Say Cheese!

Art for children is healthy in the county: scattered throughout the Santa Ana Main Place mall's ground floor, we have beautifully sculpted, somewhat cheesy animatronic lizard beasts belching smoke. It's a sweetly organized exhibit: the folks from Dinamation have sorted the scaly ones into type by region. A mean European dragon crouches on a castle. A European mama dragon teaches her slimy little babies to breathe fire; a benevolent Central American dragon--Quetzalc atl--changes from god to lizard before our eyes. Accompanying each is an illuminated manuscript featuring a slim background and a fairy-tale-book-type illustration by a "renowned" dragon artist.

But like the mermaid-and-dinosaur works at the Dawn of Time gallery in a strip mall in Mission Viejo, they can't be considered high art for one simple reason: people who love dragons (and dinosaurs, gnomes and wizards) are geeks. They are the pimpliest, most four-eyed of geeks. I mean, they are GEEKS. They're like Trekkies without the cool costumes. But unlike Beck or, to a lesser extent, Quentin Tarantino, their geekiness can't connote cool; the entire social hierarchy would upheave. There would be a revolution. We like our artists with a modicum of cool. We like them somewhat jaded, somewhat world-weary, and awful good-looking. We don't want them playing Dungeons & Dragons. We also, unfortunately, don't want them appealing to anyone living between San Bernardino and Pennsylvania. And as for our art buyers, they can be short and fat as long as they've got Eleanor Mondale on their arm. We do not want them sitting at home, gazing at their lead-crystal mermaid, hoping she will bring some meaning to their empty, empty lives. Eeew.

Unfortunately, there's nothing elitist about the Caged Chameleon. Even their prices are prole-friendly. "UM/ OM," a collaboration between Cal State Fullerton undergrads Eric Beltz and Aaron Gregory, takes the pleasing of people to new heights. Sincere kitsch--they mean it, man--covers the walls, sure to bring joy even to Midwesterners. Beltz's Two Cats features flat blue kitties on an orange background, as big-eyed as those '70s cartoon children. Clowns play guitar in outer space; Santa confronts the Christmas Angel of Death; teddy-bear banks create the world. The two bring forth the most absurd view of our planet we've maybe ever seen.

And the titles alone are worth the slim price tags: nobody at the opening could resist such pieces as Three Clowns Eating Candy and One Not and Wooden Bride With Explosion. Some of the pieces are gentle, such as ones in which happy skeletons in verdant woods eat big slices of watermelon. Others are terrifying, like Gregory's Grampa. In that one, a weeping tiger-headed goose lays an egg from which breaks forth a vamp-faced serpent. Grampa, young and hard-working before his idyllic rustic farmhouse, cries as he holds the serpent in his hand; it is dead or dying, bleeding from the mouth and cut to ribbons by bits of its own eggshell. Eh?The only weak links in the stunning sci-fi/realist exhibit are Gregory's many odes to himself. He paints himself nude and pretty as all get-out, intertwined lazily and deliciously with . . . himself. Perhaps he's excoriating his own vanity, but in either case, we don't really need to see what he thinks of himself. His thoughts on the cosmos around him are far more interesting. And where have we heard that before?

"Dragons of the Myths" at MainPlace, 2800 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-7800. Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Through April 3. Free; "UM/OM" at the Caged Chameleon Gallery, 1519 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-5137. Open Sat.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.; weekdays by appointment. Through April 11. Free.


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