Photo by James BunoanArt coupled with anonymity has a certain power that trumps just about any built-in flaws—after all, everybody loves a good mystery. Graffiti went from art crime to art craze in part because of its firmly gray-area heritage; obscuro Texan nihil-folker Jandek wouldn't be half as creepy except that no one knows who he really is; Sub Pop's Damien Jurado released a whole album comprised of nothing but answering-machine tapes salvaged from thrift stores and garage sales that people actually—enthusiastically—bought. And then we've got the Haunted Painting of eBay (sadly recently de-anonymized), those ratty posters with the skull and the cell phone hanging off the sides of abandoned buildings, even a tiny microculture of people seeking and trading the agonizingly rare pre-karaoke "YOUR VOICE ON VINYL!" 45s they used to cut for frustrated housewives at the malls in the 1960s—it sounds a little sick, but hear the right recording, and you'll realize how addictively haunting it can be.
Essayist Jim Shaw seems a little too innocent to appreciate the weirdo gravedigging that fringe-y found-art connoisseurs demand, presenting his "Color Me There" show—culled by a guy named Steve Jones from four decades' worth of surf paintings salvaged from thrift stores—as a giddy exercise in total subjectivity, a chance to examine art that has been totally detached from the artist. But instead—and this is almost the rule for found art—it's the people behind the paintbrushes who are really on display here. These aren't just canvases; they're mirrors, Rorschach blots, maybe even tombstones.
Found art—found anything, from photos to tapes to the lost love letters from a prison inmate our buddy Stoopid Jonny once spotted fluttering past Kinko's—finds power in its lack of context, trading instead on a past abstracted into something simultaneously concentrated into the starkly real—a feeling of peering through a crack, of finding a message in a bottle—and diffused into the totally fantastic. It's an intersection of history, nostalgia and the imagination. Remember that scene in Don DeLillo's novel Underworldwhere they go to the Forbidden Shadow Shopping Zone, weaving through a murky warren of shops selling curled-up-and-dried National Geographics and 50-year-old hot-dog wrappers from Wrigley Field? The paintings in "Color Me There" could be the paintings hanging on those walls.
Shaw says in his notes that he has met only one thrift-store artist ever, who—of course—explained that the message she was trying to convey in her painting was predictably opposite from anything he had deduced. But none of the surfer painters collected here—whom Shaw surmises could be aspiring young surf babies, retirees in seascape-painting classes, even DEATH ROW INMATES!—have ever come forward. Instead, you've got to read their names—because the names are always more prominent than they are legible, as telling a peek into the psyche of the artist than anything that makes up the painting—as you'd read a line of spray-painted subway cars. DOREEN. SCHRIEFER. SDR 75. LEARY 64. AGRELLA. MASLACH. TWEEDY 64. LUNA 92. TAGARIS. KENRAY. MIOU. PRIEL. Even CLYILE ZIILEH, who should really just type it out next time. And then you've got to wonder what you're really looking at.
Technically, "Color Me There" has it all—from MILLER 70's archly dynamic surfer knifing through a wave to CRAIG's hamfisted-but-endearing two feet on a board, with stalls in every arts-and-crafty cul-de-sac that popular art went through over the past 40 years, from sandpainting to decoupage to modern airbrush to—oh, God, yes!—black-velvet painting. And historically, "Color Me There" tracks surfing the same way cave paintings chronicle the decline and fall of the wooly mammoth, from romanticized outsider sport to feel-good California fun to—in WILLIAM MAJOR TEODER 12-5-92—a slickly name-branded industry.
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But it's what they paint, not how well: almost every painting is a variation on a single theme, a blurry Everysurfer sliding down the face of a monster wave. It's an image repeated so often it transcends unoriginality to become almost a visual mantra. The surfer here is unswervingly solitary, except for three paintings. He's male in every case but one. And he's faceless—indeed, as anonymous as the artists who painted him. Why the repetition? Why the clich?
Well, maybe someone was copying from something they saw in a magazine. But maybe there's something more primal about that image—maybe somewhere behind these waves is a monster mess of anthropology, psychology and very basic unrehearsed humanity, answers to questions about our clumsy native creativity. The struggle to make something out of nothing—an interesting counterpoint to the solitary man-against-nature trope repeated so often—is overwhelmingly palpable in "Color Me There." It's a meek but unrehearsed look at how we learn about art, how we translate the world around us into something meaningful, even how we filter our own ideas out of the static and fuzz that surround us. The cave-painting analogy is apt, if inadvertently insulting: discounting the retirees in the classes (or maybe not), these painters made something simply to make it, exchanging a document of their creativity for their identity.
And it is an exchange—presented as traditional non-anonymous art, few of the "Color Me There" painters would ever have a shot of making it into a gallery. Without an artist over our shoulder, Shaw says, we can project anything we want into the art—but we can also take the work in "Color Me There" as a glimpse of the universal. Shaw's right about the seductiveness of total subjectivity, even if he might be too nice a guy to pick up on the voyeuristic frisson attached to seeing something that quite possibly the public was never meant to see. (Because we cockroaches have a saying when we find something incongruously cool—like a bunch of old punk records or a vintage skateboard—buried among the old-man sweaters at the Goodwill: "Who died?") But it's not just for laughs—"Color Me There" adds up to more than just some illegible signatures and a question mark. In these set-adrift paintings of silhouettes against the waves is the poignancy and the nostalgia, the ineptness and the inspiration, and the everyday anonymous effort that makes up history. And remember: history is one of the ways we define who we are. Somehow, it's very fitting someone donated it to the thrift stores.
"Color Me There" at Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Wed. & Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through March 30.