Its Quite Clearly a Monkey!

Photo by Jack GouldRegular readers of this column will surely remember some of the extremely droll, clever and witty aspersions I've cast upon Conceptual artworks, though I can't remember any that were merely off-hand. Nonetheless, I'm sure they were quite on-the-mark and undoubtedly hilarious.

This week, though, I find myself continuing my recent spate of positive reviews. In fact, of the two Conceptual shows I saw this week—"Ideas in Things," at the Irvine Fine Arts Center and "Habitu" at the Ron Breeden Gallery in Orange—neither blows. Apparently, I've been taken over by an art-booster Stepford pod.

That said, the sparse "Habitu" at Breeden—with just nine teeny sculptures, a wooden deck with rocks in it, a couple of watercolors, and a series of cartoonish drawings on yellow budget paper depicting the afterlife of a dead bunny—is delightful. With vast corners of the one-room gallery unadorned, it provides an almost feng-shui counterbalance to the busy industrial park outside. It's also the most tactile show that didn't incorporate pink faux fur I've seen in a while: I wanted nothing more than to walk all over the pine planks that formed the low platform of Samara Caughey's Viewing Deck and run my fingernails along the tiny grooves in the perfect little bugs and monkeys in Caroline Clerc's Love. But unfortunately, Breeden was hanging around, so I couldn't.

Clerc's Love is a series of tiny pedestals built into a wall. The bright creatures therein look as though they were formed from Plasticine. A monkey sits, dejected, with perfect teeny fingers and nostrils. A fish sleeps under a blanket of scales, its head on a little pillow. A rabbity thing is curled up in the fetal position, as is a little bird creature. A roly-poly bug and a turtle lie on their backs, struggling to right themselves. It's a very sad little display, vis--vis its title, but it has next to nothing to do with the title of the exhibition, which means "a person who frequents a certain place." None of the works do, in fact. I'm thinking the curator mixed up "habitu" with another word.

Caughey's pretty watercolors would seem to depict habitats: one is a verdantly mossy hollow stump, and the other is a perfectly multilayered honeycomb that looks like the inside of the round, padded Vodka Bar in New York's Royalton Hotel.

And Thy Nguyen's series about her dead rabbit, Elvis, is a weird comic-book look at his post-life wanderings, alone in other dimensions where wormholes transport him to places that feature red-and-blue molecular models sitting atop dead rabbits' heads like big Carmen Miranda hats.

Also, Clerc depicts what seems to be a grasshopper eating the flesh of a pupa, though other viewers seem to think the two are fucking. See? Fun show!

Despite its clunkily Art Appreciation 102 title, "Ideas in Things" is also mostly fun, though there are a few works not worth their unspooled tape. Still, it's not a bad average. The best works in the exhibit come right up front. Tom Friedman's untitled painting, which seems frescoed right onto the gallery wall, is a waxy, gleaming asymmetrical thing made of the most beautiful blue. As it turns out, the entire work is scumbled toothpaste. The other best work in the show is Lynn Aldrich's All I Know So Far. A shelf holds juicy green tomes bookended by bronzed baby shoes. The books are made of carved fat cactus leaves. Aside from any tortured interpretations of the work's meaning—the aridity of education, maybe, or the resilience of a book-learned mind even in the desert of unrelenting stupidity—it looks awful purty!

The exhibit seems to go on forever. David Ireland's installations are deserts of boringness themselves: a three-legged chair, a tray of "dumb balls" made of concrete, etc. William Anastasi's tend to be kind of tortured found objects, too, though he's well-respected. In the (well-worn, seven decades ago) tradition of Duchamp's "ready-mades," he presents a fan whose blades don't move but nonetheless produce a sound through a hidden speaker! Pretty deep, eh, wot? In his defense, he "created" it in 1965, a mere 41 years after Duchamp's Wine Rack. Anastasi also presents a lovely pool of high-gloss black-enamel paint in Pour. It drips down a wall to puddle quite delightfully on the gallery floor, making one want to roll around in it like a brontosaurus trapped and smothered in the La Brea Tar Pits. But if it was created in 1966, how does he keep it looking so wet?

Also very wet-looking is Rachel Lachowicz's Adorn—two giant nipples of wax and fire-engine-red lipstick. How this got into the Irvine Fine Art Center—a community center of the finest traditions—is beyond me. Shocking!

Lynne Hendrick's likably junky works tend to overwhelm with pointless ephemera bunched together on shelves—like the curio cases of crazy maiden aunts. But they surprise you every once in a while with a finely crafted object, like a small pin cushion that reminded me of Cornelius O'Leary's cigarette-butt turtles (which showed here a few years ago; venerable Times art critic Cathy Curtis went crazy for them), or a vial of words.

There are others here, too, of greater and lesser merit, but I've tired myself out. All this positivity is a dangerous thing.

"Habitu" at the Ron Breeden Gallery, 675-F N. Eckhoff, Orange, (714) 937-5934. Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; or by appointment. Indefinite; "Ideas in Things" at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, Heritage Park, 14321 Walnut Ave., Irvine, (949) 724-6880. Open Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sun., 1-5 p.m. Through Oct. 31.


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