Dont Hate Them Because Theyre Beautiful

Art photographed by Keith MayI cannot in good conscience recommend going to Bistango to see "Relationships: Bodies and Boundaries" unless you're already there for dinner. (A mighty fine dinner, to be sure, in very class-ee surroundings.) And once you're there, you should just shut up and eat, or eat and talk about your mutual funds and your BMW and, I don't know, how much you enjoy the spinning classes at Sporting Club Irvine. Whatever you do, please do not pay any attention to the ambitious exhibition on the restaurant walls.

"Is there something wrong with the art?" you may be asking. "Is it offensive, or ugly, or stupid, or shallow?" Mais non, ami! It's ship-shape and quite nice, if extremely commercial, but we'll explore that interminably in a later paragraph. It's just that you don't want to be that person—walking around the restaurant, peering intently at the walls because, you know, you are so greatand cultured and you love art. Like praying, which Christ Almighty admonished was not to be perpetrated where people could see your piety—most especially not in photo ops, Mr. President. Art appreciation is best hidden under a bushel basket. Repeat after me: I am not a pretentious assbag. Good!

However, not only was I a pretentious assbag when I showed up at the posh Irvine eatery last week, walking slowly around the restaurant's perimeter, but I was also taking notes. There's nothing more pretentious or assbaggier than whipping out a notebook in front of the waitstaff. It practically screams, "Hey! Rather than standing with your back to us for 15 minutes while refusing even to take our drink orders even though we're the only customers in the entire place because you're too busy chatting with the bartender and we don't look very rich, why not realize how terribly, terribly important we are and make the tuna tartare on the house?"

I ought to mention at this point that Bistango's tuna is merveilleuse, with a surprising and delightful slathering of guacamole across the top of what is a very hefty appetizer.

The art? It's polished, very commercial and saleable, and not offensive (though there are a couple of nudes thrown in for that famous Irvine Edge—i.e., people in Irvine like to feel really urban/urbane, as evidenced by the number of upper-middle-class youths listening to gangsta rap). The pieces themselves are for the most part quite nice, and there are lots and lots of them—most of the artists in the show have contributed at least four or five works in styles ranging from Gerry Schwartz's photorealist skies (he's matured wonderfully from his former schmaltzy sunsets to vistas with real drama in the storm clouds) to a plethora of massively scumbled Abstract Expressions. I swear, with all that pigment glopped on, they must have taken an entire month to dry. The only running theme I could deduce (despite the title of the exhibit) was that they are all works for rich people. Each and every one of them would look quite smashing over a divan in Anaheim Hills or Corona del Mar—though one bets that wall space is already filled with Lichtensteins and Diebenkorns. And each work meshes perfectly with Bistango's chic dcor.

Joshu Lucas has a series of wimmens that bear a Billy Al Bengston-style tropical print; one, sitting on her calves and wringing her hair out behind her like a Bettie Page snap, has real nice cha-chas. Kristen Prosser contributes a series of Nagel-like women, their faces divided on the canvas into different personalities. Woman In Mourning, for instance, is half arm candy and half weepy hag. Cleopatra is sexy and gilded in one quarter, while another looks like her eye has been eaten out by worms, although I don't think that was the intention. Sadly, I couldn't spot Nora Novak's work, though I did the circuit twice. I was looking forward to seeing some of her paintings, which are always glamorous and sexy and sparkly and sometimes really risqu—all without being vacuous or trite.

Moving on, Miguel Andujo's rough, chalky figures (hidden in a hallway between dining rooms—and don't think that's by accident) use primal shapes: arms are columns, heads are ovals, wigs are arches. It manages to look just like Vladimir Cora, though without all the distracting "I'm a modern artist" squiggles and scrawls. Marty Ketcham's Volcano National Park, Big Island IIIis a lovely Fauve with arcs of plum and Gauguin-green. But it's a matter of diminishing returns: the first in the series is quite lovely, but after that, each looks like a paler copy of the first.

So what do we make of this glittering ensemble—and the 40 more like them? The class warrior in me wants to gag, or at least sneer. If the artists themselves aren't rich, they certainly aspire to the Irvine/Laguna/Mission Viejo market. But they don't seem to be particularly pimping themselves out; they're not, mostly, soulless, though many are certainly dumb. And they are pretty; that I grant them. Sometimes, as with a third wife, beauty is its own excuse. Don't hate them just because of it.

"Relationships: Bodies & Boundaries" at Bistango Gallery Restaurant, 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine, (949) 752-5222. Call for hours. Through Jan. 31.


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