On Second Thought

As you all know, Mama's got issues about what she likes and what she don't. Almost psychopathically incapable of putting my own prejudices aside and seeing the good in genres besides my preferred ones, I am liable to speedwalk around area museums with a most unbecoming sneer.

Maybe it's because Nathan Oliveira wasn't really a part of the Bay Area school with—ugh—Richard Diebenkorn, even though he's been lumped among them and is considered the last of the legends. But after speedwalking through the first half of his retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art, I was seized with the previously unknown desire to go back and have another gander at what I'd already pooh-poohed.

Surely I didn't need another look at his circa-early-'60s faceless, scratched-out figures, scumbled with thick paint on backgrounds of industrial factory hues? You know, I only ever got halfway through this one slim book by some guy who sat for Giacometti and then detailed—and detailed—the experience. It was months of sitting, so he could emerge with a scribbled-and-erased, and scribbled-and-erased, black head. That, Giacometti said, was his real essence—not what we see with our lying eyes. Oliveira's figures are kind of like that.

Against my will, the second gallery was more interesting. His figures are still not solid—Spring Nude from '62 is a sheer viscous green that seems sculpted from melted Popsicle on a field of raspberry and ocher. The nude is liquid, like the wicked senator in X-Men. All that could hold it in place is a person-shaped Jell-O mold. Untitled from '91-'93 (many of Oliveira's paintings took two years, which seems really long if you're not doing trompe l'oeil) has a toothpaste-thick layer of sea green, over which is an unabstracted death mask.

Although I was already getting drawn in, it was in the exhibit's third gallery, confronted with his early '90s Windhover series, that I reassessed. The Windhovers are undoubtedly the most commercial of the works, but I'm of the belief that accessible isn't such an odious thing. Canvasses 15 feet wide stretch grandly across a wall apiece. Two are wheat-colored, one is black, and in each an arc slashes across the top of the painting in a burst of violent light. They're impressions of birds of prey in flight, but though the fancy of that could strike one as a bit fey—a bit Laguna—they're remarkable. Windhover III is a night scene, inky black and a violet arc; it reminded me of Peter Alexander's night jungle that once showed on the same wall. IV is taupe, and its burst of light is like the UFO rising above Devils Tower in Close Encounters—that or the corona from a very polite nuclear bomb.

One wall of the fourth room shows small pen-and-ink drawings, like Reclining Nude With Striped Stocking from '67. Her face is mostly shadowed but she still has features. The bottom quarter of the paper is sooty ink, from which rise her small-nippled breasts and her abundant bush. One leg is in the air. She is very '67, with a dash of Moulin Rouge.

Back in the first gallery again, I saw Standing Man With Hands in Belt from 1960. He is grain-colored, slashed through with blue. He is depthless, a silhouette only. There is no life in his standing body. He is the shadow left by an atom bomb. He is death, standing with hands in belt.

The "Cardoso Flea Circus" is about life, even if it is dedicated in memory of the late, great Fearless Alfredo.

It takes life to spin a big-top tent from sea green and fuchsia taffeta, and to teach fleas to tango. It takes life to make tiny little trains for strongman fleas to pull, and to shoot them out of cannons and into a net (for flea safety). At OCMA, the big top and two rings of the circus are there for your perusal. The feats of the fleas (captured on video) include crawling up Maria Fernanda Cardoso's arm. (The video needs to be shown in a darker room; it's often hard to make out with the lights of the circus shining below it.) The show opens with Cardoso waving colored penlights for spots. In closeup, you can see the fleas' spindly little legs as they walk, not hop, according to their trainer's desires. They are perhaps not the highest form of life, these fleas with their exotic names (Dmitri, Brutus, Tini y Tiny), but Cardoso's decided any life-form can have celebrity—and even purpose.

While I was watching, a pretty, well-put-together middle-aged woman brought in an old lady, clearly her mother. In a clear, pleasant voice, she was pointing out various aspects Mom might have had trouble seeing. She sounded like a woman with a well-behaved child, keeping it interested in the culture they were visiting.

Here is a cannon the fleas pull. Oh, look, there are little nets. Do you see them?

"You see a flea, you kill it," the old lady remarked with pleased wonder. "Who would think of a thing like that?"

"Nathan Oliveira," through July 27. "Maria Fernanda Cardoso: Cardoso Flea Circus," through Aug. 24. Orange County Museum Of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$5; Kids under 16, free; Free on Tues.

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