Nothing Shocking

French Connection is all about the pretty

Photo by Jack GouldThere are big, ambitious shows with all the neon and hoopla of the Luxor or the MGM Grand. And then there are homey shows, sweet shows, student shows. They're not without their own ambitions, but they're properly modest. You don't see a lot of modesty these days, Wendy Shalit and her A Return to Modesty notwithstanding.

"French Connection," is composed of works created by the Art Institute of Southern California's faculty and students while they were on a field trip in France (and don't you wish you got to take that kind of field trip?) that are sometimes podunk, sometimes grand, and always paying homage to some of the great eras in art history. It's a small show, filled with comforts and devoid of rage, shock or a challenge to anything.

It's all about the pretty, and there will always be a place for pretty, even if it's sometimes relegated solely to Laguna Beach's widely famed (and mocked) commercial galleries with their inevitable Impressionist Mediterranean villas and yachts. Teacher Betty Shelton's Young French Girl in a Flowered Dress, for example, would work beautifully on Ocean Avenue. It's Photorealism, though a softened, airbrushed kind. It's a nice composition, the venerable age of the dark fountain providing a foil for the striking print of the Young French Girl's dress. It is nice. It is pretty. It is kitschy and completely without irony. It would sell quickly.

In a student show, of course, some work will suck. For instance, Thomas Butler's Angel of Bruge has a wonderful scrubby texture in its lines and soothing golden hues. Yet it's discombobulating to see a modern beauty—a Cameron Diaz-like prom queen—garbed in the clunky angel's robes. Since when do angels look like Allure models? Some classics lose their power in the update. So, Thomas Butler, I would recommend not trying to insert your little blondie pinup girl into the ranks of the heavenly host. Instead, your Study of la Tour fares far better, its dark, gloomy oils and unpretty, developmentally disabled faces better suited to the past. Now, had you inserted Leo DiCaprio's face where the ghastly looking little boy is, that would have been quite silly, don't you think?

Marilyn S. Brobst's "Rembrandt" series suffers from a pretentious title. Gentle watercolors of landscapes with squiggly orange worms for trees and shadows of what could be wheat are quite nice, and the palette is infinitely cheery, though better-suited to Maurice Prendergrast than Rembrandt. Just don't call them Rembrandt in Yellow or Rembrandt Landscape in Abstract, Marilyn, and you'll do fine, although the pea-green and plum-colored dashes and dots in Rembrandt Landscape in Abstract are a bit much to take. But maybe that's just me. No. No, it's not.

No complaints with Michelle E. Korte's Self-Portrait in Belgium. It's very Toulouse Lautrec, as the artsy, scarf-covered girl lounges outside a doorway, irises behind her and chunky brushstrokes on her almost featureless face. Nice job!

And Wilma Clayton's Gardens of Giverny Iand II are teensy watercolors with a romantic quality that almost seem like Tasha Tudor's lovely illustrations, though less detailed in the blossom department. Buy one for your mother-in-law today.

And Ann Benedict? Your watercolor and pastel portraits of neat-lookin' girls are finely rendered. I have nothing pithy and mean to say of them.

Jan Bruner's Fountain at Versailles is a pleasing horizontal composition, its muddy grays and taupes gloomily casting a desperation onto the fountain's famed horses. They look like they're drowning. His The Old Man on the Way From Notre Dame to the Roman Ruins glows. The man's blue coat shines against the yellow dirt of the road on which he walks away from us, his shoulders slumping but strong. It has a Les Gleaneuses quality, but softened, and it is the best-realized work in the show, though Stephen Bell's Portrait of the Artist—in court apparel, his lips quirky like Mary Pickford's and every hair in his eyebrows swept toward the heavens—comes close. It's like a Holbein, but drawn better.

Machiko Maganuma's Becoming the Sculpture, meanwhile, is very Free to Be You and Me, and I mean that in the best possible way, as goofy students stand around a fountain and strive to become one with it. The resemblance to the self-esteem classic is helped immeasurably by the very '70s-freeway-mural modeling (best described as Al Gore-level immobility, even while dancing), a genre that ought to be making a comeback any second now. No, that wasn't mean! I like '70s freeway murals!

All right, then, let's sum up: modesty. Sweetness. Light. France. Comfort foods, like marshmallows and mashed potatoes. Purty angels. Nothing shocking. Good.

"French Connection" at Art Institute of Southern California, 2222 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-6000. Through Dec. 16.
 
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