Now Thats What I Call Art!

At Laguna Art Museum, the song remains the same

From the Pictures of You
series by Viet LeThere's some sparkling shit to seeif you head on over to the Laguna Art Museum (LAM): there are big, scary heads and photos of stigmata; Robt. Williamsy eyeballs; and some tattoo flash. There are wonderful films to loll before and even some local bands—if you like standing with headphones on while tethered to a wall.

But if you feel like you've heard this tune before and you've been anywhere in the vicinity of the OC art scene over the past decade, well, you have. The works in Laguna Art Museum's "OsCene," their locals-only answer to the Orange County Museum of Art's (OCMA) biennials (where local artists need not apply), are on as heavy a local rotation as KROQ's ever-looping playlist.

"OsCene" is stuffed with the best of OC's painters, photogs, architects and some sculptors to knock you out. And of the works by 40 artists crammed into LAM's galleries, I'd seen a solid 75 percent of them in other galleries, some as recently as last month. If you've been out and about at all, you've seen them, too.

Maybe I just don't know the rule for surveys; after all, the last countywide one we had was 25 years ago at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, and I've only been a critic here for the past nine. Are they supposed to feel warmed-over? Are they supposed to be all stuff you've seen before? Are they supposed to be a mishmash of styles and themes installed on crowded walls?

When's the last time you went to an opening and didn't see Jeff Gillette's Disney slums or his wife Laurie Hassold's creature shop (this time in the form of her antler aliens)? Could you have an OC survey without them? No, they are without a doubt the most important couple on the scene, painting and teaching and emitting like radioactive particles on Karen Silkwood, a nicely seditious energy. But Gillette using surfboards and skate decks as canvasses for his voracious Third World slums under a voracious Disney flag is not a new-enough trick. In the past 10 years, he has churned out literally thousands of variations on his theme, and he must come up with a new oeuvre before painting the same scene makes him insane.

Almost all the works here at LAM are terrific, really. Curator Tyler Stallings hasn't allowed in more than a couple of dogs. And winnowing his cast from the 400 who applied must have been a heartbreaking exercise. And so we get almost all our favorites. Emigdio Vasquez's hyperrealist urban Latino scenes straight out of the '70s stand next to Jorg Dubin's louche and sexy portraits. Amy Caterina's big blooms of blood scans (very like a Billy Al Bengston silkscreen) are positioned right next to Laurie Hassold's aliens; it must drive Laurie nuts, since she pioneered blood here 10 years ago. Sensitive Kebe Fox has some lovely portraits outlined in fluid and glistening black, like a Japanese brush painting or some thick stained glass, right across the room from Daniel du Plessis' dangerous beauty of a big yellow cabbage rose surrounded by snakes and gems and thorns. And Chie Yamayoshi's hilarious, detached, techno-cool beagle in a fish tank is very near to Viet Le's lo-fi, porny nude dudes. Penis!

There's some crap, too, but it's not terrible, universal crap—merely genres that leave me a little chilly or people I respect and like very much, but whose work is not ready. Perhaps some people think it's swell!

So. Artists I respect. Mostly goodwork. What the hell is my problem this time? Well, the architecture, design and music, while integral to the original idea of really showing all OC has to offer, are pretty ill-integrated into the actual show. Overly broad and overly ambitious ideas just get people into trouble, as was evidenced by the atrocious, rambling mess of a retrospective/survey of SoCal art at LACMA last year. Focus, people! Focus!

Maybe cutting the extraneous filler and allowing each artist more space for bigger and bolder works would help—but you'd have to reduce the number of artists further, too, to 20 or 30, as OCMA does. Their current biennial is stunning for just that reason. Maybe what we've got now is too many also-rans, and if the locals have seen this work before—and they have—then the only reason to choose it is to tautologically hand a laurel to the museum's anointed for having been chosen. (It's all quite mutually congratulatory.) That worked exceedingly well when Stallings curated for the Huntington Beach Art Center; then, they had "Centered on the Center," which was completely unfiltered and democratic as they took all comers and stacked their works as much as six deep. If you're going to winnow a list of artists, really winnow it.

Sweetly familiar works on golden-oldies radio, but not so much on your museum walls.

"THE OSCENE: CONTEMPORARY ART AND CULTURE IN OC" AT THE LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 CLIFF DR., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 494-8971. OPEN DAILY, 11 A.M.-5 P.M. THROUGH FEB. 27.

 
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