Get Wired With Alexander Calder!

OCMA's show on the legendary mobile sculptor (and his admirers) puts the kick back into kitsch, whether you like it or not

The art world is never short on controversy. Is a particular artist's work derivative or is it inspired? If millions love Monet and other millions love Kincaid, which group of millions is composed of idiots? Everyone has an opinion, and in that vein, much has been written about Alexander Calder, the mobile legend derided for having as followers both legions of commoners and a host of intellectuals. Calder himself talked about how children, in particular, respond to his work, and since children like things such as Yo Gabba Gabba! this can't be a good thing for an artist, right? Pshaw.

In the Orange County Museum of Art's extensive exhibit, "Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy," curated by Lynne Warren, there is a wild array of sculpture to be considered, mobiles that need not have an ounce of historical prestige in order to garner modern respect. Warren, in fact, writes extensively about how Calder has been maligned, and in an effort to reposition his legacy, she includes a handful of mostly LA-based next-generation artists inspired by his work. Warren probably didn't need to go this extra length because the point always is if the art works, but since most of the next-gen work on display is exceptional, it's a boon she had the insight.

One of the reasons Calder translates so well—and not just to toddlers—is because in his handcrafted wiry pieces, everyone can instantly associate the representations with familiar images stored in their own heads. While wandering through the dangling metals of red leaves, black triangles and white dots, I overheard a middle-aged man say, "This looks like something from Toy Story 3."

There's a seal in there. . . .
Alexander Calder, Performing Seal
There's a seal in there. . . .

Later, a woman commented, "I could hang this in my house." Are they idiots? Is Calder the Spielberg of sculpture? Who cares?

The point is that his pieces work. Not all of them are overly impressive; some are just neat or pretty. But some are truly exceptional, such as The Spider, an enormous array of black steel-rod legs flailing about in search of suppertime prey. Others are both clever and kind of cute: Little Face, a wired human head with broken stems of wine glasses for eyes and a car's red tail light for a mouth is a hit, as are Chat-Mobile, with its slinky tail and red sheet-metal face, and Performing Seal, which looks less like its name than the other two, making the black triangle and balancing rods and circles that much more effective.

Truly abstract is the non-suspended Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, a red sheet-metal cut-out shaped more like a creature from the riotous finale of Beetlejuice than a person. Whatever you've seen in your life, you'll be sure to see in Calder's work. In fact, I began to feel as if I were really witnessing a Tim Burton retrospective and wondered if Burton had ever espoused love for Calder because many of these sculptures seemed like shadows that might lurk inside the creepy filmmaker's brain.

The next generation of artists was clearly inspired by some of these works, some exquisitely so. Nathan Carter's monolithic, science-fiction-inspired blue-steel mayhem, Traveling Language Machine With #3 Frequency Disruptor and Disinformation Numbers Station, is filled with coils, numbers and cones—and is incredible. Aaron Curry also makes a thrilling statement with Deft Composition, a wood-and-steel fluid puzzle piece in neon red and yellow with silkscreened eyes, and Jason Meadows pulls off the best piece of all in Pig Latin, a pink wrought-iron amalgamation of swine heads, torsos and hooves that screams Animal Farm riot.

Jason Middlebrook's penchant for painting subdued psychedelia onto found planks wins repeatedly, especially with his chunky mobile Wood From All Over the World and the sentimental The Green and White Warbler, an image of said bird painted onto a slice of tree, with cement-cast water bottles of waste riding sidesaddle. Kristi Lippire also gave me a laugh with Fumigated Sculpture, a Styrofoam-and-wood-block piece covered in the striped tents that really should come with a skull-and-crossbones label to differentiate them from a Circus Vargas invitational. But then again, maybe not.

There's much more to ogle at and be awed by in this entertaining and inspiring show, so take the kids or your most conceited friend, and wander through a maze of engineering magic and mayhem. And if you like what you see, don't feel too bad: You're in very good company.

 

This review appeared in print as "Get Wired! OCMA's Alexander Calder (and admirers) show puts the kick back into kitsch, whether you like it or not."

 
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