West End Girls

Ladies of Venice got nothing on the preteens of Santa Ana

Normally, I would have bypassed the West End Gallery and gone on to find something halfway respectable with which to have my way. It's no fun beating a retarded baby with a stick; sticks should be saved for mouthy preteens.

I mean, I knew "Ladies of Venice" would be like the bedroom of a seventh-grade-girl circa 1985, with comedy and tragedy masks looped in ribbons of pink and gray. There's just no reason to pick on a perfectly nice, ridiculous commercial gallery; if I wanted to do that, I would move to Laguna.

But the depth and breadth of the horror at the West End Gallery made escape futile, and anyone actively spreading taste this awful deserves the circle of hell reserved for hypocrites and Dana Rohrabacher. Gary Nye Schwebs and his "Ladies of Venice" make the hearth lights of Thomas Kinkade look like the tortures of Edvard Munch. But they're not just mindless and trite; they're icky and tacky, too!

Schwebs' series-of-50, $2,000-or-more giclees (a printing process that makes it look like an actual canvas instead of a photo of one) start out with copies of Tear of the Clown. He goes on to paint a Rigoletto, a sad-man clown in a happy red jester hat. You see, he is crying on the inside. There's also a clown on a piano and a Young Milkmaid. Then there's Wine Cellar in a dull Dutch palette of faded browns like Geppetto's workshop. There are two copies of Wine Cellar here, actually, because in a gallery with a dozen paintings, two should always be the same.

Okay, that's bitchy and irrelevant. And while Wine Cellar and Tear of the Clown are, in proper critics' parlance, sucky, they're not offensive.

Offensive goes to our Ladies.

Adorned in Emerald Mist and Ruby Red, the women of Carnival tot themselves up in a bizarre mix of commedia dell'arte and Charlene-Tilton-big-shouldered mess. Their masked white faces evoke geisha girls in drag, and their eyes glimmer creepily behind mask slits that make them look as though they're either robots or 10-year-old boys pulling their eyelids inside-out. Queen of Diamondsis as taut and weird as a Newport Beach grandma—and like that same grandma, probably can't see her reflection. Plus, their cosmetics are painted pretty much up to their hairlines, and they wear wacky hats. I believe these women are supposed to be "mysterious" and "glamorous." Instead, they look like aliens—but I'm pretty sure they're not supposed to—and I can only imagine the Home Shopping Network-watching women who coo over these works . . . and the feather-bedecked boudoirs in which they hang them.

At the back of the small, rectangular gallery, and the reason I'd come in the first place, are two rough, masculine Steve Metzger works. With a dull, unfinished surface and a crowded perspective that lands you directly in the middle of the piece, they portray an airplane's propeller and a tractor (man stuff!) with Metzger's usual interesting bluntness. They are as out of place in the feyness of this gallery as the uncomfortable ballerina bronze in the middle of the space (she arches awkwardly like Jennifer Beals at the end of Flashdance) belongs.

And now for the mouthy preteens. At the Artists Village the same day I saw "Venice," I was accosted by Cal State Fullerton's art department honcho, who suggested I go see "Major Art/Minor Artists" just across the promenade at the Grand Central. You know. By kids.

Did I have to? Really?

I trudged over to see the show, which has moved from the Laguna Art Museum to the mean streets of Santa Ana. And this show—by students at Fremont, Heninger, Jefferson and Muir Fundamental elementary schools—was, if I were to quantify it scientifically, 12.5 times better than Schwebs' (whom the West End calls "well on the path of becoming one of America's great artists").

I'm not one of those who sniff that "my kid could do that." My kid, actually, cannot.

But with artist-in-the-schools Helen Seigel, the students at Muir and Jefferson et al. have created carnivals of color after Joan Miro, seascapes inspired by Lee Bontecou, mixed-media collage, and hilarious takeoffs like Dick and Jane Meet Juan y Maria. A little bit rough, sometimes with the big heads and feet on stick trunks drawn by your own art-impaired child, these kids' visions are fresh, heart-rending, belly-laugh-funny, funky and great to look at.

And apparently Seigel's beat some taste into them, too, if they didn't have it in the first place: there's neither a comedy-and-tragedy mask nor a tortured ballerina to be found.

"Ladies of Venice," paintings by Gary Nye Schwebs, plus selected works by Steve Metzger, M. Nevada Ackerman and Michael Nedkov at West End Gallery, 109 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 447-7978. Open Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Oct. 30. free; "Major Art/Minor Artists" at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Wed. & Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Oct. 24. free.
 
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