Photo by Jack GouldThere's a cherished prejudice in our culture: artists should be nuts. If Van Gogh had been a stolid, phlegmatic middle-class citizen, how much attention would we have paid to Starry Night? Enough to get a song by Don "American Pie" McLean named after it? If Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo hadn't been so impossible to each other? His murals would still stand up, but the pair wouldn't loom so hugely in our shared cultural consciousness—just ask Sequeiros and Orozco. And Andy Warhol? If he hadn't been such a bizarre, whispering, obsessive pansy leading a tumultuous life alongside bizarre, junked-out debutantes, his silkscreens would be about as critically beloved as the pencil portraits of celebs that OC's "Bradford" used to sell at swap meets before he decided to do Real Art. Big, dumb brute Jackson Pollock? Sneaky, arrogant junkie Basquiat? Why do you think people hate "Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade so much? Because he's sensible and happy and bourgeois. He doesn't suffer. You get the idea.
And now Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery has got the idea. "A Little Application of Our Much-Touted Know-How" is brilliantly insane. It's fruity and cuckoo and downright bananas. It's also extremely well-curated. Bring your reading glasses and prepare to while away an afternoon; the Guggenheim has even seen fit to include a table filled with clip books of newspaper accounts and research into the wacky subjects.
The exhibit has four discrete insanities at work. The Veilleux family got all caught up in photographing ghosts they'd contacted by Ouija board in the '60s and '70s. The Hawaii Remote Viewers' Guild say they can view the future by doing mind exercises. David John Oates is all hung-up on "Reverse Speech." And the looniest of them all, Richard Sharpe Shaver, thinks rocks are picture books created by an ancient alien civilization.
Poor Richard Sharpe Shaver. While the other three pieces of the exhibit seem to have some unexplained phenomena to intrigue us (and we'll get to them), Shaver's theories on rocks seem totally divorced from reality. But he sure made nice paintings out of what he saw in those rock sections! Indeed, when Shaver painted what he saw—creatures devouring one another in epic battles—he revealed an evocative vision; he must have been a great one for Rorschach blots. But if you can see what he saw, some lithium might be in order. For instance, Is This What Amphibious Man Looked Like? shows a grey blob. It confirms his theory that amphibious man (mermen) roamed the seas by pointing to their pictures in rocks. But if that's a merman, then my dust-bowl of a lawn is a crop circle. In some displayed pieces, Shaver merely highlighted portions of rock rather than interpreting them for us with his paintings. You know what the highlighted sections looked like? Nothing.
Shaver was a great nut (he passed on in 1975). He wrote, at length, for the sci-fi comix Amazing Stories. And he must have been very happy, cranking out page after typewritten page about alien ancestors. It must have been very like Scientology.
The Veilleux family, while probably just as nutty, had the foresight to get some university-associated engineers to witness their ethereal phenomena—and to provide the camera and film in at least one instance, so as to offer proof against earthly tampering. But while I'm all for ghosts and Polaroids of those ghosts, really—a Ouija board? They contacted ghosts through a Ouija board? If they'd just said people in their family were psychic, I'd have bought it, no problem—after all, what do we do with that other 90 percent of our brains?—but if it comes from Parker Brothers, how much truck with the departed can it possibly have? Still, the resulting photos are nice. Ghosties appear in clouds of fog during the middle of the day, obscuring the family members who would have been in the photo. One shows the faces of two gunslingers; while their portraits have been identified from some gunslingin' photo album, professional photographers told the curator the pictures couldn't have been simply copied due to the differences in the angles. Neat! My favorite, though, shows a nondescript riverboat, about which parapsychologist Jule Eisenbud, M.D., said, "[It] looked so fake I thought it just had to be genuine." Rock on, Dr. Eisenbud!
David John Oates, meanwhile, thinks we all talk backward (subconsciously) at the same time we're talking normally. His part of the exhibit? Three CD players, playing recordings of people's backward talk. Sometimes (okay, often), it's a stretch—do you really think OJ Simpson would ever say, "Damn your lust; never see lovers"? Even in his subconscious?
It's interesting—and supposedly illustrates Carl Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious—but who among us has the brainpower to talk forward and backward at the same time? It's hard enough for a lot of people to get their sentences out the proper way—just look at the Bush family! But maybe it's so hard for them because their brain has to figure out a way to say things backward and forward at the same time, arranging all those consonants to be intelligible. My boss compares the theory to Tuvan throat singers who can sing in two tones at the same time. Damn him, ruining my mockery!
The part of Oates' theory I will buy—and where does one get a tape recorder that can play things backward, anyway?—is about children who have yet to learn to talk. The most interesting tidbit was with a four-month-old baby. According to Oates, its mother was ignoring its cries until it gibberished, "Ymaaam." That penetrated the mom's concerted tuning-out of the baby, and she went and picked the child up. Backward, of course, one can clearly hear the baby say, "Mammy."
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As for the Hawaii Remote Viewers' Guild, I always like to hear that the CIA is experimenting with ESP and stuff. Good for them! It gives them something to do besides trying to assassinate world leaders—unless, of course, they're trying to assassinate them with ESP!
One wall shows a couple of pretty amazing "targeted drawings," extraordinarily detailed pictures of power plants and other objects, when the subjects had no idea what they were supposed to draw. But there aren't quite enough of them, nor enough information about what the double-blind testing consisted of.
Still, thank God (and the Guggenheim) the theories presented fall just short (or real short) of believable. Otherwise it'd be a science fair, not an art exhibit. And the people presenting them would be sane and not a bit interesting at all. Just like Thomas Kinkade.
"A Little Application of Our Much-Touted Know-How," Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 997-6729. Open Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through March 29. Free.