Laguna Beach's Diane Nelson Fine Art gallery has always been well-behaved.
The openings: not embarrassing. The artists: reserved, well-modulated and well-shod. The favored shade on canvases: a sandy ecru.
For these reasons, Diane Nelson has always been hit-and-miss. The hits come with talented and also commercially palatable artists that tend more toward moody, could-be apocalyptic beach and fen scenes than florid Mediterranean villas. The misses are only a tendency toward aloof, elegant sameness. Really? The guy with the blurry houses again?
Despite that, Diane Nelson is the biggest name in town alongside Peter Blake Gallery: hers is in better taste; a harp player at an opening would fit in just fine. His is more fun and frequently more nude.
But opening its inaugural exhibit last week was gcg: greenwood chebithes gallery. Sue Greenwood and Brett Chebithes are looking to yank Nelson's mantle away as a gallery/repository for representational painters (they're almost always representational painters) aiming toward the tranquil, unruffled life of the blue-chip artist. They're also looking to liven it up. The main question is: How far away from Diane Nelson will Greenwood—Nelson's former gallery director—run? Omigod! It's just like Al Gore and Bill Clinton!
The answer is: Greenwood won't run too far from Nelson's center. How do I know? Because there's that dude with the fuzzy houses!
There are 21 artists set to "dazzle" Laguna in "New Romantics," according to gcg's press release. Are all of them dazzling? Don't be silly! But the work is still often meaty and always, at the very least, eye candy. Romantic, with its fuzzy focus like a Vaselined lens on an aging film star? Certainly. And predominantly sandy ecru? That, too.
The most beautiful of the works belong to Daniel DuPlessis. (As a full disclosure, I own a DuPlessis piece, a small one with morning glories and hummingbirds, that I really couldn't afford when I bought it. In fact, I had terrible buyers' remorse and refused to hang it for a long time, but once I did, the guilt disappeared quite by magic. I am not trying to raise its value.) The first of his works is a gnarled, thorny tree limb in embossed relief. It glistens white, covered in a snow that's almost gold. The second, even more beautiful of his works is a dense thicket of jungly vines and thorns. Nestled in them are hibiscus and asps and hearts, jewels of flowers and small creatures. Most important, they're trapped under such a heavy, crystalline glaze it's as if you're looking into a preserved moment in time, like the ruins at Pompeii or the brontos at La Brea. Embedded beneath the shiny glaze is a fairytale land, stopped, unmoving, in amber.
The front room is given over to large narratives. Jorge Santos paints whimsical, detailed allegories, but the first, which features a foursome in Disney hats sitting at a table and jousting with small Mickeys and Donalds, can be safely chalked up to "Llyn Foulkes" and left at that. The second is more promising: two characters in a box on a boat wear bizarre bathing caps and paper hats and look at the viewer out of drag-queen eyes. It's very Paul Cadmus, but without the scandalous homo sailors doing it on shore leave.
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Lance Morrison's To Become features hummingbird silhouettes on sandy ecru. Pretty. And then Sang Young Bang gives us Masquerade and Eviscerated, two large portraits of a woman looking very insecure. The rest of the exhibit is contained neatly in two stories. Patti Oleon's treatments of beams of light piercing dark, richly appointed mansions are skillful—the best features a Tiffany window of kelly green that reminds me poignantly of the defiant exit-sign-green dcor at Austin's Driskill Hotel—but her canvases come nowhere near the mystical illumination of Richard Ross' "Gathering Light" at the Orange County Museum of Art last year. Gary Ruddell's Terre Verte is a nicely corpsey woman floating corpsily naked in a steep-tilting emerald wave. His studies for Boy are entrancing. A boy holds the same crooked position in two small canvases, but against different monochromatic backgrounds, one green and one violet. Maybe it's the intimate size, or maybe it's the Pop/Multiples feel of the same frozen boy jumping again and again. But there's more to that one small image than all the diamond chandeliers in Oleon's mahogany palaces.
Some of the more popular pieces in the show left me the coldest. Scott Greene's Hey, Wayne aims for Sandow Birk-like postmodernism, but instead of surfers replacing soldiers in an appropriation of Washington Crossing the Delaware, it's a bucolic farmer under a yellow sky baling hay onto a dragster. That leaves, what, 14 artists about whom we've said nothing? It happens when you've got such a large, broad show. Some of them, too, are terrific. Some are less-so. There.
Let's leave it with Rick Monzon, of the soft-focus homes. They are moody, deserted and under stormy skies. They are beautifully painted, tasteful and vaguely Eichler—hip, understatedly wealthy—in their California design. They're around a lot. And they're very well-behaved.
"NEW ROMANTICS" SHOWS AT GCG, 330 N. COAST HWY., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 494-0669. TUES.-SUN., 11 A.M.-5 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 22.