Christmas is weird. We're all so used to the weirdness, and so busy running around buying all these damn presents, that most of the time we don't even think about how weird it all it is. But it's weird.
We're ostensibly celebrating the birth of Christ on Dec. 25, but nobody really believes that was his actual birthday. (We're not even going to get into the much thornier issue of whether Christ ever literally existed at all.) This was the time of year when the pagans would celebrate the solstice, and the Christians basically invented the whole Christmas thing in order to entice the pagans to sign up without losing all of their winter rites. Christmas borrows a whole lot of symbolism and activities from Saturnalia and other pagan winter festivals, including the exchange of gifts, the lighting of candles, the feasting and the singing. Even the "12 Days" of Christmas coincide with the winter solstice.
Of course, modern Christmas celebrations do not usually feature the public nudity of Saturnalia. (We'll leave it to you to decide whether this is a good thing or not.) But otherwise, our Christmas celebrations are at least as peculiar as anything the pagans ever dreamed up. We tell our kids that a fat old man in a red suit is traveling through the skies in a sled pulled by eight tiny reindeer--led by one reindeer with a glowing, red nose, as if the whole thing wasn't already hallucinatory enough. The old man can see what you're doing at all times, and he judges you "naughty" or "nice" according to some worryingly vague criteria of his own devising, and if you're good, on Christmas Eve, he'll make his way down your chimney and give you an iPod. Eventually we grow up and learn that the Santa we know and love is basically Thomas Nast's Coca Cola mascot come to life, but by then we're so numb to the weirdness of Christmas that nothing surprises us anymore. We see that commercial where Santa goes sledding down a hill on an electric razor, and it seems perfectly natural to our poor, Yuletide-fried brains.
And just what the hell is it that we do when we go "wassailing," anyhow?
At least Christmas ornaments are nice and dull and predictable. Silver balls, golden stars, maybe some chili peppers if you're nasty. We never question why we hang this crap on dead trees in our living rooms, but we take some comfort in the homey tradition of the things. But the artists in the J. Flynn Gallery's new exhibit, "Tree Trimmings II: The Ornament Show" (the sequel to a 2004 show at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica), seem determined to make ornaments as surreal as everything else about the holiday.
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Some of the ornaments here are fairly traditional, like Megan Brain's paper dove. But most of them are some flavor of odd. An artist who goes by the name of Inky Dreadfuls creates creepy little hanging things featuring grumpy-looking children, while Mindy Cherri's ornaments commemorate the seven deadly sins. There are Tim Burton-y, Goth ornaments; a "Robot Santa" only slightly less disturbing than the one from Futurama; cholo ornaments and Tusken Raider ornaments. There are also paintings, including Brian Viveros' oils, featuring roughed-up punk chicks in Santa hats, and Nathan Spoor's charmer, "The Memory of Snow," depicting a centipede-like extraterrestrial diffidently receiving a gift from a little girl. Oh, what the heck--let's invite aliens to the Christmas party! After all, it can't get any stranger than it already is.
One would be tempted to proclaim that the ornaments in this show, while quite interesting, really aren't that much more exotic than some of the Christmas gee-gaws currently on sale at your local hipster shop for a few bucks each. But this time of year, even we art critics have to do what we can to be a little less mean and Scrooge-ish, to make with the peace on Earth and the goodwill toward men. And so, we put our minor reservations aside, and we present you with this little gift of a show.
Note that this is one circumstance where re-gifting is encouraged.
"Tree Trimmings II: The Ornament Show" at the J. Flynn Gallery, 2950-A Randolph Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-3504; www.jflynngallery.com. Open Tues.-Sat., noon-6 p.m. Through Sat.