A Forgettable Anniversary at Irvine Fine Arts Center

A handful of strong pieces notwithstanding, there's not much here to make you stop and think

Whenever I attend an exhibition at Irvine Fine Arts Center (IFAC), I count on losing several hours of my life wandering its galleries. This has happened every time I’ve visited, so my expectations were high when the Center announced its 30th Anniversary Exhibition, with its focus being the work of its current instructors and staff.

But I was in and out of there in an hour.

As with previous group showings in the space, IFAC hosts a variety of media: photographs, paintings, letterpress, sculpture, jewelry and ceramics, but there are slim pickings here; it feels as if many of the artists dusted off what they had laying around and stuck it on a pedestal or hung it on a wall. The craftsmanship of the work meets the Center’s usual high standard, but the work lacks passion and so often packs such little punch you traverse the space, and then head right on out the door almost without stopping.

Tide pool or crater?
Nick Carver, Tide Pool and Clearing Storm
Tide pool or crater?

IFAC has always had a strong cadre of photographers, and as usual, this is where the show actually does excel: The red Ford parked in the run-down Communist country of Ralph Velasco’s An American In Cuba, has a front end full of pockmarks and nicks, the vibrant mustard-yellow license plate a colorful contrast to the car’s cheap cherry-red paint job, its grillwork features “lifted” by an anonymous mechanic more interested in utility than beauty.

I don’t know the architectural time period of the castle in Michael Hosey’s Untitled or the location of the shot, but the black-and-white crag of the building built out of a blackened cliff face looks like something from Dracula.

It would be easy to use the polluted, industrial wasteland of Long Beach to create a photo, but what’s inspired here is photographer George Katzenberger’s choice in location. The photo isn’t of grimy oil rigs at night, but rather of the lush greenery of the El Dorado Golf Course, L.B. Shot in infrared, the blacks and whites are reversed so that the grass looks like it has been serenely blanketed in glowing snow, the trees shining with cherry-like blossoms. There’s a tangible desolation to Nick Carver’s Tide Pool and Clearing Storm, the shot resembling a lunar landscape—despite the sea anemones and sand dollars. Michelle Cunningham made me hungry for the backstory in the tastefully framed, remarkably joyous pictures of children in impoverished circumstances of her Under the Bridge series. The artist has also hand-made frames of wood, shiny steel bolts, twine and screen mesh that give the pieces a physical texture you wouldn’t normally associate with photographs.

Madeline Zygarewicz’s delicate letterpress stamps on the pages from a discarded library book—titled “The Voice of the Desert”—have a neat subversion to them: The outline of a country bird inside of a pear in Partridge In a Pear Tree on the page of a book about deserts is a precise ecological comment, and the picture of a T-shirt in Suits Him Fine is a global-warming in-joke. It may be wishful thinking on my part that this was intentional, but the anarchy is enhanced by the artist’s casual defacing—or, to be kinder, re-purposing—of the work of another artist, something akin to scribbling a tag on an already painted canvas.

Manzanar (or its equivalent) rears a repugnant head in Jane Nishii’s stoneware, mixed-media sculpture My Family, with a couple’s somber faces being sucked into a void while two small children reach out and grip barbed wire. Lynn King’s seven tree-trunk stumps in The Last Stand are a vivisected forest, their guts hollowed but no home for animals. One would expect to see them crawling with insects ready to break them down and return them to the earth. The result is quietly moving, which is about the highest compliment I can pay to a sculpture. Jasmine Sara Khademi’s Elementary Martyrs is a mixed-media piece that hushes the viewer rather abruptly with its potential tragedy: a white martyr’s banner with Persian writing on it in black, photographs of young boys wearing patriotic sashes and holding their fists in the air. One particularly memorable picture: Two boys dressed as angels, in white with wings, admiring an Iranian flag.

In the weird and the wonderful category: Carole Tripp Martens’ Alice In Wonderland obsession with teacups continues in another of her captivating sculptures. Ivy Leighton’s tiny, hand-made containers with hand-painted pictures of colorful carp, beetles and rabbits’ feet, all the size of a matchbox, in How Lucky We Are make you want to hold them in the palm of your hand like small treasures. Likewise, I expect Furries would dig the wacky jewelry of Melinda Alexander; her anthropomorphicpieces Lambie Pie and Puss In Boots—with animal heads and human bodies, legs and arms splayed out—are meticulously detailed and look like something out of the world’s coolest Cracker Jack box.

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