, of course, is that this is Caltrans' idea of what we'd like in our living rooms. As accents on the ugly sound walls, they just draw attention to something so atrocious it probably can't be fixed—except by a good tagging. Gentlemen, start your spray cans.

"Diagrams of the Cosmos: The Art of the Mandala" at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545. Through Jan. 9, 2000. $3; seniors/students, $2; kids 6-12, $1; kids 5 and under and members, free; all admissions on Thurs., 6-8 p.m., are $1.
 
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