No Big Payout for the Laguna Art Museum's 'Las Vegas Diaspora'

Know When to Fold 'Em
No big payout for 'Las Vegas Diaspora'



America has gone Las Vegas crazy, and it's not too surprising. People are overworked, broke and depressed, and they dream of escaping to a land of ever-buzzing neon, where they have license to feast like Jabba the Hutt, bathe in brass tubs full of champagne, do a line of coke off a hooker's back, accidentally kill her during the course of a sexual act unfit to describe in a family publication (or even this one), stash her body in the Dumpster behind a Denny's—and then fly home in time for work the next morning. All of which is fine . . . but goddamn it, the nation's premier sleazy wonderland used to be Southern California, and we've given up our status as the playground for America's id far too easily. When paunchy Hollywood execs are looking for an evening of coronary-inducing decadence, do they head for the Sunset Strip? No—they increasingly jet off to the Vegas Strip. And that is freaking pathetic, people. Ask yourself: Have I done all I can to keep SoCal sleazy? Honestly, when was the last time you even wore fishnets?

So it was with a twinge of real dread that I approached "Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland," the new show at the Laguna Art Museum. In recent years, Southern California has enjoyed an explosion of fun, fascinating artists, the "lowbrow" gang and other gifted misfits who are doing stuff right on the fertile border between kitsch and genius. Now these Vegas people were showing up by the busload here in Laguna, with a show curated by big-deal art critic Dave Hickey. I feared they would be doing work to rival the twisted brilliance of a Mark Ryden or a Liz McGrath—that this would be the show at which they stole our crown as America's kooky art capital, just as they've stolen so much else from us.

Fortunately, I feared for nothing. Just as Paris Las Vegas provides a thorough yet weirdly unconvincing simulation of the City of Lights, so does "Las Vegas Diaspora" provide a thorough yet weirdly unconvincing simulation of an exciting art exhibit.

There is certainly a lot of art to see in this show. And some of it is pretty good. James Gobel does interesting "paintings" made of felt and yarn, here offering Ridicule Is Nothing to be Scared Of, a real eye-catcher featuring a bunch of fancy, fat guys eating pie. Wayne Littlejohn does fun, abstract yet vaguely perverse sculptures, and Curtis Fairman makes neat, monstrous little objects out of plastic bowls from thrift stores and other cheap crap. Victoria Reynolds does good things with meat. (That sounds like something you'd see written on a men's room wall, but really, it's not like that.)

But so much of the art in this show is merely . . . decorative. It looks like stuff you'd see hanging on huge panels at the mall food court. In 1983. There's also a lot of color. Not that there's anything wrong with color, but many of the pieces seem to be about color and nothing else—big panels of colorful stripes and blobs every damn place you look.

Tim Bavington's big, space-hogging STEP (IN) OUT is just a bunch of colorful stripes, and it made me think of a scene near the end of Kurt Vonnegut's most peculiar novel, Breakfast of Champions. In it, the citizens of a small town are very disgruntled by an expensive new work of abstract art that the city has commisioned. The locals are ready to practically lynch the artist when he stops them cold with a speech of perfectly lovely bullshit about his intentions, how the big stripe in his painting actually depicts the soul of his subject as "an unwavering band of light." His words move the people to tears, and he leaves town a hero. Well, unless Bavington can change my mind with his own line of perfectly lovely bullshit, this thing is just going to keep looking like a really loud, stripey shower curtain.

I kind of hate myself for what I'm about to write—really, I do. But after years of having that stupid catchphrase shoved down my ear canal, I can't help myself: Sometimes, what happens in Vegas should really stay in Vegas.

"Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland" at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; www.lagunaartmuseum.org. Call for hours. Through June 1.

 
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