The Great Indoors
Movies, mulch and madness at a pair of Santa Ana art shows
Looking at “Contempt Mandala,” Richard Turner’s new solo show at the Grand Central Art Center, I was reminded of just how thin the line can be between artist and crazy person. Now, I’m not trying to suggest Turner is any crazier than any other artist. But the same things that artists are supposed to do—spending months or years devising their own complex worlds full of unlikely creatures and nations that never were; obsessively collecting junk; filling endless notebooks with scribbles and half-formed thoughts; disregarding social propriety and running around naked or doing weird stuff with their bodily fluids; seeing the world in ways that nobody else does—are the same things that get people locked up in the crazy house.
“Contempt Mandala” is Turner’s highly idiosyncratic response to the 1963 Jean-Luc Godard film Contempt. The film is a love-it-or-hate it proposition, a typically crabby Godard number about the dissolution of a hack writer’s marriage, featuring Jack Palance as a sleazy producer, director Fritz Lang in a rare acting role and, perhaps most famously, Bridget Bardot’s ass. Turner uses the film as a jumping-off point, incorporating elements of it into new footage, transporting the characters from Italy to India, building little objects based on elements from the story. Turner has filled this darkened space with paintings, projections and various handmade geegaws, all centered on a rough, unfinished-looking table. It feels like a visit to the more dimly lit corners of Turner’s memory.
I’ll confess to never having been too enamored of Godard’s work in general, and Contempt in particular, so I didn’t experience the kind of deep, film-geek connection with Turner’s installation that I would’ve with, say, a similar installation based on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But “Contempt Mandala” is compelling stuff by itself, whatever you think of the film that inspired it. It’s like a more sophisticated version of something an imaginative little kid would do when he loves a movie so much that he fills his bedroom walls with photo collages of the characters having new adventures and visiting him at school. (There’s also a touch of the endearing/scary fan about it, like those guys you see online who’ve made their own elaborate Ghostbusters suits, complete with 37-pound backpacks that light up and hum with the flick of a switch.)
You find yourself both impressed and baffled by the connections Turner has drawn, the new narrative he has sketched in between the film’s frames, and the way he has inserted his own life into it. If Turner’s work here sounds self-indulgent, it’s no more so than Godard’s film was. Godard took the basics of Alberto Morovia’s original novel and got wacky with it, reworking characters as he saw fit, incorporating many elements of his own life and taking an onscreen role as Lang’s assistant. This is what all artists do with an adaption, to a greater or lesser degree: They make that entire world their own, as they struggle to achieve the unachievable and put us inside their heads and show us life as they see it.
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The artists of the “Naturally Synthetic” show at @Space also offer unique takes on life, only the life they examine is more floral than faunal. They look at the natural world around us, at the mess we’ve made of it, and the strange things it’s up to despite our best efforts to tame it. Bamboo prickles like porcupine quills, felt mushrooms pop up, and little forest creatures sport crabgrass pelts as similes seem to blossom all around us. Shannon Faseler somehow makes something graphically pleasing of mold, while Dameon Lester presents an impressive assortment of fake, colorful rocks—simultaneously realistic and as tasty-looking as a bowl of Jelly Bellys.
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As I write this, the sky is a queasy pink from the wildfires. We’re reaching a point when even our (blessedly) outgoing president cannot deny that the environment has gone seriously screwy. But even as we befoul the world, we can at least take some consolation in art, in the knowledge that ash and heaps of garbage are not all we’ll leave behind. Within the tiny @Space, we find a psychedelic new universe is aborning, closely related to, but distinct from, our own.
Richard Turner’s “Contempt Mandala” at the Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Dec. 21; “Naturally Synthetic” at @Space Gallery, 2202 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 835-3730; www.atspacegallery.com. Open Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.; Sun., by appointment. Through Dec. 6.