Wheres the Porn?

And who gets to say what Richard Pettena means?

Is it too much to ask Richard Pettena for a little porn in his publicly funded "Pentagon Play: An Installation"? Apparently so. There's nothing obscene or reflexively anti-American in Cal State Fullerton's Main Art Gallery. And that's a shame because Pettena is CSUF's artist in residence, and his installation is flush with your tax dollars. CSUF isn't merely showcasing Pettena's work; it also helped to make his vision flesh, if you will, with construction crews and materials and God knows what kind of stipends. It would be such a nice diversion to have art back on the front page, like in the good old NEA Four days when people were getting angina about the 78 cents per capita going into the debauched coffers of public art. Heh, heh. Angina.

But Pettena, a British-accented Italian, is as squeaky clean as his "Pentagon Play." For reflexively anti-American—but in a good way—you have to go next door to Jeff Gillette's MFA exhibit. But since Gillette closed Thursday, Sept. 19, and since we've already written extensively about his dead-on juxtapositions of corporate, Disneyfied shine with far-as-the-eye-can-see Calcutta slums (or is that Anaheim?), we'll simply remark that his exquisitely painted canvases of poverty and death could be due for some new subject matter. How about Eastern Europe, maybe, or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro? Those are nice and poor, too!

Pettena's "Pentagon Play" is a pristine installation, meandering nicely through the spacious gallery with one of those sterile, primary-colored playground sets like the kind you see in McPlaygrounds, found in every city in America—and now, according to his artist's statement, in Europe as well. It's well-planned: there is something to look at or play with in every corner of the place. You can climb up ladders into plastic tunnels; you can cover yourself with small plastic balls in the small-plastic-ball place (although, inauthentically, they are not doused in toddler pee). It's fun. It's mindless. It lets adults play on brightly painted things. The only remotely squeamish part of the installation is a wall displaying video loops shot at area parks. The surveillance (which could be interpreted as a comment on Ashcroftian terror tactics, if you were of the mind to do so—and if you're reading this paper, you probably are) could raise a cry from freaked-out parents, except the video is taken from far off enough to compromise no child's privacy or safety. Is a little child endangerment so wrong?

Pettena's installation is Art With a Point. It's a grand geopolitical exploration of grand geopolitical things. But you'd never know that from climbing on it. To get that point—his point—you have to read Pettena's intelligent statement for that.

For drafting an artist's statement, he must, of course, be punished. Artist's statements are supposed to be ill-written, schlocky and laughably overambitious about all the myriad mysteries their art illuminates. Naturally, someone daring to interpret his own art is a threat to me, the critic. I want to be the priestly interpreter. I want to be the one who says what it means. I want the Mass to be in Latin so that I'm the only one who knows what the artist/priest is chanting. But far worse than that is the fact that I just don't agree with Pettena's assessment of what his works mean, and I grudgingly have to admit that his interpretation might—might—be as valid as my own.

Pettena (thoughtfully, intelligently, blah, blah, blah) says his exhibit raises questions about the ways Americans play and the ways in which our play, like our culture and every wish of our megalithic corporations, is pushed on the rest of the globe (although, like an ill-subtitled foreign flick or a vintage copy of Wired, the statement occasionally becomes unreadable when it's inscribed on a matching background). The big issues Pettena claims he's addressing aren't at all obvious (or even remotely apparent) without the statement. Then again, if Pettena were to spell it out for us visually, he'd probably have to resort to terrible cliché—I'm thinking guns and flags and McDonald's logos and Dick Cheney's doughy mug.

But who cares? The installation's totally enjoyable purely because it's so mindless. Look! You're a grown-up, and you get to play in a ball pit! No way in hell Chuck E. Cheese will let you do that. It's big and shiny, a pure and unadulterated example of artists "making pretty baubles for the idle rich." We're bourgeois, we go to galleries, and this is our reward.

Accompanying videos of people aping windmills and eating lunch in Victorian costumes have nothing whatsoever to do with play (and if Pettena says they do, he's really stretching): they're Absurd, and the whole point of Absurd is how it's fraught with nonmeaning. If I had to torture the installation for meaning, I'd read it more as a musing on childhood dangers (focused by the media microscope this summer on a seemingly endless kid-killing spree) than on plasticized global cultures and our role of schoolyard pusher. (This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that some of the playground video was taken at South County parks where that freaky girl left razor blades and nails earlier this year.) Pettena's working from some whole other Concept, leaving me to wonder if he just thought building a playground would be cool, and then he justified it with big, fancy-sounding art speak—if he isn't just full of shit. You know. In a smart way.

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