Atrocity Becomes Art at OCCCA's 'Just How Does a Patriot Act' Show

Interesting Times
Atrocity becomes art at OCCCA’s ‘Just How Does a Patriot Act’ show

 

To be honest, I’m all outraged out. As alarming as the headlines have been lately, I’ve reached the point where I just can’t give a damn anymore. I got no damns left to give.

The horror, the horror
Robbie Conal’s "Patriot Inaction," digital print
The horror, the horror

These days, a lot of you are probably feeling the same way. We’re all burned out on the insane election and the imploding economy, we can’t take any more of that awful lady hollering lies at us in her Fargo voice, and we’re feverishly sick of breaking news about our broken country.

I had to drag myself into “Just How Does a Patriot Act,” the current exhibit at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. After these past few weeks, a group show of political art examining America and its place in the world sounded slightly less fun than an evening spent being swallowed and slowly digested by a reticulated python. Even in the best of times, I’m not a big fan of political art. It’s often annoyingly preachy, and it tends to stay relevant about as long as your average Saturday Night Live sketch. A lot of the stuff in this show is focused rather specifically on the horrors of the Bush administration, and while I’ve certainly had a mad hate-on for Bush these past eight years, the sorry bastard is finally on his way out, and I’m not much inclined to look in the rear-view mirror. Torture at Abu Ghraib, a needless war in Iraq . . . these horrors now seem like fading memories from the W era, countless news cycles ago.

That being said, the fact that this show still managed to affect me on some level must mean that there’s something potent going on. While much of the show comments on events that have taken place post-9/11, it also takes in American perennials such as the miseries of the working life, empty consumerism and more. It’s a big show featuring plenty of angry artists, but it’s rarely shrill or obvious. While there are plenty of bold designs and bright colors (a lot of red, white and blue, as you’d imagine), the Center itself is a soothing place, making even the most hysterical artist seem cool and reasonable.

To be sure, some of the stuff here is as preachy as can be. Robbie Conal does not disappoint or surprise, and Noah Breuer’s silkscreen print Blood On Our Hands is pretty much a straight-up editorial cartoon, albeit a very nicely designed one. The artists do a lot of variations on the old stars and stripes—some inspired, some less so.

But there is a lot of daring formal experimentation, as well as some surprisingly subtle work. Jason Chakravarty’s Manwich is a man-sized derrick topped off with a glass bottle with a ghostly plume of xenon gas trapped within. The result is as baffling as it is eerily beautiful. Wayne Coe has a fine display of model-making kits devoted to such unlikely subjects as a Guantanamo Guard Dog and Lynndie England’s Human Pyramid. It’s funny at first, but there is something ultimately chilling about seeing some of the most shameful scenes in America’s history played out beneath that comfortingly familiar Revell logo.

Coe’s Fuselage is just as clever, but even more haunting. It employs a lenticular (the printing technique that creates an image that changes as you move, like those cheesy posters of Elvis in which his eyes follow you) to show an everyday office scene that is suddenly thrown into chaos when an airliner comes crashing through the windows, tipping over desks and cubicles, ripping the carpet from the floor, instantly killing the guy who was asking a girl what she was planning for lunch. The surreal abruptness of it brings back a little shiver of what we felt when we saw that horrible footage over and over and tried not to think about nice people with coffee cups glancing through their office windows and wondering what that big, gray blur was.

W and his crew will soon commence their unconscionably luxurious retirements, leaving it to us and generations yet unborn to sweep up the jagged little fragments of this once-proud nation. There is an old saying, a curse of sorts: “May you live in interesting times.” We have all lived through eight of the most interesting years in human history, and we can hardly be blamed if we now crave some nice, boring peace and quiet.

“Just How Does a Patriot Act” is full of interesting things, and the performance/poetry event that OCCCA is hosting this Saturday (with an appearance by Vietnam vet/anti-war activist Ron Kovic) will make a fine evening. But don’t stay out too late. There’s work to do tomorrow.

 

“Just How Does a Patriot Act” at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 Sycamore St., Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517; www.occca.org. Open Thurs.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.; call for Fri.-Sat. evening availability. Through Oct. 26. Free. A special event featuring spoken-word performances by M.S. Garvey; a poetry slam with D’Lo, John Trudell and Douglas Kearney; and an appearance by Ron Kovic takes place Sat., 8-11 p.m. Free.

 
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