Childish Things

Dutcher's Labratory of Endless Pleasures: Weird scenes inside the toybox. Photo courtesy of Mark Dutcher and Solway Jones, Los Angeles.

When we're small, we're all great artists. If you ever stop to really look at the art tacked up on the wall of the average kindergarten classroom, you'll see bold yet harmonious uses of color, simple but sharp compositions, and incredible imagination on display. Ask some random little kid to draw the scariest monster he can think of, and the chances are good that within three minutes, he'll come up with something wilder than what a team of Hollywood special-effects artists could devise if they spent a year sitting around a conference table and guzzling Red Bull.

But when we grow up, we lose it all, and our art turns to garbage. We become more focused on creating realistic images, struggling to get the eyes in the right places and drawing noses that don't look like piggy snouts. Suddenly, drawing becomes hard work, and we hate the ugly pictures we make. Most of us give it up sometime around our early teens, and by the time we become adults, creating art has become so foreign to us that we can barely draw stick figures anymore.

And so it's a wonderful thing to discover an artist who still has that childlike sense of play. Newport Beach native Mark Dutcher's work isn't technically dazzling. In fact, an enterprising art forger could round up a bunch of derelicts off skid row, pay them in donuts and smokes, and by day's end, they could probably produce a few dozen believable Dutcher facsimiles. And no single Dutcher piece cries out to you as a masterpiece. But it's the overall spirit of his art that transports you. You look around at "Shelf Life," Dutcher's new show at the Huntington Beach Art Center, and the experience is like a hit of pure kindergarten.

There's a giddy sense of why not? to Dutcher's work, seen most charmingly in his sculpted pieces and installations. He takes a drawer, fills it with yellow bricks and has a dandelion growing out of it. He mushes together dozens of letters from the alphabet and hangs them from the ceiling, like insects caught in a great spider's web. He puts weird stuff in jars; hangs a pretty flower in the air so its pale, frail shadow is projected on the wall; and gives us a washed-out, Death Star-like planetoid and its little black moon encased in a red pyramid thing for reasons unknown. (Perhaps, having lost two Death Stars so far—one of them thanks to the freaking Ewoks—the Empire has decided to start encasing its killer space stations in red pyramids as a safety precaution.)

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With all of these strange objects vying for our attention, Dutcher's actual, painted canvases initially tend to look a little samey by comparison—lots of spirals and blops. But then one of those canvasses catches your eye—and won't let it go. They kind of look like what you see when somebody slaps you, hard, across the face: a million brightly colored spots on a field of black, with squiggly little shapes mixed in. Here and there, you spot a representational object: a face. A tobacco pipe. Flowers. But mostly it's a lot of dots and blops doing funny things to your eyeballs, like that part at the end of the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he warns the audience that one of the first symptoms of rabbititus is seeing swirling red and yellow spots. Driving home from this show, you might just want to check in your rear-view mirror to make sure your ears aren't getting longer.

One of the most impressive paintings on display here, both in terms of its ambition and its sheer bulk, is The Laboratory of Endless Pleasures from 2005. The piece offers a career retrospective of sorts, with the canvas divided up into blue panels and each shelf offering various favorite Dutcher motifs: heads, flowers, dots and much more. It's like getting to peek inside the toy box that is Dutcher's mind. If you were only going to see one piece by Dutcher your whole life, this one would do fine. But fortunately, you won't have to see just one.

"Mark Dutcher: Shelf Life" at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650. Open Wed.-Sun., Noon-4 p.m. Through Dec. 16.

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