By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By the early 1990s, sun-drenched Huntington Beach was home to middle-class suburbanites who voted Republican and was a tourist destination for bleached Nebraskans drawn to the town by its whitewashed nickname, Surf City. But the city hadn't seen its Beach Boys heyday since Brian Wilson went to his room. By then, it was mostly known for the near-police state thrown up against the anarchy of every Fourth of July celebration. Cops, crotchety old people, and a bloated roster of skinheads kicking the living shit out of any person of color stupid enough to stroll the beach made the fabled town completely uninhabitable for anyone with even a dollop of brain.
Then the Huntington Beach City Council did a bizarre thing. It turned to artist Naida Osline to pull together a community art venue with start-up funds from the taxpayers. Osline, a slim brunette with a regal air, decided to give Huntington Beach something to be proud of.
This was probably her first mistake.
She brought in an avant-garde staff in their 20s and early 30s who could follow her vision: the creation of a space where nationally prominent performance artists could pelt themselves with fruit; where music and poetry might spice the night air like jasmine and sex; where, most especially, one might run across art exhibits that weren't merely edgy but also intelligent, thought-provoking and beautiful to look at.
First and foremost, Osline recruited Tyler Stallings.
Stallings had come from the California Institute of the Arts—the Walt Disney-founded Valencia school that no longer gives a damn if you can draw a mouse as long as you can back up your Not-a-Mouse with important-sounding, theoretical bullshit. It was Stallings' first full-time job.
In the pretty little building on HB's Main Street, the two began putting together exhibits that were knocking people silly. They ran it as a community art center: there were the annual open-call exhibits, a chance for anyone who wanted to show his or her work to hang it on the walls in layers 12 deep; there were works by local artists in most of their important shows; and it was never overtly offensive—even by crotchety, old-person standards. Few shows were explicit, with the notable exception of a necessarily shocking exhibit by Kara Walker, whose cutout silhouettes were obscene renditions of slavery in hideous scenes of semen-drenched fucking, molestation and murder.
Among many great shows, that one was especially magnificent, and a hell of a coup for the new center: the 27-year-old Walker had just been awarded a MacArthur Genius grant.
In retrospect, it was also typical of the Huntington Beach Art Center (HBAC).
The gallery—a community art center, for Christ's sake!—began getting notice in Art In America, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Warm notice. Cathy Curtis, then a Times Orange County art critic who was famously stingy with her praise, went crazy and called Stallings "promising." Hundreds of well-kempt and wealthy art lovers turned up for openings, as did young punk kids who patiently waited in line to check in with the nice old ladies staffing the reservation table. Camera crews arrived from around the country. OC-born NEA Four member Tim Miller showered his naked self in orange juice on the center's stage. National Public Radio arrived to sanctify the trashy Polynesian beauties on velvet by Edgar Leeteg (that show was curated by the brilliant Greg Escalante under Stallings' watch). People were driving down from Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and nobody ever sneered that the HBAC was behind the Orange Curtain.
But every story needs a villain, and this one has Mike Mudd.
Mudd was director of cultural services for Surf City and therefore Osline's boss. He looked at the crowds, the notoriety and the warm raves in the national press, and in 1998, he decided with a deafness of tone still mesmerizing years later to clean house at the HBAC. Why? A few old people were apparently offended: their tax-subsidized center didn't reflect community standards. Many have hypothesized from their armchairs that Mudd, a straight-as-they-come gay man, was simply an Aunt Tom. Others have wondered why Mudd would bother staging a bloody coup when he was only a couple of years from retirement anyway. Whatever his reasoning, Mudd assured the city in bland press releases that the HBAC would henceforth be better attuned with "community values." There would be none of those offensive works—like those belonging to MacArthur genius Walker. Nope. Definitely no more geniuses.
Out went Osline and Stallings—by now a couple—and pretty much everyone else. Osline was, in City Hall vernacular, transferred "laterally," a move that put her in charge of entertainment for the city's pier. She now books bands whose primary purpose is to keep people buying seagull art while they stroll up to Ruby's Diner for a burger. Randy Pesqueira, the exquisitely well-connected director of operations, went with her.
The HBAC began putting on horrors of shows filled with offensively inoffensive abstract grids in remaindered shades of pea and lint-duct gray.
And Stallings? Lauded by every local paper as SoCal's hottest curator, Stallings was set adrift.