Tween-Girl Crack

The education of Paul Frank

Photo by Amy TheiligI like to think of the new exhibit at the Huntington Beach Art Center as a giant fuck you to the goodly folks at Grand Central. Of course, that's the way I like to think of everything.

But this time, it could be true!

Ever since the HBAC's Cultural Revolution of '98—when the rivers ran red because the city's director of cultural services decided the center was getting too much national notice (positive reviews from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and NPR) and so herded the gallery's acclaimed staff to reeducation camps (those who weren't fired are now in charge of the periodic entertainment at the city's pier)—the center has almost entirely managed to escape critical or civic attention of any kind whatsoever.

The gallery, along with curator Tyler Stallings, had made its name on lo-art cultural-identity shows, delving into subcultures from skaters to deadheads to wide-eyed innocents who believe in UFOs. Stallings is at the Laguna Art Museum now, and the HBAC's involved and eager board of directors relocated en masse to the lucky Grand Central, where the lo-art mission of pinstriping and the boobs of Robert Williams thrive on.

At the Grand Central and in other galleries with which the board is involved, they show a lot of the retro cocktail art of hometown hero Shag. What do you suppose they would have given for a show by hometown hero Paul Frank?

Saturday night's opening of "Things Happen in Threes: A Collection of Work by Mr. Paul Frank Himself" was exactly what one would expect of any event where Paul Frank is expected: the tween girls stand in line to meet him and look like they might cry. It used to be exciting to see a girl on MTV wearing his top or his Julius-covered jammies; Paul Frank was catching on! There's still a frisson of recognition when we see his fashions from coast to coast, but there's no longer the smallest shock of surprise. Paul Frank is bigger than Pokémon. He's a pusher, and Julius the monkey is his tween-girl crack.

The show is delightful, of course; Frank always is. It's a bit padded, with the smallest gallery filled with dashed-off sketches more suitable when they show the evolution of a masterpiece—think of the Madonna of the Rocksor Leonardo's studies of churning water—than a schematic for a Julius house. But still! Delightful! There is a Bobby Julius (in London); a Space Julius; a Julius as sea monkey, with three tentacles waving out of his cute little Julius head—all crafted in two-and-a-half-D vinyl (like a bas relief) and behind glass like a Victorian shadowbox. Julius is the new Barbie, with all her costume changes but none of her conspicuous consuming—that's left to the little girls whose parents buy him in each of his incarnations. It's not Julius' fault; he's as pure—and vacant—as Candide.

What if you had a lot of money? Here is Julius as a toilet—an actual toilet—with ears protruding delightfully. Here is a surfboard. Here is a Vespa. Here is an electric guitar. Here is everything you could imagine, branded with our favorite menagerie. It's all very, very Pop—not quite a Readymade (so overdone in the '90s, when LA artists were presenting cans of Ajax in series of 20), as it's been painted, and not quite a Multiple after Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, since, to my knowledge, there's only one of each. In fact, I'm pretty sure you can't buy them, anyway; I think they're Frank's, all Frank's.

So is it art? What isn't? That's for snooty East Coasters to decide. The Met can offer its Costume Institute, where we gawk in pleasure at Jackie O's gowns, but Isamu Noguchi (who made our beautiful California Scenario near South Coast Plaza) was denigrated in his later years by the folks at MOMA and elsewhere. To them, he was an "artistic designer" rather than a sculptor because he delved into items like lamps, according to a marvelous profile of his lifelong mistress in last Tuesday's New York Observer. It was an epithet that made all the difference. And if Noguchi wasn't an artist, could you ever call Paul Frank one? Certainly, if Paul Frank had an exhibit completely lacking in Julius—or even his delightful skeletons, like Pirate Skurvy—there would be far less notice and far fewer starstruck girls. The shadowboxes, with their following of artistic convention and their inability to be cuddled or kept on a bedspread of pink-and-green rosettes, come closest. They have narratives, from Love Triangle to beds of wrinkled velvets for dancing dead pirates. One piece, the only one that eschews Frank's own creations for lo-art homage, is titled Big Daddy Roth. It's a shadowbox presented as a cellophane toy package and promises "real pinstriping action grip!" while Rat Fink in the bottom corner snarls that there's only one.

I've snarled myself that pinstriping isn't art except to assholes in Von Dutch hats, but that didn't stop the folks at Grand Central from a series of shows featuring everyone who's ever been connected to the man (I believe his stepdaughter's hairdresser is next). And here's the apotheosis of all that came before: a friend of lo-art whose success has been beyond imagining even for the most exalted of the candy-colored tits-and-booze-and-cars crowd. A man, like Shag, who's stripped away the bigotry and the sexism and made lo-art cuddly—and mind-bogglingly profitable. And he's taken his fame to the HBAC. Who's crying now?

"Things Happen in Threes: A Collection of Work by Mr. Paul Frank Himself" at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650. Open Wed.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; Sun., noon-4 p.m. Through Aug. 7.

 
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