Nudes! Nudes! Nudes!

Like everyone else, I've spent weeks watching Orange County Sanitation officials look for the source of all the crap that washed up on the shores of Huntington Beach this summer. Unlike almost everyone else, I know the source: all the crap that used to hang on walls in Laguna Beach galleries seems to have disappeared—you can guess where—and it's been replaced by work that's almost terrifyingly terrific.

Suddenly, Laguna Beach is a good place to look at art again. Wonderful shows are up at BC Space, Peter Blake, Diane Nelson and the Laguna Art Museum. But among the best of these many bests may be "Indomitable Spirits: The Figure at the End of the Century" at the Art Institute of Southern California (AISC). In a word, the big, gorgeous and figurative show is stunning.

The AISC has enlisted notables like Odd Nerdrum (very constrained here; not his usual flamboyant self dripping gold like Sandra Bernhard in an Annie Leibovitz pic); Martha Mayer Erlebacher (lots of naked men); and the terribly tall Stephen Douglas, who is actually on staff.

One is confronted first by Douglas' Shadow, a life-size, dreadlocked black man in red stirrup stretch pants and a bangled top suggesting either pirates, harlequins or the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. He stands with his toes on masking-tape marks in a red circle—Douglas has left the tokens of the real world with which the painter poses his model but superimposes his subject before an almost auroric, glimmering sky, something you don't usually find in an artist's studio. His fingers drip blood; he is holding his curved saber too tightly. His face is beat-up and a little crazy.

Next is a life-size self-portrait, The Artist Advances Toward Middle Age. Douglas has very pretty feet, except his toenails are a bit scroungy and could use a good clipping. Also, he has a gigantic penis; humility (and, yeah, modesty) would require he sport a loincloth. Maybe tiger skin, if he still wants that feral, virile thing going on without actually intimidating the hell out of everyone. Truth be told, it looks like he's bragging—although in that peculiarly ingenuous way of acting as though he's being self-deprecating. Middle-aged? Pah.

Also, he paints a very Jewish-looking (very Howie Mandel) horned satyr in le temps perdu (time lost). But who can get past that penis?

Erlebacher is considered one of America's premier figurative painters. She fills her canvases with Henri Rousseau-esque deserts and lots of men who are walking around unclothed for no good reason. Rage, Rage . . .has three men (naked) alternately keening for and pounding on a supine, apparently dead (and naked) man. Her detail is marvelous: one can see each tiny rock in the foreground of her sienna canvas, as well as the stubble on the scalp of the man raising his fist. It invites a lot of imagining into the back story: it seems to vacillate between the women grieving over a dead Christ and the lurid violence of Shirley Jackson's terrifying novella The Lottery. What happened to all their clothes?

In The Path, Erlebacher sends an alabaster man jogging nude down a barren path, his face frozen like a statue's. He's stilted, somehow angry and otherworldly at the same time. Meeting him, jogging the other way, is a man with coal-black skin, who—surprise!—is also naked. Martha! For shame!

And then there are the dead nudes. Ruprecht von Kaufmann's The Driftwatches as a lion-maned dead guy floats downward through the ocean, where he is discovered (next to his mandolin) by a startled diver. It's almost Impressionistic, as the blue water gently dissolves its inhabitants.

Jean Rustin's Sur la Banquette Bleuehas folks who are not dead but may be dying: three figures, their faces muddled, seem to have that sad disease that makes ancient men out of 9-year-old boys. And Vincent Desiderio paints his little boy, a contraption about his neck to aid a congenital defect. Precipice has Desiderio holding his boy on his lap, kissing his cheek. It's a startling painting; though its edges are softened like a Romantic canvas, one isn't sure at first whether it's a loving father or a predatory one. "Precipice" could seem to refer to the mortal coil or a sexual danger. It isn't until we see the same child in Child on Bedthat we're reassured: this time, he's fully dressed.

The rest of the exhibit features people in clothes (mostly): Bo Bartlett's Dreamland has a motley crew marching through a stubbly field. They are all extraordinarily pretty and well-dressed, bringing to mind a perfume commercial. And John Nava's Study for a Magdalene should be one-third of a triptych, flanking the action as the Virgin is assumed bodily into heaven. Her drapery in particular is luminous, flowing from her shoulders to suggest wings. But she does not look ill-used enough to be Magdalene, whom we prefer depicted as haggard and nutty, as Donatello presents her in his fiery wood sculpture. Paul Fenniak's Nurse calls back another time, as a woman covered in white, her hair bundled inside a cap, stands modestly against a wall. She could be from the '30s or before. She is modest and not much thought of, blending as she does into the background. It's a breathtaking painting.

There is little to hate in this exhibit; everything seems right where it should be. And there's little to hate in Laguna Beach these days, which is confusing me to no end. Bring back the Impressionist seascapes and Mediterranean villas! Please!?

"Indomitable Spirits: The Figure at the End of the Century" at the Art Institute of Southern California, 2222 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-6000. Through Sept. 30. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m Free.


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