At OCMA, It's Tag Team Time!
Artists are generally strange, solitary creatures whiling away their time in studios, building intimate relationships with paper, clay, canvas and paint, instead of spending their waking moments with other human beings. That comfort with ideas and grand themes (as opposed to human beings)—whether from personal insecurity or some primordial sense of self-protection—leads many artists to view the talent of others as a threat, which makes Orange County Museum of Art's "Two Schools of Cool" exhibition something of a minor miracle.
Curator Sarah C. Bancroft has assembled five two-member teams of artists, juxtaposing each elder (established in his career, average age 78) with a younger artist (also established, average age 44). Older men and younger women make up four of the teams, with the last group composed of two men. Commissioned to collaborate on projects, Bancroft gave the artists free reign to work in the medium of their choosing.
Disconcerting is the word that comes to mind stepping into the pitch-dark gallery projecting video artist Stanya Kahn and narrative painter/musician Llyn Foulkes' HD video short, Happy Song for You. Take a seat on the bench, and you're assaulted (and I use that word in a good way) by five-plus minutes of mummified animals that look as though they are the Eraserhead baby; faceless people in gray wigs; an elderly man covered in blood; weird toys, a coyote, a sewing needle piercing a finger; poo, fire, water and things being buried. Tapping into something both scary and dreamy, the video images and sounds are similar to those dark figures that dart and dash around out of the corner of your eye: fleeting, shocking, even funny.
Spend a few moments with Amanda Ross-Ho and Allen Ruppersberg's mixed-media installation, The Meaning of Plus and Minus, and you'll see right away the connection between collage and conceptual art. A giant, white, three-ring binder sculpture stands on a green pedestal, no papers resting inside—just three large (empty) rings. Projections on one side of the binder show video footage of old phonograph records circling on a turntable as music plays on speakers overhead; projected on the other side is a slideshow of archival images: faces, animals, images from Smartphones or television shows, all reminding us about the often-random images and thoughts music inspires in an aging memory bank.
Specialists in appropriated and conceptual art respectively, Shana Lutker and John Baldessari move away from what they're experts in, focusing together on an interactive mixed-media installation, A à B. Patrons can move a variety of objects about on two long, white tables on one side of a white wall as overhead cameras record the proceedings. We watch the simple act of creation—just adding and subtracting—on two television monitors that exactly resemble two canvases on the wall of a gallery, except the content and composition of the "paintings" are constantly changing.
The individual artists in the first three pairings disappeared seamlessly into one another's collaborated work, but painter Sarah Cain and assemblagist George Herms will have none of that, defiantly (and literally) corralling their mixed-media installation, Korral, from the other pieces on display with a bold silver border. An anarchic mix of sculpture, paintings and assemblage, the artists bring a repeated motif of isolation, chaos and control to the forefront of all of the works. Framed, carefully shredded paintings that look as if they exploded hang on a wall; a box of block letters is so cramped it smashes words together, making them indecipherable; glass jewelry cases herd together strange, small figures. It isn't difficult to see the borders, the herding and the accent on the difficulties of language as a coded commentary on the U.S.'s strained relationship with Mexico, and if that's the case, the twisted metal sculptures in the exhibit are shiny enough for us to see our own reflections, reminding us that we have met the enemy and he truly is us.
Painters Robert Williams and Ed Moses round out the pairings, curating a small exhibit of each other's work. The two men are closer in age than the other pairings, and only Moses' work is actually new, so their "collaboration" doesn't really fit the criteria for the exhibition. Nevertheless, the posted excerpts of philosophical conversations between the two are thoughtful and highly entertaining, making one look forward to the longer versions promised in OCMA's upcoming companion catalog, due later this year.
It's no stretch to say Bancroft's subtle observations about the boys' club of the past collaborating with (and eventually giving way to) a better future dovetails neatly with current events. As the country prepares to vote on whether we can collaborate, or be our brother's keeper, or go it alone as a nation of Romneys gaming the system and badmouthing the people whom we fear, consider "Two Schools of Cool" a grace note (and hopeful accommodation) with this moment in history.
This review appeared in print as "Tag Team Time! OCMA pairs older with younger artists to fruitful results."
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