In 1994, choreographer Bill T. Jones premiered a multimedia dance piece titled Still/Here, featuring theatrical movement based on interviews with people looking down the barrel of terminal illness. Several critics complained it was review-proof, one decrying it as "victim art . . . that crossed the line between theater and reality," as if art's job was restricted to representing only the sentimental and the safe. God forbid real life should creep into our public discussions.
According to Laguna Art Museum curator Grace Kook-Anderson's brochure notes for her latest "ex pose" exhibition, a continuing series focusing on emerging and mid-career artists, Beatriz da Costa normally avoided using herself as the subject of her art. An associate professor of studio art, electrical engineering, and computer science at UC Irvine when she developed a breast tumor that metastasized to her brain, da Costa changed course, documenting her struggle to create the video, film and interactive installation on display, until she died in December at the age of 38.
There aren't any movie-of-the-week epiphanies, bucket lists or familial rapprochement as an orchestra on the soundtrack lifts our spirits, and thankfully, there's not one pink ribbon or noxious "positive thinking" platitude in sight. Instead, the exhibition seeks to break social conventions that prevent frank discussions of cancer and examines lifestyle changes that may help improve a cancer patient's chance at survival.
"ex pose: Beatriz da Costa" at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; lagunaartmuseum.org. Open Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Sept. 29. $5-$7; children younger than 12, free.
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So how do you criticize something so personal and full of good intention without seeming an unsympathetic ass? You can't. The exhibition, as was da Costa's interrupted life, feels unfinished. Missing some elements—a DIY garden, an ebook and notes from her collaborators (who fund-raised and finished the project after her passing)—the "Anti-Cancer Survival Kit" installation just doesn't work as an art piece. The bits and pieces on display—green tea and dark chocolate, a blank diary, cutting board and shopping bag for fresh vegetables—aren't informative or poetic enough to bring us to the newly discovered country art should take us to. The static point-and-shoot camerawork, muddled editing and poor sound quality of two of da Costa's food lectures are also too short to provide anything substantial. I liked the mixed-media Delicious Apothecary's neatly crafted medicine chest, but there's no information about the bottled herbs resting inside, assuming (incorrectly) the viewer has a background in holistic cancer treatment. I was briefly brought in by the short-film triptych, Dying for the Other, intercutting scenes of the artist struggling to maintain balance after brain surgery opposite shots of lab mice being euthanized for dissection, but that emotional embrace only lasted for 12 minutes. I'm not sure what to blame for the disconnect, especially since I've lost three family members and friends to the disease, but it may be da Costa's unsentimental way of looking at things, her steely, clinical scientific background, and its contrast with the prettified way we're used to viewing fatal illness. It may simply be that she wasn't healthy—or spiritually present—enough to give it the necessary emotional polish.
Tucked away in the tiny Young Artists Society Gallery at the side is the raw, decidedly unpolished art of "Metastatic," a group exhibition of paintings by Laguna High School students inspired by da Costa's work, that really connected with me. Taking scientific images as their source material, the teenage artists riff on the visual beauty inherent in cancer cells, wrapping their arms and talents around the beautiful hidden amid the malignant: The colorful cluster of melon-like protrusions bulging out of the black-and-white canvas in Katie Silva-Grizzle's Adenocarcinoma; Charlotte Broomer's unsettling The Ugly Truth, with its use of molding paint creating scab-like protrusions, is like looking closely at an open wound. The vivid red-and-yellow sun drifting in an aqua-blue background in Janie Crawford's beautiful Invasion may be a cancer cell, but her sharp use of retro color and bold lines made me think of Shag under a microscope. Halle Redfern's stunning Light From Within resembles a skull smashing through a windshield, murky X-rays of lungs lurking in the background. Malignant features the work of 22 young artists, each drawing a specific section of a gridded cell, the resulting black-and-white creation by several different skill sets neatly illustrating the schizophrenic personality of a disease that murders its host. Spencer Baguley's ingenious The Combatant's cancer looks like a receiver crashing through a football line, spreading out past the canvas it's confined in.
Looking at the striking work of these young artists, the soundtrack of da Costa's film installation overheard playing in the room next door, was surprisingly moving, the lonely chirping of a cricket stranded in the dark recesses of the gallery even more poignant.