By Wayne White/Photo by Jeanne RiceChapman University sits right at the edge of Old Towne Orange, a charming little slice of candy-colored cottages, overpriced antique shops and a church that used to feature bad movie puns on its marquee but sadly seems to have run out. My favorite? "There's Something About Mary's Son, Jesus."

Chapman is its own little Pleasantville. Kids chat one another up on its modest but graceful campus. They sit by fountains or in the Argyros Forum—named for its benefactor, the current and corpulent ambassador to Spain—and talk about tennis. They mostly ignore the abstracted statues, which as far as public art goes are not at all annoying; they're small and brightly colored and smarten up the pretty pathways. There is a new sorority here; a sign for it informs passersby that the young ladies who've pledged it enjoy the colors red and green and "squirrels and pearls." It's a mystifying sign.

Chapman University is an odd place for dystopian screams.

Luckily, the apocalypse in Chapman's Guggenheim Gallery is a gentle one—a whimper, really, instead of a shriek. Curator Tyler Stallings always has a light touch when he's scaring the hell out of people.

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"The Frustrated Landscape" isn't what you'd usually associate with scenic art coming out of our fair county; there isn't a single child frolicking in the waves. It is seriously lacking in gold-dappled scrub oaks, sycamores and tall eucalyptus. There is no plein air. Instead, the sky is murky black, and not a soul is pretending Orange is Givenchy. Can you imagine if they did? Oh, of course you can. You've been to Laguna.

But despite the opportunity for an excoriation of our unnatural environment, Stallings doesn't hammer you over the head with a politicized agenda. Had I curated the exhibition, I would have been much more hamfisted. But Stallings doesn't present a political show. There are no sly pokings at genetically modified foods, or the great, squishy tumors resulting from fields slathered in Alar, or any of our other current environmental delights. The massive breasts of San Onofre are missing, and there isn't a single strip mall or sprawling housing tract in any of the canvases, and how can it be a SoCal landscape show without them? With a title like "The Frustrated Landscape," how can there be no ozone holes or pictures of happy housewives in SUVs? Where are Jeff Gillette's Disney slums or Laurie Hassold's taxidermied dead things? How about Tom LaDuke's Private Property, two tan lumps on pedestals, with tiny high-tension towers atop them and invisible wires stretching between what turn out to be casts of his own head and hip? Now, wouldn't that have worked nicely?

Instead, Stallings offers what he says is the boundary between landscape and culture. Mmmmm. No.

The best of the works belong to Tom Allen. Already It Is Dusk shows two flat black crows, featureless and shadowy, on a murky black sky. The only light comes from a small orange blob that could be a spaceship or a supernova. There is nothing more evil than a crow; I've seen them stalk bunnies and drop eggs to the ground, the tiny, fully formed bird within smashed to yummy bird bits. Frozen Windmill is just as eerie: sharp, white ice hangs brittlely off the deserted place as roiling clouds of midnight blue and volcano pink threaten in the background.

All these years later, I'm still not sure what the etiquette is for curating oneself into an art show, but Stallings' works are always a treat. There were blobby, amorphous things hanging at the Santora several years ago that looked like placentas and bloody, liposuctioned fat, and over the years, there have been many, many odes to the cock. Here, Stallings does delve into spooky vistas with The Fiery Pelt and The Black Snowflake. The Fiery Pelt shows a vivid red and yellow skin hanging from a dead black tree. In the middle distance, delicately brushed trees—poplars?—look almost like Chinese brush paintings, ethereal and ghostly. The Black Snowflake shows two soft li'l bunnies. One is sleeping, while his buddy huddled next to him looks up toward a painted rip in the canvas, through which has fallen . . . you got it! A black snowflake. But in one corner, sun beams pour down geometrically, like a modernist church's stained glass. The sun is optimistic and wholly disparate from the slashes of bloody red paint threatening to blot out the small, frozen rabbits.

Wayne White's Sugar Tit—just those words in icy blocks of white atop a found lithograph by Robert Wood—may be postmodernist, but I find it lacking. Sure, Wood's original seascape (in ugly ocher and sienna) is pretty hideous. And White's lettering, showing waves behind it, is well-done. But both White and Puff Daddy need to find their own damn hooks. White's Enough hair on my ass to weave a Navajo blanket fares better, if only because Swiss painter Hermann Rudisuhli's canvas, on which the words squish together, is a prettyish pastoral scene, and White took the trouble to reflect a bit of the rude, fratboyish non sequitur into the small pond Rudisuhli painted below his verdant trees.

Of the remaining pieces in the show, some are landscapes (large, naive works complete with gumdrop- and pumpkin-shaped trees that happily look like crayon), and the rest aren't. Some are well-drawn and charming (Ruby Osorio's Considering Eve, showing cartoon versions of thoroughly modern, everyday hipster chicks sitting on the can and doing their hair, surrounded by pieces of Snow White's apple), and some are a mess. It's a good show, with mostly strong—or at least interesting—work. But, oh, the show of taxidermied dead things it could have been.

"The Frustrated Landscape" at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 997-6729. Open Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Oct. 11. Free.

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