Spicy Protest Jambalaya

Armed only with paintings, Mark Chamberlain takes on Bush

Image by Michael WeschlerThe pundit class has been whining and kvetching all over its blogs lately: Why isn't there any good antiwar music coming out of this generation? It's not a fair question, really. Vietnam had been dragging on for six years before Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, et al. started harmonizing prettily and anthemically about bloodshed and Kent State. Our American Idols are expected to produce instant classics in eight months? Steve Earle tried, and the results were kind of wretched.

Happily, things are more glum in the art world, except in Laguna Beach. BC Space Gallery is heaped with works from 80 artists—and more are arriving all the time—excoriating war, hypocrisy, big business and the nexus of the three. The works aren't necessarily "good," but at least they're having fun trying.

Mark Chamberlain, BC Space's longhaired artist/owner, scrapped the exhibition schedule to mount "Pretty Lies/Dirty Truths," rushing the show into production. "Something needed to be said!" he avers. The schedule really has been scrapped: the works will be up indefinitely.

In a lot of cases, the intent of the works has been jettisoned, too. "I took great liberties with the original context," Chamberlain says, combining pieces the way the chefs at Red Pearl combine Asian cuisines. The results are terrific each time. Chamberlain's curatorial juxtapositions build energy between pieces that might not have had anything to do with one another but have become a spicy protest jambalaya. For instance, one of Lynn Kubasek's American flags stitched together in grim black and silver instead of red, white and blue is draped over a carton. Lying atop it is a photo by Dennis Keeley, showing a black-and-white image of a handsome black man in dress blues. It's a photo of a billboard: 1 800-MARINES. The unintended collaboration between Kubasek and Keeley exponentially exaggerates the power of each: instead of being a proud image of being all that you can be combined with a sewing project that's pretty and well-executed but not mesmerizing, the installation becomes that nice, proud Marine's funeral casket.

There are plenty of terrific pieces in the exhibit. Rob Johnson's I Like Ike is a colorized image of the Republican president and general. Over the heat-sensor coloration—fuchsia and pear, among others—are quotes, including the famous one about not letting the military industrial complex grow out of control and another on how we "must avoid the impulse to live for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow." There's nothing like a principled Republican to reveal the venality of the ones in charge today.

The best works are those that deal most explicitly with politics and history and fact, instead of the wishy-washy "give peace a chance" default mode onto which so many protestors fall back. For instance, James Lerager submits two small black-and-white photos. One is Major Rokke, the Gulf War and Depleted Uranium. The photo itself is a dime-a-dozen shot of some guy talking, but it's accompanied by a long, detailed passage about the number of young U.S. soldiers (183,000, or one-fourth of those who were in the theater) who are mysteriously on disability following their service in the Gulf War. Maybe not so mysteriously: Major Rokke, a physicist, was the head of the unit that developed depleted-uranium weapons, and now he's disabled, too. He lectures about it, about how he received 1,000 times the "safe" dose of uranium, but even so, it has been a while since Gulf War Syndrome was in the news. Oh, and cancers (including in children) in Iraq have quintupled.

The second picture is one of Three-Mile Island. It details the birth-defected baby cows and the metallic taste residents complained of. It also details how news reports put the toxic output of the meltdown at 15 curies when in fact it was 15 million. See, that's not so much to do with war, but it's everything to do with smart argument and marshalling your facts.

Tony Paradiso and Darryl Loyer, meanwhile, delve into bad, bad Wall Street. Again, it's not necessarily about the war—though it so easily could be, what with Dick Cheney's Halliburton setting up an overseas subsidiary expressly so it could avoid sanctions on trade with Iraq—as it is about the times. For Paradiso and Loyer, that's a concentration on corporate ethics. What was in the paper every day for months has been supplanted by Michael Jackson's Nose of Mystery, but some people want you to remember and get mad all over again. These are, after all, the people who are running our country. In the case of Enron, for instance, Kenneth Lay had an office in the West Wing from which he could help the president shape our energy policy. Does no one remember that Lay hand-picked Federal Regulatory Commission members who then denied California's appeal for price ceilings—all while Enron was memoing itself on strategies for illegally exploiting our system? Or is that just me?

Chamberlain seems proudest of the Afghan rugs on the walls and the floor. They date from the early '70s to the '90s and are often hooked together by entire villages. The earliest show rectangular people—think of the graphics from Atari-era computer games—with just a hint of military aircraft hovering in the background. By the '90s, all the rugs show are AKs and tanks, executions and decapitations. War has been waged there forever—and I, for one, was not against our entrĂ©e into it last year. But as we widen our nets injudiciously, we have to ask: Do we want all our art, too, to commemorate beheadings and executions, AKs and tanks? Do we want an everlasting war?

"Pretty Lies/Dirty Truths" at BC Space, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1880. Open Tues.-Fri., 1-5:30 p.m. Runs indefinitely.
 
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