Let's Talk About Us

Orange County Museum of Arts Biennial knows us better than we do

Orange County Museum of Art's "2006 California Biennial" delivers more than 125 works on everything from Swamp Thing (anything reminding us of Adrienne Barbeau is okay) to Siamese cats, in its latest report card on the state of the state's artists. And despite our own narcissism—or perhaps because of it—the best pieces here are those with something significant to say about the state or the region. That's partly because we love to see things that remind us of us—but also because we think we know us best.

This is the age of the installation, and you will see many here—sprawling, multimedia works that could theoretically include something painted or sculptural, so long as its surroundings bleed down the pedestal and onto the floor in paint or colored vinyl, ending in what looks like oversized Extra-Strength Tylenol. Painter Pearl C. Hsiung, whose Tidal Wretch is featured on the "Biennial" catalog, does just that with her high-contrast 1980s-inspired enamels, which are fine. They'd look great in the house of that South County guy who mounted the Lamborghini on his wall, but they don't break much new ground except, yes, with the installation. Someday, installations will be very now.

Los Angeles multimedia artist Goody-B. Wiseman overcomes being dated—we predict with hope—with, ironically, another installation: Pentegoet Park (The Terrible Ones), a work so large, sprawling, multilayered and intelligent as to win over anyone who likes dogs or children. You know you'll like something when the artist tells you she discovered it while researching Lizzie Borden, and that's exactly how Wiseman—the spitting image of Laura Ingalls at the press preview, in long brown curls and a plaid dress—came to her subject of feral children. Drawing from true stories, Pentegoet Parkuses dioramas, displays of "vestigial members," found items and even video to tell the tales of "children" raised by wolves ("Coyote Kid"), badgers and deer—then captured by men who shot or maimed their surrogate parents. We know it must be false, but our uneasiness toward wildlife—slaughtering coyotes and mountain lions who encroach on ourhabitat but permitting Ringling Bros. to live—brings it vividly to life. It is a powerful exhibit, even as the videos of the leaping deer girl—or the badger boy rutting around on a mattress—are way too good to be true. Wiseman cops to much of her invention, but her grin says she's shocked at your suggestion these could be her friends. "These," she says, "are my feral children."

"Tidal Wretch" by Pearl C. Hsiung/Courtesy OCMA
"Tidal Wretch" by Pearl C. Hsiung/Courtesy OCMA

Huntington Beach artist Amir Zaki, a native Californian, has a similar hold on the abandoned house in Laurel Canyon that he discovered and photographed in 2005 after heavy winter rains sent it sliding down a hill. The people inside survived, but it was for sale at the time, and he imagines they took a beating on the price.

"I am sympathetic, but on a certain level," Zaki says, "this is a result of the dramatic experimentation here, the constant building." But experimenting is what we do! Zaki's three photographs of the house hull show it from opposite angles, and a video still montage—set to a remix of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind"—stands as a monument to our hubris. So do his stark pictures of our pools emptied for the winter (winter comes even to Southern California) and of another hill house shot from below, its supports Photoshopped away. It sits impossibly poised on the edge, and we await its fall.

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San Josean Binh Danh, a Vietnamese immigrant, uses a brilliant concept to reveal other strong emotions in his Vietnam War-inspired work. Danh turns found images of soldiers and civilian casualties into negatives—then prints his new negatives onto native Southeast Asian plants he's collected and treated with the proper chemicals to turn them into flash paper. It sounds gimmicky, but his photographs are incredibly haunting—even if you'd rather not know what the war says about us. His series inhabits an entire room at OCMA, its walls painted black to better showcase grim servicemen and grimacing children—even a Life magazine spread on war dead, printed on sections of a huge leaf. It instantly recalls what we think we know of Iraq. Mounted below these prints are framed covers of the Swamp Thing comic book series and examples of its action figures—a juxtaposition whose levity is so unexpected as to reflect attention back on the war.

It's actually quite easy to find someone with an opinion on California, you realize as you leave Danh's black room for the blinding whiteness of the rest of the show. The trick is finding artists who know more than we who live here and think we know it all. This, OCMA has handily accomplished; you should visit at least twice to see it all.

"2006 CALIFORNIA BIENNIAL," ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH. OPEN WED.-SUN., 11 A.M.-5 P.M.; THURS., 11 A.M.-8 P.M. $8-$10. ALSO AT ORANGE LOUNGE AT SOUTH COAST PLAZA, 3333 BEAR ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 759-1122; WWW.OCMA.NET. OPEN MON.-FRI., 10 A.M.-9 P.M.; SAT., 10 A.M.-8 P.M.; SUN., 11 A.M.-6:30 P.M. FREE. THROUGH DEC. 31.

 
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