With a solid, unifying theme, a museum show can feel a lot like a gathering of like-minded souls for a good party, with the art bustling happily on the walls. But with "Art Since the 1960s: California Experiments," currently on display at the Orange County Museum of Art, the theme—art made since the 1960s—could charitably be called half-assed.
The resulting show is like one of those parties where everybody stands around, straining for conversation. Fortunately, a lot of the guests at this party are actually pretty interesting, if you slow down and pay attention to them. And every now and again, the awkward quiet is broken when a troublemaker shows up and makes a little noise.
To make sure this party is good and lubed-up, Tom Marioni has thoughtfully provided The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, a literal, functioning beer bar, right there in the museum. Maybe this installation isn't art for the ages, but it's sure a great icebreaker while you and the other art get to know one another.
Now, if you're looking for arty party animals to shake things up, you won't do much better than Andy Warhol. His 1972 silkscreen Mao is, like almost all of his work, valuable not so much as a visual experience (most of Warhol's art just isn't that interesting to look at, frankly), but more as a document of one of the approximately 9 million interesting ideas that tumbled through Warhol's head in his lifetime. You can almost hear the artist, in that fey, distracted voice, saying, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat to put up a whole wall of repeating Chairman Mao pictures, with his face a different, crazy color in each picture?" And you know, he was right: It is neat. Having appreciated the neatness of it for about 15 seconds, you are now allowed to move on. After all, that's pretty much how Andy did it.
If we're going to stick with this whole party metaphor, Betye Saar's 1975 assemblage Miz Hannah's Secret is like the sweet, older, decidedly unglamorous-looking lady who could easily get lost in the crowd. But if you take her aside and get her talking, she actually turns out to be one of the more intriguing guests in the entire place. Saar has been quietly making her compelling little boxes for a few decades now, and this show offers you a chance to get to know one of her pieces, a commendably odd little thing with a suitcase and some other junk. If it could talk, it looks like it'd really have some stories to tell.
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Rachel Lachowicz's 1991 piece Homage to Carl Andre is like one of those cranky but hot Women's Studies majors who'll gab your ear off about how oppressed women are, and the whole time, you're just kind of feeling guilty about how you're not even listening to her, and you're thinking about how she sure wears a lot of lipstick and wondering what it would be like to kiss her. Lachowicz's piece apparently makes all kinds of deep statements about men and women, with a bunch of angry-looking squares covered with blood-red lipstick. Just don't call it pretty, if you know what's good for you. (It does kinda look like it'd be fun to kiss, though.)
Charles Ray's 1990 mannequin Self Portrait is one guest we'd strongly suggest you avoid making direct eye contact with. This plastic dweeb is just plain creepy, with his track suit, Bill Gates glasses, Gilligan hat and that pasty, plastic skin. He looks like one of those guys who would back you into a corner and spend the whole evening going on and on about the narrative complexities of Babylon 5. And Lord help you if you were ever foolish enough to try and find common ground by mentioning that you like Star Trekor something, because then he'd just sneer at your pathetic lack of taste and spend another two hours droning on about how crappy Star Trek is compared to freaking Babylon 5. In other words, this statue looks like the very last guy on Earth you'd want to invite to a real party, but as a museum exhibit, he certainly makes for an absolutely fascinating specimen.
Some evil part of you wants to introduce Lachowicz's Homage to Carl Andre to Ray's Self Portrait, just to see if they'd fight and how ugly it would get. Meanwhile, you and Miz Hannah's Secretwould've hopefully escaped out the back exit and would now be well on your way to coffee and cookies.
"ART SINCE THE 1960S: CALIFORNIA EXPERIMENTS" AT THE ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122; WWW.OCMA.NET. CALL FOR HOURS. THROUGH SEPT. 14, 2008.