For the first few minutes after I walked into "Centered on the Center," the new show at the Huntington Beach Art Center, I thought it was a pathetic mess. The Center has a well-earned rep for being eclectic and fun and edgy, but a lot of this stuff was just plain bad. There were paintings that for all the world looked like cries for help—the scribblings some metalhead would make on the endpapers of his textbooks during homeroom. There were still lifes and lots of sunsets and crashing waves. There were mermaids and unicorns. (Unicorns.) Off in a corner, a looped video featured a mellow singer twanging away on his guitar. It was pleasant enough, but it was like something you'd flip past on public-access TV.
I'd glanced at the flier before the show, and it hadn't prepared me for anything like this. It said something about an exhibition of more than 200 local and regional artists, but it didn't say anything about those 200 artists being "special needs" children who have to paint with their feet.
As I looked around more, I got over the shock of the really awful stuff, realizing that the majority of the show wasn't so bad. It wasn't great; it was solidly mediocre. And I noticed a few pieces that were actually quite good. What sort of curatorial process could possibly be at work here? It was if they'd just flung wide the doors, taken in every damn thing that was offered to them, and put it all on display.
Well, it turns out that's pretty much exactly what they did. "Centered on the Center" is an annual show in which anybody is allowed to exhibit their work, as long as that anybody can cough up $15. It doesn't matter if you went to art school, it doesn't matter who you know, and it doesn't matter if you have any actual talent. If you can pay, you can play. And when you know that, suddenly a bafflingly random exhibit becomes a certain kind of awesome. It's public-access art!
The curators wisely put most of the actually good stuff up toward the front. Robert Jacka does some intriguing junk sculptures that spin around and do stuff. As the Whirled Turns has a rather iffy pun for a title, but it's a genuinely neat object, featuring some old swap-meet lampshades that rotate and a glass globe with little dancing-trophy people on the top. (The whole rig is much more impressive in motion, so if it's just sitting there idle, be sure to ask somebody about plugging it in.) Bruce Hood's Gusher is a big globe, covered in gross, drippy black oil, and up top, there's a toy Robin (as in the Boy Wonder) riding on a little rocketship. I'm not quite sure what Jacka or Hood are trying to say, but I like how they say it. The sculptures in the show are where you find most of the good stuff, really—Dan Southern has a big, wooden wasp that'd look awesome on your coffee table—but there are some neat paintings, too. Trace Mendoza does some really hideous monsters that look like a 15-year-old's id run wild. Well, a 15-year-old who knows his Juxtapoz.
There are artists on display who do some fifth-rate Warhol silkscreens and Jackson Pollock dribblings, but many of the artists here are more inventive. There is art made of hair and art featuring glitter. If you never went to a fancy-pants art school, you don't know that glitter isn't cool, so you use it . . . and hey, it is cool. You can do a lot of good things when you don't know that you can't.
I don't mean to sound patronizing. Whether it was painted by a pro artist or some sweet grandma with a long Sunday afternoon to kill, a bad painting of a sunset is still a bad painting of a sunset. But somehow, if a respected gallery displays a bad sunset painted by a pro artist, it sucks, and if they display a bad sunset painted by a sweet grandma, that's something else altogether. You know she did the very best she could, and you're inclined to appreciate any little thing she got right. Just the fact that she painted the sunset at all is nice. If we all spent our long Sunday afternoons painting some bad sunsets, this would be a happier world. Sure, it'd be a world filled with lots and lots of bad sunsets, but it'd be a happier one for that.
"Centered on the Center" at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650; www.surfcityusa.com. Open Wed.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; Sun., noon-4 p.m. Through Feb. 17.