The Terror of Tiny Town
Utopias of sponge and cardboard at the HBAC
When you enter the Huntington Beach Art Center's new group installation show, "Ground Us," you first encounter Lucrecia Troncoso's The Tree of Life (Antimicrobial), featuring plants made of kitchen sponges. Colorful leaves made from sponges sounds like a ghastly flashback to summer-camp arts-and-crafts hell, but seen here, with sponge vines crawling across those clean gallery walls, the effect is beautiful in a genuinely otherworldly way. They're solid yet porous, and as the dim light flows through them, the "plants" cast eerie, speckled shadows. They look like flora samples brought back from another planet—lovely to look at, but perhaps toxic to the touch.
Troncoso has also set up a four-and-a-half-minute video-loop projection of a forest in Norway, and it all adds up to a pleasant, relaxing scene, seemingly in keeping with the show's stated goal to present each artist's vision of utopia. But then you think about it a little more—the artificial, germ-free, too-green plants popping up all over, plus an endless forest scene on the wall. This is less like a utopia, and more like something you'd find in a fallout shelter designed to see you through a generation-long nuclear winter.
Then you wander into the next room and find Patrick Williams' The Finishing Touch, a cheeky epic very few of us would describe as utopian. Made of cardboard, molded plaster and whatever other cheap junk Williams could get his hands on, the piece is a floor-filling miniature city (What do you call a really large miniature? A bigature?) that's being laid to waste by a cute monster costume shaped sort of like a mailbox. The city is highly stylized, painted in grim shades of black and white to resemble an old cartoon. The citizens of this Lilliputian metropolis seem to be going about their business, as if invading, skyscraper-sized monsters have become a matter of routine. I suppose you might say this thing is utopian—if you dream of someday living in the same neighborhood as the Powerpuff Girls.
You can really see all of the hard work and passion that went into this goofy, amazing, amazingly goofy piece. The level of detail is crazy; it's exhausting to think about what Williams probably had to go through to get it made. (For a laugh, check out the corporate logos on the sides of all those tiny, handmade trucks.)
And you'll probably feel sick with regret that you missed opening night—the art event of the season!—when Williams put on the mailbox monster suit and stomped around, trashing the tiny town he'd spent so long building while toy airplanes on strings spun around overhead. Apparently, the damage wasn't too lasting—Williams probably pulled his punches—because it's not like his piece is now a big pile of busted cardboard or anything.
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While putting on a confining costume and wrecking his cardboard masterpiece was surely a hot, sweaty ordeal, you still kind of have to envy Williams. As toddlers, we throw our toy trains around, dreaming of being Godzilla. But Williams lived the dream. Actually, maybe kicking his little bigature around was his version of utopia.
Finally, you arrive in the twisted little world of Kiel Johnson. He's one of the most interesting local artists working today; he makes great, useless gadgets and does drawings full of endless, fiddly detail. But I gotta say, Survival Mode, his installation in this show, didn't wow me like some of his other pieces have. Yeah, his drawings of impossibly twisty, congested cities are always a kick, and you can't help but be impressed by the wall of '70s car stereos or whatever the heck those things were. But the hanging jacket full of enough supplies to survive on for several days after a terrorist attack—okay, we get it, you guys were being sarcastic about the "utopia" thing—is rather limp Johnson. Fortunately, this guy has a seemingly unstoppable imagination, and I've no doubt I'll stagger from his next show feeling the kind of awe that Johnson's fans have come to expect and demand.
Besides, when Johnson is the weak link, you know you've got a damn-fine show. If every OC art event was this good, we'd indeed be living in utopia.
"Ground Us" at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650; surfcity-hb.org. Call for hours. Through Aug. 31.