'Art Shack'-ing Up

Shag, "An Aesthetic Instruction in Conspicuous Consumption"

The last thing anyone would expect to see in Laguna Beach is a shack. The coastline, which was dotted with surf huts and board-and-batten houses in the 1940s, has long given way to million-dollar mansions and “second homes” that spoiled, towheaded children get to trash with keggers. Yet, according to the United Nations, up to 1 billion of the world’s population lives in shacks or shelters in various stages of disrepair and made from the cheapest of salvaged materials. These slums and settlements are unavoidable reminders of poverty and the devastating perils faced by the lowest social classes, and curator Greg Escalante has brought them here—well, some of them.

For “Art Shack” at the Laguna Art Musuem, Escalante includes a wide variety of dwellings, some that mimic less-oppressive and happy habitats and some that use the shack concept to house both poignant social comments and wily pop-culture fantasies.

One such dreamscape is Marnie Weber’s The Red Nurse and the Snowman, a sugar-coated winter-wonderland hut with a flat-screen TV nestled in its belly. Glowing in grainy slo-mo, the live-action tale of a severely wounded snowman unfolds: Slumping over and dragging himself across the powdery mountainside, Mr. Snowman leaves a trail of blood that is soon picked up by a white-capped, red-caped nurse sporting yellow braids and a white eye mask. As the nurse hurries to find our frozen friend before he bleeds out, she encounters a blind mouse and broken-legged bunny, both of whom urge her on. Weber—known for her unsettling, New Gothic “girl spirit-meets-animal” creations—perfectly merges a Christmas fairy tale with a Halloween horror flick.

Jeff Gillette goes for the literal in his mind-blowing and massive “Slum” installation, a series of dilapidated eyesores, each equipped with a TV running mass-marketed tripe on a loop; no matter how poor you are, Sponge Bob Squarepants and Mickey Mouse are there to take your mind off the fact that you have to shit in a hole outside your front door.

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Back on the side of mixing nightmares and childhood dreams, Jason Maloney’s “Amber Alert” should send shivers down even the most stoic of spines. Police-crime-scene tape cordons off a full-scale child’s bedroom adorned with pink-and-yellow heffalump murals; on the far wall hangs a large, picturesque oil painting of a sleeping girl with teddy bear under her arm—framed by the silhouette of a man holding a 12-inch knife. Sweet dreams, kids!

Travis Somerville enacts a coup with two shack-stallations: In “Great American Letdown,” he has created the top half of a sinking tin-roofer and dotted the corrugated metal with dozens of sepia-toned portraits of turn-of-the-century middle-class folks. On each photo, he has painted bright-blue seas and swirls of water that threaten to drown entire families, already enveloping some of them up to their necks. In “1963,” Somerville turns his attention to Southern racism in a board shack lined with newspaper articles of JFK, the Ku Klux Klan and Jackie Kennedy’s fashion trends. Among the décor are mammy salt and pepper shakers, a baby buggy filled with raw cotton, a painting of an upper-crust Caucasian boy in black-face, and a disembodied Kennedy head painted as if he were the stereotypical Tom, among other stylized atrocities of Southern white culture. Equally disturbing is the darkened window on the back wall, behind which vintage footage of a burning cross runs on a loop. This shack isn’t a nice place to visit, but it’s certainly a must-see on any tour of racial Americana.

On a lighter note, Mike Shine’s surf-shack tribute to Steppenwolf and all things ’60s is a hoot. Among the surfboards, wetsuits and carny wheel games such as “Spin & Sin” and the scaly-winged, deer-horned “Repent-O-Rama,” you’ll find a video describing how the wolfy inhabitant (who’s seated at the table in front of you) came to be so furry—and don’t forget to get your retro on with the looped A Clockwork Orange playing on the bubble TV.

Also dipping into the era that so loved the color orange is Shag’s mini midcentury-modern tribute, a home that many OCers would pine for, longing to roll around in the longhaired rugs and drink dirty martinis while seated in Ames chairs. The title, however, will no doubt put off some enthusiasts while giving a chuckle to those who feel worn down by the current obsession with modernity: “An Aesthetic Instruction in Conspicuous Consumption.” Ouch.

There’s much more to meander through, including a self-animated tattoo shack; a fortune teller-esque, all-seeing eyeball hut; an animal-bone skeleton housing a smaller animal-bone skeleton; a giant, skanky birdcage that would be on your “to do” cleaning list in hell; an outhouse “shrine” to the creepy, four-eyed R. Biggs—whoever that is; a shack built entirely from freeway and road signs; and a haughty fiberglass cathedral in which you can worship a rhinestone-studded deer.

It’s craziness, quirkiness and seething underbelly all rolled into one—an art triumph not to be missed.

“Art Shack” at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; www.lagunaartmuseum.org. Open Sun.-Wed. & Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs. & Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Oct. 3. $12-$15.

 *This article was altered on Aug. 22, 2010.

This review ran in print as "Shacking Up: The Laguna Art Museum brings skeezy slums and screwball shanties to beach-babe-ville."

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