Poison in the Sugar Pill

A little ugly beneath the beauty of Cities of Promise

By Godon BrusstarYou've got to hand it to the Orange County Museum of Art for going against type. A show about cities should be gritty, grimy and gray. It should be depressing—Hopperishly lonely, and even suicidal—with some Social Realist poor folk squatting in squalor beneath the hungry maws of hulking buildings that will envelop them like a Goya monster and then laugh as it spits out their bones. It shouldn't be full of pretty watercolors. Truly.

But right in the title, "Cities of Promise: Imaging Urban California," the museum—and the Automobile Club, which loaned some pieces and sponsored it—lets you know this will be a happy vision, a jaunty post-war vision, a Carousel of Progress vision, of cities not as dwelling places of shabby, filthy, bescabied have-nots, but rather as places where there are boats.

Boats figure prominently in "Cities of Promise," and boats are not for poor folk or for cities, unless you're in a boat city in Cambodia, in which case you get a two-fer.

You are not in a boat city in Thailand.

Discouragement comes early when one walks into the smallish galleries given over to the exhibit. The installation does little for the watercolor works, which are uniformly framed in an unflattering rococco gold and glomped together on white walls that utterly fail to make them pop. But even from the entrance one can spy in the second gallery Peter Alexander's dominating oil Thrasher,a four-by-seven-foot nightscape that seems even larger. Its thick blue sky sits heavily over the panther-black land, dotted with the yellow glow of the Valley. Downtown (or is that Century City?) is a tiny clump of lights at the horizon.

Once you've seen Thrasher, you're willing to give the smaller works a closer look, and upon inspection almost all of them really do deliver. Sure, there are still boats (in a woozy kind of plein air watercolor guaranteed to give the Finish Fetishists among us a piquant rectal itch), but at least most of them are in San Francisco.

Looking closer, one begins to notice all the exhibit's favors: that even among the watercolors, for instance, there are grim and grimy scenes. Jake Lee's Oil Fields, Signal Hill is satisfyingly disgusting; James Patrick's The Sulphur Pitsis happily smothered in a carcinogenic smaze. One begins to feel beneficent. John Haley's Hilltop Hotel may show a bourgeois Victorian, but as the perspective makes it seem to loom over the small Craftsman bungalows below as if it's going to eat them, one begins to feel charmed.

"Cities of Promise" moves onto the '50s, with blocky geometric forms in powerful monochromes erecting odes to the future. And the phallus. Gordon Brusstar's Golden Gate Bridge is potent and so virile it could put your eye out. And one begins to get a special tingle.

The Automobile Club would not stay thriving if it made people want to stay home. It wants us to retire in our twilight years to the wheel of an RV, and I think many, many of us would consider that a fine trade-off even for liver spots. The Automobile Club is not in the business of telling folks the world is a scary, ugly place we would be better off not seeing—and neither is the Orange County Museum of Art. Yes, the museum has seen some lonely Hoppers and other assorted grit. But it's also always subscribed to the school of post-war jauntiness and all the self-satisfaction money can buy.

Now the two have slipped some poison into their sugar pill. And I, for one, couldn't be more delighted.

Signal Hill is dead! Long live Signal Hill! Just leave the Balboa boatscape be.

"Cities of Promise: Imaging Urban California," at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $5-$7; members/kids under 12, free; free on Tues. Through April 25.
 
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