OCMA's 2008 California Biennial Is the Gift That Keeps On (and On and On) Giving

Raymond Pettibon, "No Title (I thought California)," 2008

Too Much Good Stuff
OCMA’s 2008 California Biennial is the gift that keeps on (and on and on) giving

It’s Christmas morning, and you stagger downstairs to open presents with your family. You get everything you wanted. But then you discover there are more presents beneath the tree. You spend the next hour unwrapping gifts, and it’s all great stuff . . . then there are still more presents, scattered across the rug, stuffed into the closet, piled in the tub upstairs. It’s like they’re breeding, and you face the daunting prospect of opening a seemingly never-ending supply of gifts.

That sort of describes the experience at the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2008 California Biennial. There’s more than enough to see within the museum itself, but guest curator Lauri Firstenberg (she of Culver City’s LAXART) didn’t stop there. The show has spread like an outbreak of monkey pox, with tie-in exhibits in the museum courtyard and other outdoor areas; at the Lab in Costa Mesa and other venues throughout Orange County; at select sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco; and even across the border in Tijuana. There are more than 20 off-site Biennial art events involving 53 artists. Just about the only people who could possibly see the entire exhibit are eccentric, Scrooge McDuck-esque millionaires who can afford to spend a few days flying their private autogyros up and down the coast . . . and let’s face it, that’s a niche market, at best.

If your autogyro happens to be in the shop right now, you’ll do fine if you just stick to what’s on display at the museum itself. The place is packed with art, making the previous OCMA biennials look like those sad little deals in which some guy sets up a lawn chair in the parking lot of a gas station and tries to sell framed prints of crashing waves and baskets of kittens.

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There are a few essentials: UC Irvine professor Daniel Joseph Martinez’s Call Me Ishmael or the Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant is an object of horrible fascination, a life-size, twitching, animatronic self-portrait that’s like something out of a Disneyland Imagineer’s nightmare. Dressed in plain white scrubs in a plain white room, this poor creature could be a hospital patient abandoned by his doctors or a prisoner of war enduring some sort of “enhanced interrogation.” In any case, he’s the most disturbing replicant since Rutger Hauer.

For my fellow tall folks, the Vanishing Intent installation by Martinez’s ex-student Marco Rios will offer the sadistic thrill of watching our runtish friends and lovers struggling to make their way through a room that’s too damn small. The room was apparently built to the 5-foot-4 Rios’ own height, but if he thinks he’s getting some sort of revenge on taller people by literally making us stoop to his level, he’s got it all wrong. Yes, if you’re taller than 6 feet, you’ll pretty much have to crawl around on your knees to get through this thing, but it’s worth it just to watch all the shorties squatting down and whining about how that low ceiling makes their necks hurt.

There’s plenty of political art on display, and if it sometimes thumps you in the gut with an obvious point, you can’t deny its potency. Rodney McMillian has tacked up some spattery flags with gross stuff hanging from the bottom; one orange flag has what appears to be a giant pair of dangling, lopsided bull testicles, which sounds like something Toby Keith fans would be happy to salute. Marco Ramirez has a live video feed coming in from the fence along the U.S. border. Outside the museum, Ramirez has given street signs a provocative makeover, while Sam Durant has shanghaied the ubiquitous, flapping advertising banners, replacing them with bilingual messages about immigrant rights.

Patrick “Pato” Hebert’s outdoor project Text Messaging: 1,000 Points of Might is more oblique, but no less startling or effective. It consists of dozens of colorful lawn signs, only instead of messages about voting yes or no for various propositions, they feature such pronouncements as “I FEEL VULNERABLE WHEN I’M ANGRY” and “PAYING FOR GAS IS DIFFICULT FOR ME.” After the ugliest political season in memory, the signs offer the chance to put the seemingly unsolvable problems of modern America behind you and get more introspective for a while, retreating into the warm, dark recesses of your own neurotic skull.

Well, now you’re on the lawn, so you may as well begin the long drive to visit some of the other Biennial art scattered around the globe. You have too much neat stuff to see and not enough life left to see it all in. But hey, there are worse problems to have. . . .


The 2008 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Wed. & Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through March 15. $10; students/seniors, $8; members/children under 12, free.

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