There's always been something worth noting in previous All Media exhibitions at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, but the open group show, limited to Southern California artists vying for $1,300 in prizes, was often cluttered, any diamonds buried among a whole lotta coal. With a $20 entry fee coloring the proceedings, a cramped space filled with as many pieces as possible makes a certain fiscal sense, but the result often felt like overkill.
LA-based artist and curator Kim Abeles' finely tuned choices this year are a step in the right direction toward correcting that issue. This exhibition is pointedly less crowded, full of women artists pushing boundaries and of a higher quality, while still offering something for anyone interested. Of the more than 60 pieces on display, these 10 weird and wonderful works (listed in no particular order) made me look twice, moved me and, most important, danced at the darker aesthetic edge.
10. My mind went immediately to John Waters territory upon seeing Monica Sandoval's solvent inkprint on vinyl Together Again. In the forefront, a Dawn Davenport-sized model in a black bodysuit lies face-down on a bed of colorful flowers, catty-corner to a vine-encrusted brick wall. There's no pretense to real life here; it has the artificiality of a low-rent David LaChapelle image, the trashy cool of its composited image startling and memorable.
9. Andrea Bersaglieri's oil-on-canvas Creep is two sides of an otherwise-white canvas alive with the tatty green and sun-bleached brown of long weed tendrils, all beginning to spread slowly into the negative space between.
8. The snarling mouths of a pair of sculpted canines from Hell are bared as they eye you for their midnight snack in Samuelle Richardson's Ghost Dogs. Their stumpy, wooden poles for legs, carved teeth and two-tone patches of flesh stitched together with red thread remind us of Frankenstein, Pet Sematary and that next-door neighbor's violent, untrained mutt all at the same time. The palpable menace is a thing of testicle-tightening beauty, with one of the hounds noticeably at crotch height.
7. Marina Joyce's mixed-media collage Vortex gives us an existential vision of beauty transformed into L'Oréal-style emptiness: waves, braids, cascades and hair extensions, swirling and whirling into a bottomless hairy whirlpool.
6. With so much Trump-era political art seeming obvious and without imagination, Kerri Sabine-Wolf's distressing, surreal Fly By feels just right. A quintet of butterflies oil-painted onto a paper shooting-range target provide a wicked pun on "drive by," with any potential laughs elicited choked off by the real bullet holes in several of the butterflies' wings.
5. Flesh Studies' grid of nine oil paintings by Irin Mahaparn is a baroque butcher's dream. While likely closeups of uncooked meats, the brain creates associations with sex organs; figures folded in on themselves; and fetuses clothed in the browns, pinks, translucent grays, white fat and slick, wet gristle, nestled in smears of blood-red pigment. The small paintings on Mylar are intense and fascinating, an unusual subject matter and especially tender when compared to Francis Bacon's gruesome horror-show precedent.
4. The crumpled horse in several fragmented pieces holds a sweet sorrow that made me instantly fall in love. Peggy Sivert Zask's Broken feels frail and vulnerable, the cobbled-together wooden supports lending it a Humpty Dumpty dignity, standing strong until the impending shot comes barreling through its skull.
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3. Carlos Grasso's engrossing mixed-media grid 9 Red States of Mind feels as if nine concurrent thoughts had exploded onto nine canvases, each an elegantly visual gut punch. In the center is a face bound in a thick spiderweb of red yarn. Other images include a broken paint tube of dried red paint like a clogged artery, flayed open; a smiling woman in a bathing cap, surrounded by mushroom clouds; a heart resting on damask wallpaper; fleshy plastic strips underlined by a brass bolt; red goo under red burlap netting; a leaking, bandaged wound; the visual symmetry of a brick, some cloth and a colorfully painted ball, to name a few.
2. There are patterns to be seen in Karen Feuer-Schwager's Fragile. The small square tags, loops of string and greasy, stained teabag paper laid out on plexiglass have the thick, yellow density of a smoker's ceiling.
1. Kira Vollman's stylish and innovative installation, Deception, is the lightest and most hopeful of the pieces on my list. The stile of a wooden chair sprouts a tree limb, branches spidering out to embrace the viewer, as gnarled roots encircle the metal leg supports lifting it into the air. Beneath is a layer of brown soil, topped by dozens of dark walnuts. The chair isn't being reclaimed by nature so much as it seems to be finding its way back to its original form.
All Media 2017 at Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine, (949) 724-6880; www.cityofirvine.org/irvine-fine-arts-center/current-exhibitions. Open Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Oct. 28. Free.