It's so easy to ignore the Brea Gallery: it's in Brea.
But the city-run space is one of the few in the county that's taking a look, this fine Fourth of July, at the state of our union. There's happy flag waving and sappy Tower tears. There are small jewels depicting all of us—whether we're Goths (but not, happily, the clich that's American Gothic) or women with bad plastic surgery—in all our distilled Americana. And in "Land of the Free: Americana," celebrity curator Tyler Stallings—dude gets around!—doesn't stint on the artists sniffing and/or gnashing at poverty and homelessness and Gordon Gekko's corporate greed. It could be the '80s all over again; all we need is some hackysackers marching for a nuclear freeze!
Like you, I want to be Americano, except of course when I don't. And Stallings gets it all in. There are perhaps fewer figures actually wrapped in the flag than there are paintings by people who are all pissed-off, but they're all presented equally, sans snickering.
The Brea Gallery is a big space, and it takes a big show to fill it. Stallings does so beautifully, with dozens of pieces by dozens of artists grouped roughly into genres or themes. We start apolitically, with Lis Schwitter's Extraordinary Makeover—Angela and —Katrina. Pretty girls have been collaged with puffy clown lips and asymmetrical Jocelyne Wildenstein eyes. Our regional fetish for unfortunate plastic surgery is an easy target, sure, but it's an America I see every day. You?
In a middle gallery, Stallings gathers realist oils of our surroundings and our (David Brooks alert!) master-of-our-small-domain subcultures. Some show the LA River, with cop cars and gritty graffiti; it's an overdone bit of real estate going back to the '60s, but it's always nice to see scenes of SoCal that have nothing to do with yachts in a harbor. There's a beautiful Steve Metzger Mini Mart out in the desert under a Nevada sky and Diane Remick's Creating a New Perspective, in which shadows in a brick doorway take on the eerie appearance of a guillotine. There's Paul Barach's The Cook, a girl cop, gun on hip, leaning over her oven and taking out what's either chops or pizza pockets—and Sau Ying's Melrose, with dirty punks sitting on a curb. There are Indians and bikers/Vietnam vets. There are liars in buttoned-up Oxford shirts and a homeless man telling his life story from speakers mounted in a cardboard box.
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Moving on, there's a whole wall of Proud to Be an American, with a piece by that very name. In it, a man is literally wrapped in a flag while a general or a Shriner hides behind another one. I doubt it's meant to expose any empty jingoism—that's just cynical old me. Next to it, Ron Gershman's Little House of Flags is one of the loveliest pieces in the exhibit. The photo, of a little white shack with cosmos growing behind a rickety fence, is saturated with red, white and blue in flags and peeling paint. A methy kind of guy stands beside his banner.
When things move to Sept. 11, the show becomes iffy—but that's important here. It's an inclusive kind of show, a show for all Americans, even if they're maudlin and ham-handed; America's not only for cynics, but for weepy women as well. And so we have the Statue of Liberty shedding tears and cradling the Twin Towers in her arms. Oddly, she wears the flag as a veil over her face—has she moved to Saudi Arabia? Alicia Bobrowska's September Tears, meanwhile, is beautifully done except for the wince-making title. Her crumpled canvas is coated with falling steel cages, almost abstracted, and all painted ash.
Just like Brea.
"Land of the Free—Americana" at the Brea Gallery, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 671-3601. Open Wed.-Thurs. & Sun., noon-5 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-8 p.m. Through July 4.