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For a long time, wandering through Ray Jacob's retrospective at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, Jacob seems like your alpha prototype for a crazy old man. There are his terrifying china dolls decked out in buttons like "California Radical" and "Housework Sucks" (one with the face of Duchamp's Mona Lisa With Mustache,but with nice, big—and literal—cans), perhaps better suited to a sleepy beach town crafts fair. There are his concrete slabs, like grave stones, bearing the "definition" of homeless (adj. 1. Being without a home. 2. Those without a family, morals and Christian work ethic.). There are his wacky-groovy horse-head action-figure assemblages. There are his letters to his son, written in some kind of pidgin English or pig Latin, full of what I hope are inside jokes. There is his beyond-lazy newspaper collage. Though Words, Words and More Words does lay out its newspaper clippings in a satisfyingly linear grid (no Wired-style "breaking the grid" for this former art director at May Company and Bullocks!), the headline "Calendar," for instance, says only that by the end of the project, it must have seemed like a very large canvas to fill. But the headline "It's a tough job to stay current," somewhere down the middle of the square? That's a nugget of gold worth mining the small type of the Doing Business As notices it's swimming in.
Yes, Ray Jacob seems like your average IVC and OCC instructor in his dotage, albeit one who's shown at SF MOMA. So when you finally start to swing into his mind groove, it takes you a bit by surprise.
Perhaps, like the godfather of cyberpunk, William Gibson, he's just always in a state of amazement at the simple things we take for granted. Maybe he sees more than we do, all our detritus mined for meaning. Maybe I just can't get past the style—minimalist and Modernist assemblage and the play of textures never really having been my things—and that just proves I'm a visionless slave to our generation's reactionary return to the painterly figure. I certainly hate the wan geometricisms my mother has stacked around her house, yet I'm pretty sure she has excellent taste.
It was in a set of matted and framed tests of "Self-Ology"—Persona, Materialism and Aura—that I began to be pulled into Jacob's world. Either 27th generation mimeographs or a fine facsimile thereof, the tests ask you to define yourself in relation to a list of characters (Indian chief, vagrant, courtesan, superstar being merely the ones that spoke to me). They ask you to assign a sequence of importance to such characteristics as virile, glamorous, grand, elegant, trashy, handsome, poetic, very important and carnal. They bring you in to the part of your brain that is concerned with all the glimmering facets of you, and the part of your brain that orders and counts and alphabetizes, like a magpie sorting shiny things.
In the small room, Ellen Rose's "Performers and Dogma" are mostly canvases I've loved for a decade. (Rose, a lovely woman, is a personal friend.) There are her juicy fat circus ladies (Fat Trixie, "so fat it takes seven men to hug her!"), her freaks, her droll dogs, both stupid and clever and sometimes as anthropomorphized as a Maurice Sendak illustration. But Rose has some new works up too, and they are old, bare-bellied tattooed men and women looking at each other with love light in their eyes. Rose tarts up her tattooed couples with beautiful, monstrous Picasso hands and naïve scribbles for an afterthought ambiance, but in their eyes, Rose's naïf pose falls away. When their eyes shine real from their dashed-off Expressionist faces, it's a jarring but welcome mash-up, like cleaning a Schiele painting and finding a Sargent beneath.
WORKS BY RAY JACOB AND ELLEN ROSE AT IRVINE FINE ARTS CENTER, 14321 YALE AVE., IRVINE, (949) 724-6880. OPEN MON.-THURS., 9 A.M.-9 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 9 A.M.-5 P.M. THROUGH SEPT. 1.