Conceptualists Stories

OCMA shows you how to live in a poisoned world

by Kristin CalabreseThere's a giant brown lump floating over the Orange County Museum of Art, and I don't mean metaphorically. Roman De Salvo's helium balloon Accretion Balloon came as a shock to some museum observers—uncannily reminiscent, as it is, of a giant, celestial poo.

"Oh, surely it doesn't really look like a giant celestial poo!" you're tssking; you probably think I'm just being snide. I didn't believe the rumors till I saw the poo for myself, waving in the breeze, but if I were going to be snide, I would say something along the lines of the colonic surprise being the natural result of museum codgers taking an extra helping of bran.

The thing is I no longer believe the folks at the museum are lame and crusty, and it's due in large part to the current "California Biennial." Avant-garde? Maybe not very. But strong, whimsical work from youngish artists who aren't retreading every possible retread, slathering it with a fresh coat of irony, and offering it up as something retro nouveau? Oh, you betcha.

Has De Salvo hoaxed the museum? It's possible. But they're only as hoaxed as they want to be: it's not like they don't know they're floating a floater 50 feet above museum airspace. Maybe they haven't been fooled at all; maybe they're too cool to care.

Of the 12 California artists being feted and adored—and, golly gee, given their very own museum show!—only a few aren't absolutely terrific. Almost everything is visually compelling. This, of course, is a near-impossible feat when you're working with Conceptual artists—a group generally so full of themselves and so lethally lazy they could take over the OC water board and no one would know the difference. Perhaps this group of Conceptualists went to art school back when they still required painting and drawing classes. Wouldn't that be something!

The curators of this edition of the "Biennial" have found a grand mix of media, from some okay Internet- and Photoshop-derived stuff to bizarre staged photography, from still-music sculptures to staged catfights. There are provocateur works and delicate smogscapes. And there are stories and more stories—apparently, telling stories is new again. (OCMA itself has been full of narratives lately, from F. Scott Hess's sexy "The Hours of the Day"—with its rich details and sentient characters who seem to be acting of their own free will—to a photography show on light that seemed almost a portrait of God.)

The stories are mesmerizing and often poisoned. Yoshua Okon, out of Mexico City, offers videos that are as acid and volatile as Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?He sets fights in furniture shops and among middle-class Mexican schoolgirls. Then he steps off the violence and makes a series about peaceful security guards, with a fake back story that's reminiscent of Sandow Birk's war between northern and Southern California. His security guards sit in parking lots, assuming the lotus position, trying for the sake of Okon's camera to achieve inner peace. There's a sense of teasing, but no condescension. Fat, mustachioed rental cops need rest, too.

Kristin Calabrese's slum interiors are more exquisite and less noisy. A huge painting like Luck of the Draw shows paint falling in sheets off the ceiling and onto kitchen counters and the floor; one can only imagine the lead poisoning. Drawers and cupboards stand slobbily open, as though someone left in a hurry, and everything is smashed. In the next room, though, on the other side of a paneled divider, a bowl of green apples sits elegantly on a pretty table, with little of the turmoil and debris evident. That someone could live in this shithole—the kind of someone who buys pink tulips and fresh tomatoes, no less—is wrenching. That this inner ugliness is the state of all of our hearts is no less clear.

I'm guessing Evan Holloway's decision to sculpt music probably happened while he was high. Either way, it was a good decision. Now I would like to see him taste colors.

Tom LaDuke's tiny, ugly landscapes are the necessary antidote to Laguna's idealization of California as rolling waves and rolling hills. Here, canvases are awash in gray like the sky over Carson, tiny elements barely visible at the bottom. In Private Property, he sculpts browning, dying pedestals for small but dangerous electrical towers, connected across the room by gossamer wire. The pedestals are casts of his own head and hip.

How do you live in a poisoned world, where hearts are vacated and peeling, where your body may not be your own, where violence is both spectacle and the order of the day? Charlie White's staged photos may offer the best answer. In them, at swank cocktail parties and in daily life, his alter ego, Joshua, makes the rounds. Joshua is a small, fat, bald alien who should be out of place everywhere but is mysteriously accepted despite his deformities. The answer is you just live.

"2002 California Biennial" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 722-759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Sept. 8. $4-$5; kids under 16, free; free on Tues.
 
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