There's something about an asshole in the White House that gets creative types all riled up into fits of productivity: Richard Nixon presided over a generation of pop and psychedelia, Ronald Reagan launched a thousand gleefully perverse performance artists, and now we cross our fingers with the hope that Bush the Lesser will shock formerly boring artists out of comfortable social unconsciousness.
It's small consolation but consolation nonetheless: with four years of budget-sapping missile-defense shields, a social-services structure pared to the faith-based bone and that juicy $1.39-per-family tax cut, maybe we'll get something to look at that'll make us feel a little less doomed—or at least a little less outnumbered. And in an exhibit appropriately submerged in the shadow of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building, an edgy cabal of misfits (graffiti artists, skaters, metalheads and assorted weirdoes) hailing from the mean streets of San Diego and our own Orange County are giving us a peek at what the future holds—if we're lucky.
The artists of the aptly named Radioactive Future collective have been working on the edge of local art and culture for some time now; they're a venue and a organizational scaffolding for the stubbornly iconoclastic shadow art usually splashed across the side of warehouses or boxcars under penalty of arrest, offering some much-needed permanence to a creative community sometimes as fragmented as it is vibrant. They're a motley bunch, these Radioactive kids, but they share a loose and affecting vision of a dehumanized humanity. This is art for, about and perhaps even by freaks, mutants, loners and margin walkers, rendered in vivid and meticulous paint pen and aerosol. It's a message from the underworld, charged with an agenda as personal as it is social and political.
HAVOK's pieces are probably the most overtly, er, everything, really: a giant, glaring half-skull blasted across a blood-red screenprint pattern of men with guns and bodies with bullet holes, "PELIGRO DE MUERTE" dripping across as a caption. It's intense, as it should be: staring down those eye sockets is like staring down a pistol. His "Consume/ Conspire" series is just as compelling. It reeks of sickness and disease, all washed-out paint runnels and stained and pallid medical-textbook imagery. Someone faceless is offering bottles of pills or readying a syringe; the fine-print labels read, "LIES."
Jeff Raddatz echoes the same themes of manipulation and violence with his finely measured paintings of tiny people gone soft, deformed and fluid, packed like corpuscles into thin little tubes—going with the flow, hmm?—or his schematic marionette-master hands dripping blood against a pitch-black background. They're uncomfortably vivid metaphors laying bare the philosophical mechanisms of authority.
Show coordinator Bill Pierce and Costa Mesa's Poor Al literalize those mechanisms into oddly complementary pieces, riffing on the perils of a hypertechnological society. This isn't knee-jerk Luddism, but a just-around-the-millennium vision of a culture that anthropomorphizes its machines even as it dehumanizes its people. While Pierce's proto-robotic cyberassemblages warp innocent baby dolls into bristling war toys such as the "Neo-Fascist Republikkkan Beauty Queen" (a title that pushes pretty much every button out there) and "21st Century Postindustrial Female," Poor Al's deceptively cartoony paintings humanize deadly weaponry to the point that it's almost cuddly. You'd much rather hug one of his antipersonnel grenades than one of Pierce's babies, and that's probably the point.
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But there's more than just not-so-killer robots lurking over this event horizon. Lori D.'s skateboard deck paintings (which have been all the rage in assorted hipster art rags lately; you'll recognize her art when you see it) temper starkness with coy kid-in-the-back-of-the-class humor, juxtaposing almost cave-drawing-primal portraits with undulating color backgrounds and little surrealist vignettes. She has slipped a certain warmth and feeling underneath the irony and alienation that arcs off most of the other pieces in the show. Mike Maxwell's and Mike Jarboe's surrealist portraits (Maxwell's of blind-eyed, swollen-headed people awash in self-doubt and grim humor; Jarboe's retro-damaged airbrush monsters) share the same sort of wounded humanity as Lori D.'s, but there's something a little off: a certain cuteness aside, Maxwell's characters are too pervasively sad and isolated to smile at.
Is this what the future holds—the supercharged, street-style art of Right Now infused with the Cold War desperation and alienation that was supposed to be dead and buried in 1989? Maybe. After the bombs drop (blithely unscathed through that expensive missile-defense shield, no doubt), this is what will stagger from the ruins. There's definitely an air of Armageddon to this Radioactive Future, but there's also at least a few vestiges of humanity still persisting, pinned by monstrous technology and authority but stubbornly present yet—it's almost inspiring, in a way.
Inspiring except for one simple little piece: a portrait by an artist named Grimey. It's a disarmingly simple swatch of white cloth sprayed flat black and traced over to reveal an eyeless, hooded figure. It's palpably and intensely malevolent —alien, even. Back away from this one slowly: if this is a glimpse of what the future holds, we're all doomed.
Radioactive Future at the Arc Studio and Gallery, 316 W. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-2232; communities.msn.com/thearcstudioandgallery. Through March 31.