Charged With Life

Villa America remembers when we came into our own

Coney Island by George TookerIt used to be so easy to review the Orange County Museum of Art. All I had to do was come up with a list of synonyms for "lame," "atrocious" and "second-rate" and arrange them, Mad-Libs style, in any order that most tickled my senses that day.

That changed when director Dennis Szakacs brought in the curatorial team of Elizabeth Armstrong and Irene Hofmann. Their exquisite exhibits call for superlative praise instead of slagging, which is nowhere near as funny, nor as fun.

I've put off writing on Armstrong's latest for months; it deserves odes I'm ill-equipped to give. Simply, "Villa America," which she culled from the 600-work collection of Midwest business magnate Myron Kunin, paints for us a period of American art that crackled with a strength and fearlessness unimaginable in today's squishy and self-censoring climate. It's so easy to imagine America's past the way conservatives want us to: as modest, white-bread Christian prudery. And it's so easy to forget that we weren't the first Moderns to come down the pike.

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"Villa America" looks at the first half of the last century, from beautiful Braque-ish geometric abstractions in the teens to realist midcentury paeans to steel. The figure is omnipresent, with creamy nudes and lumpy nudes, tribal primitive naifs, homoerotic acrobats (and sailors, natch—you can't have Paul Cadmus in a show without them), and self-portraits that range from Nietzschean supermen to Edwardian fops to a green ovoid that can only be Georgia O'Keeffe's vagina. Armstrong seems to have created an alternate art universe where Clem Greenberg's ridiculous anti-representational strictures on "surface" were never heard, let alone slavishly adhered to by the sad sheep baaahing along with his dictates. Instead, she's found vitality and skills that today's art-school grads would be hard-pressed to ape.

The artists' styles progress from Gilded Age to bohemian to between-the-wars recklessness. They flow through Works Progress and Social Realism and culminate in the postwar love affair with America's strength and skyscrapers. And, of course, the nude. Every painting here—and there are almost 80—is charged with life, with electricity, with sex and with an inordinately beautiful painterliness, sometimes cynical and sometimes leering, sometimes morbid or savage, but always sure and confident and with much to say. Alice Neel is here, and Grant Wood, Elmer Bischoff, Stuart Davis, Joseph Stella and Pavel Tchelitchew. Andrew Wyeth's exquisitely natural Christina Olson (1947) and The Huntress (1978) echo each other softly, with their wisps of hair, rustling grasses and pensive moods, each woman facing the same way with her hands in her lap, but separated by 30 years.

"Villa America" is an absolute treasure, showing American artists with the same brashness the world's newest superpower must have felt. Everyone will have his own works to which he's partial, but the one that most pleased me was George Tooker's Coney Islandfrom 1948. See it above: the common man's tacky carnival Pieta, with St. Anne pendulous and matronly in her pink swimsuit, St. Sebastian awaiting his arrows to the left, a Nubian version of Michelangelo's Sybil at the right. It may just be a callow party trick to lure in the pious, but I prefer to think of it as laughing its ass off about our greed and hypocrisy. You know—like that Joan Osborne song about Jesus on the bus. And it doesn't address Greenberg's "surface" even at all.

"VILLA AMERICA" AT THE ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122. OPEN TUES.-WED. & FRI.-SUN., 11 A.M.-5 P.M.; THURS., 11 A.M.-8 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 2. $10; STUDENTS/SENIORS 65+, $8; MEMBERS/CHILDREN UNDER 12, FREE.

 
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