Not Crap!

Photo by Jack GouldOnce a year, Newport Beach's ladies who lunch take charge of the Orange County Museum of Art's Pacific Craft Show—"show" as opposed to "exhibit," which means if you've got giant piles of greasy cash, you can buy the lovely baubles instead of merely gawking like the rest of us.

Pat Steinmann and Jane Heber have been working since November to amass the works of some of the finest artisans in the country, and while it would be easy to pooh-pooh the work as playthings for the rich, don't. The display is undeniably lovely, far surpassing previous collections with items that are whimsical, gorgeous, and positively beaming with fun and good taste. Steinmann and Heber have done an outstanding job.

More than 50 artists have piled great heaps of jewelry and blown glass and intricate wood carvings on pedestals throughout the museum's galleries. This is not a show for your Ritalin-addicted 7-year-old.

There are certainly items that scream for a 6.0 on the Richter scale to topple them from their nouveau riche perches—I'm thinking particularly of some $18,000 blown glass that looks like those giant clams so prized in Japan, waving one of its lips around like tentacles. But most of the works are screamingly pretty—or funny or cute (and I mean that in a good way). The textiles aren't boring, and the teapots aren't nauseatingly quaint. There are, however, some hippy-dippy earth-toned "gourd vessels" that should have gone out with the '70s but are apparently here to stay. Pity.

But let's get back to the things I liked, shall we? Steven Dahlberg carves chessboards out of half-inch blocks of wood, meticulously fitting them together to form ramparts and castles, like his version of an Iberian Fortressand The Great Karacke of AD 1470. Giant rooks and bishops sit atop them, but who could play chess on the boards' squares when there are moats to guard?

Myra Burg's Quiet Oboesare rolls of hand-woven fabric stacked atop one another. The violet, teal and orange rolls look rich; some unravel to form fluffy clouds of frayed thread.

Susan Cauthen is a 24-year-old white woman from Louisiana; her small statues should invite some controversy. They're gorgeous Expressionist portraits of old black men and women. They're highly stylized, with mighty, capable hands and feet; they're cartoonish, with exaggerated lips and noses; and they're noble, showing old couples very much in love and mooning about in bubble baths and the sultry Louisiana heat. But while Cauthen clearly adores her subject, there are plenty who will say it's not proper for a young white chickadee to sculpt the "noble savage." And while the sculptures are wonderful to look at—funny, graceful and touching—there's plenty of merit to that argument. "Mammy" memorabilia may be making a big comeback among black collectors, but it's not being overly P.C. to suggest that it's not a young white woman's place to create it anew. It's condescending, even if well-intentioned.

Karen Urbanek's Dancing Pajamasare the perfect Pop antidote to anything too controversial—anything that might mar one's dinner party by offending, oh, anyone. But their fluffiness is the point. Hanging high in the corner of the gallery, they're small, flattened pairs of striped pajamas, about as real as the Dancing Baby that plagued the Internet a while back. They're totally meaningless and totally charming. A tapestry beneath them shows a grayish sky with tree trunks climbing. From our vantage point, we can't see the foliage. It's somewhat reminiscent of Peter Alexander's nighttime jungles, which showed here until Sept. 12.

Daniel Sadler's fabric lamps are hysterical, and I covet them. In vivid hues like magenta and aqua, they're sculpted into such mundanities as a retro '50s television set and a polka-dot dress on a hanger. And, like Rick Frausto's masterful robotic assemblages, they actually work.

You've seen Betty Spindler's ceramics before; everyone with the ducats to spare has the high-glaze bowl of bananas or the giant salad with olives and cukes. The hot dog with relish is also a fave, if borrowed whole-cloth from Claes Oldenburg.

And you've seen Randy Au before if you've hit Santa Ana within the past five years. His teapots are sweet, if not exactly those put forth by Scott Schoenherr, whose bright blowfish and elephants form the bowls of ornate Sino-Indian gilded pots. They're outlandishly beautiful.

And there's so much more—groovy silverware, jade boxes in geometric patterns, rings made from tiny crowns so your pointer finger can be king. There's a room full of neon and bowls full of glimmering, saturated color that look like solid Jell-O. It's dizzying and cohesive at the same time.

The show closes Friday, so do make haste. But it's a pity: if this splendor is what we can expect from the ladies who lunch, I may have even fewer people to snipe at in future. Like the heretofore awful Laguna Beach, the Orange County Museum of Art is hitting its stride. And I may be down for the count.

Pacific Craft Show at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Fri. Free.


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