When I wrote about "100 Artists See Satan" last month at Grand Central, I thought it was shallow and almost pointless. Sexy, yes. Fun, absolutely. "You can count on Grand Central to prize zip and dash and worldly panache over anything smacking of hard work," said I. "[A]ll their fun works, so zippy and dashing and panacherous, cohese to little more lasting than the thrills of a carnival ride. All that holiday while Cambodia burns."
I assumed the show it was sending up and knocking off—"100 Artists See God" at Laguna Art Museum—would do the heavy lifting. Instead of the skin-deep pleasures of "Satan" (imps; more imps; and imps with big, scary schlongs), I knew "God" would explore all of man's great quests: for the spirit and morality and justice and the mysteries and beauties of the universe.
As I assure you happens very infrequently, I was wrong.
What I wouldn't give for some devil dick now.
Curators Meg Cranston and John Baldessari must have meant well, but they made one major mistake: they turned to 100 of their friends or artists they admired and allowed them to select their own works on the topic—and their friends just didn't try very hard. The worst kind of laissez-faire curation, it resulted in Damien Hirst presenting a cabinet full of pharmaceuticals, Christopher Williams submitting a saturated color photo of a dishwasher full of plates, and Ed Ruscha's Peter Alexander-lite grayish rays of sun on a black canvas. God is light? Sho 'nuff! But Ruscha can do better—and has. Cranston and Baldessari, faced with this flotsam, made an attempt to impose order. Their resulting strata of themes—"Artists See God as Love," "Artists See God as the Great Organizer"—only occasionally have anything to do with anything. Love, yes. Light, yeah. "Artists See God as the Mother," yup. Even "Artists See God as Ineffable" is surely true. But does that mean we really have to see a bunch of paintings of stripes as the artists' way of saying they can't describe God? Stripes? Really? Fuck you.
Local art teacher Laurie Hassold's Trojan Mary series (condoms sculpted into the Virgin's likeness) and former costume designer Patssi Valdez's superficial Madonna imagery—that she created, as she later said, because she "really liked the style"—say more about faith, purity, humanity and the divine than this entire show put together. The problem is neither artist is in the show. How could they be when the space was needed for Rita McBride's Polyptychof evergreen air fresheners—the kind that were found in Repo Man's every car—and Kim Schoenstadt's photos of a freckled arm? Yes, God knows your every freckle. But with one shot to be included in this show, is that the deepest thing you can say on the subject? And is that the most skilled way you can think of to say it? Or did you, as I think is more likely, just go through your old works and attempt to find something that might conceivably be apropos? Good Christ, you are so dull.
Do I think every examination of God needs to be literal? Will I only be happy with neo-classical representations of the Virgin? Of course not (though I am a sucker for them). I can see God in Chris Burden's noble dog (New Dog and New Moon) and Louise Lawler's curled-up mouse, Somebody. I certainly see it in Andreas Gursky's massive aerial photo of a hundred thousand people gathering together as small as dots in Love Parade. I even allow as some black and white dots can represent infinity—if I must. And Franz West's shellacked, poo-like object? The divine in the earthbound—or a negation of that notion. Either way—and no matter how much you rip off Gilbert & George—I'm down. At least you bothered to be obscene.
There are good works in the show. James Gobel's All around You and inside You is a busy acrylic of a haloed fat man. His long-eyelashed eyes are soft and sweet; his big-homo mustache curls down his face. Both are drawn onto his face in graphite, making him look faded and fey and weak and womanly. All the same, he is blessed. Yutaka Sone's blue acrylic of a skier trekking across a mountain is pedestrian but for the title: It Is a Fine Day Today. There's joy like a hymn in that name. Ray Pettibon's untitled mother and child (I know) is a beautifully Japanese inkwash that looks sort of like Uma Thurman. It is graceful and at least fits the freaking theme. Eleanor Antin's The Last Day is one of those pomo retakes on the classics (in this case, a photo re-creation/tableaux of Pompeii) that rails against the concept of God but seems to take a macabre delight in his senseless destruction. There were more fine works besides the ones I've cataloged here—even jokey one-offs that were on-point, well-executed and had a bit of flash to them—but 20 good works can't carry 80 dull and lazy ones when you're aiming for divine.
Meg Cranston and John Baldessari may know everyone—and with their combined CVs, I imagine they do. But a roster of hip names proves nothing if they're handing you crap. It's not who you know, but what they know. Maybe they're not intellectually up to it. Maybe they're too self-absorbed to be able to contemplate a mystery. Or maybe they just didn't bother to deliver.
"100 Artists See God" at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Call for hours. Through Oct. 3. $5-$7.
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