A Little Frustrating

Taken from memory, La Villa Basque is hard to understand

Adria Julia's "La Villa Basque, Vernon, California," on view through most of August at the Orange County Museum of Art, will make you mad. And if you want to punch Julia, he's fine with that—though a direct hit would send the artist, a willowy fellow of about 5-foot-7, fucking flying. He wants you good and mad—and confused, the way he is sometimes. Comprising—what?—a half-dozen photos and two unclear video installations, this showing of the Spanish-born artist's first U.S. solo museum show is a bit of a muddle. What you're supposed to be seeing is clear at all times—but what you're actually seeing never is. Kind of like life. And the city of Vernon. This is one of those shows where you're supposed to learn about life—but instead you learn about yourself, and exactly how much you don't know. And then you realize that's actually learning about life. (Unless you read the catalog. Buy it on your way out; it's a spoiler.)

"I wanted to keep it a little frustrating in a way," says the artist, who lives in LA and, ironically, had to drive through Vernon on his way to OCMA. Payback! "There are certain barriers that make the viewer struggle in everyday life." I'm gonna hit him sooo hard right now. Not really. He takes great photos, but more on that later.

La Villa Basque—like its namesake—is steeped in the past, chiefly its Basque heritage. It was built and dedicated to the town founder on Feb. 1, 1960, by the current Vernon mayor, Leonis C. Malburg, who is the founder's grandson; and at one time, this was where most of the deals in the city went down. In the 46 years since the dedication, only the number of diners—and the rest of the world—has changed: an effect, Julia says, that is entirely disorienting when you're driving around looking for a place to eat, as he was, and you stumble into this cavern of a vintage steakhouse with button-tucked booths and Googie signage. It is such a time capsule, he says, that you don't know where to start. Which is where "La Villa Basque" begins and ends—in bewilderment.

Julia's photos are gorgeous, deep portraits; their meanings, at first, are clear. There's the waitress: a regal blonde shot in profile, in a traditional Basque necktie and white blouse. There's someone who looks like the maitre d'—or else, a longtime customer—a matronly lady in black, with matching headband, heavy gold earrings and red lipstick, looking away. There's the bartender, a stately gent with a graying pompadour, his metallic necktie perfectly knotted over a sparkling white shirt; behind him the clean glasses shine green in the low light of the bar, with the bottles of liquor dark and alluring. You feel compelled to go to this restaurant and eat its thickest steak, drink its most intoxicating cocktail. Or should you?

You hear heavy breathing around the corner as you inspect the photos, and of course it sounds like a porno, which is weird and off-putting in the face of such beauty. But it's not a porno—merely one of two video installations that are the remainder of the show. In the first, some guy in his 20s, wearing a T-shirt and hoodie, tries to perform a traditional Basque dance he's just learned in the foyer of the restaurant. He's sweating, breathing hard, and he is what you're hearing. In the other video, much of which is purposely out-of-focus, employees knock the crumbs off the tables and fold napkins while the owner's wife delivers a voiceover in Spanglish about her family. But everyone in the footage is an actor, the catalog says, except the voiceover, which is really the owner's wife. And aren't the people in the footage the same people in the photos? Yep. Bastard!

This is "La Villa Basque," but what is it? It is at once less than and—if you find the rest of Julia's gorgeous frames in the catalog—more than you've expected. Like life. Or that time you drank three beers at someone's house, downed two Seven & Sevens at a bar and chased that with a free tequila shot—then saw the rest of the night through sideways, unfocused, blurry vision your brain couldn't process. It's like that, too, minus the passing out.

Adria Julia's "La Villa Basque, Vernon, California" at Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Aug. 27. $8-$10; Thursdays, free.

 
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