Thats Not Nice!

Photo by Jack GouldSawdust folk are a fearsome breed. They're constantly suing one another and writing letters to the Weekly shrieking (I mean shrieking!) that they were ousted from their very expensive booths over backstabbing politics worthy of Hamlet's mom. They are very loud, and I suspect they are somewhat crazy. I do not have to be a professional mystery solver—like in that new program about the guy who's an award-winning reporter, a part-time teacher and a full-time crimefighter—to figure that out. That show looks almost as bizarre as the Sawdust denizens, who probably should have a reality show of their own, particularly if that means we can send them all to a desert island and wait for Lord of the Flies to break out.

Was that mean?

The Sawdust Festival and Art-A-Fair are oozing, crusty sores on pretty Laguna Canyon. Perhaps you were under the impression that the art malls—while imposing a Dante-esque traffic nightmare upon the good citizenry of Laguna—were mostly harmless. You were wrong. Because what the festivals do (aside from ruining brocade boots: please don't wear froofy footwear!) is much more dangerous: it's the art-world equivalent of Nestle persuading women in Africa to feed their babies its nutrition-free baby formula rather than their vitamin- and antibody-packed breast milk.

The Li-Ying & Co. Gallery offers itself as a warm-up to those who simply can't wait a second longer for the glory of Sawdust to open at the end of this month.

I normally wouldn't bother taking potshots at such a poky, sweet little gallery—one that has no pretensions beyond the commercial. But I've been very bored lately, so I went in to see the kinds of empty calories you all would be subjected to in the hearty, beer-sponsored festival grounds. And what I saw was very pretty. Pretty is good. Pretty is pretty. There's nothing wrong with pretty—on its face. For instance, Karen March's Flower Cart is a watercolor depicting a wrought-iron gate, covered with flowering bougainvillea, beyond which lies—surprise!—a flower cart. Is it pretty? Yes! It is! It's so pretty, in fact, that March painted a tiny little copyright symbol next to her signature. A copyright symbol! Isn't that something!

Then there is March's Port Clyde, a well-painted marinascape, with a pier reflecting on the strata of perky blues and saturated purples below. Is it pretty? Yes! It is! I could even see it gracing a wall in my home, if I happened to own a beach house on the Cape (which, shockingly, I don't) or a chain of hotels in the desert (ditto).

The fact is, Li-Ying offers lovely works. But they are not works for you. They are works for tourists who want Laguna scenes painted in the style of Franz Bischoff. They are one baby step short of the false nostalgia of Thomas Kincaid. Anyone for a thatched-roof village scene? Yes? Go away. Eugene Kaspin's chunky, choppy, neo-Impressionist Laguna Beach shows a crowded shore peopled with faceless bathers. It's an entirely charming rip-off of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, complete with umbrellas but minus the gay '90s bustles and big hats. Two more of Kaspin's works show flowers blooming on coastal cliffs and an almost Fauvist marina that turns out to be Dana Point Harbor. Kaspin is a talented painter with absolutely nothing to say. Who would want a picture of Dana Point?

There are less precious works at Li-Ying. Tat Shino paints ferocious-looking koi and poisonous-looking water lilies. Gary Fishman paints scrub oaks on gold-stubbled hills that have an almost Japanese minimalism to them. The perspective and paint are flat, almost as flat as a Grandma Moses, but without the cutesy senile childishness.

But then, when one is almost inclined to be kind to this sleepy little gallery that's just trying to make a living, one stumbles across a picture of children at play in the surf. It is, in fact, Elaine Hughes' Children Playing in Laguna Surf. I imagine Hughes is a kind woman. She is probably sweet as a peach. But my God! It's a painting of children playing in the surf! It's like Kryptonite for people's brains. Any moment, I shall probably begin drooling like OC Supervisor Jim Silva.

Multiply Children Playing in Laguna Surf by 1,050, and you get the Sawdust Festival and Art-A-Fair. It starts June 29. Go if you dare. I'll be smoking crack in Santa Ana instead.

LI-YING & CO. Gallery, 537 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-0525. call for hours. runs indefinitely. Free; Sawdust Festival, 935 Laguna Canyon frontage Rd., laguna beach, (949) 497-9229; June 29-Aug. 27, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. $6-$10; Art-A-Fair, 777 Laguna Canyon Rd., laguna beach, (949) 494-4514; June 29-Aug. 27, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. $5.


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