Photo by Jack GouldIt's lousy timing that "Hooked" opened when it did. A few extra months, and who knows what kind of agitprop might have hung on the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's walls in reaction to those hysterical "If you buy drugs, then you support terrorists!" public-service announcements flashing across the tube lately.
Or maybe there wouldn't have been any. Drugs are a tasty theme for an art show for the political possibilities alone—a gorgeous pastel of Nancy Reagan snorting up lines of lovely white blow as Ollie North rams his red-white-and-blue pecker up her back door, for instance. But "Hooked" is glaringly devoid of such statements—no "Just Say No" send-ups, no one daring to slam DARE, nothing alluding to the unequal prison sentences meted out to black people for possessing crack vs. those handed down to white people for possessing boring old cocaine.
Instead, each of the seven artists in "Hooked" takes the more personal approach, creating stuff that says, "This is how I feel about drugs" or, "This is what I feel like when I'm on drugs." It's a more narcissistic, even conservative take on the issue. But that doesn't mean the show's crap. Most of the pieces are quite good, even funny—like David Villa's Americana, in which two couch potatoes have had their faces sucked off by perhaps the most dangerous drug of all, television ("The drug of a nation/Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation," as Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy once famously rapped). We can only speculate as to what they were watching. MTV? Survivor? Jo Ellen Allen on Real Orange?
Some of the show's best moments are these, when it messes with our ideas of what exactly constitutes a drug. Rice Krispies marshmallow treats? Hell, yeah, Abbie Baron Morganstein says, with her paintings of blown-up recipes and nutrition labels side by side, surrounded by smaller, detailed canvases of the artery-clogging snack to show texture—and possibly to make us hungry. But like downing Sleep-Eze with vodka shots, those things can kill you, too.
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Pills are one of the most popular subjects in "Hooked," perhaps because they're so readily available for use—like Pollock's cigarette—in an art piece. (It's not as if you could put a good-sized crack rock in your installation without bringing down the wrath of your friendly neighborhood DEA agent—though the resulting media frenzy would get your name out there.) Melissa Hernandez takes her pills, sculpts them into cute little flowers, and places them into dioramas inside tiny boxes. In one, she also paints the blister packs they come in and uses that as a backdrop for a charming nature scene, albeit a charming nature scene with a white rabbit—Jefferson Airplane, anyone?—with its eyes Xed out. We also liked Kebe Fox's Know Exit installation, basically an EXIT sign set inside a black box and placed on a white podium, with several folding chairs set up in front of it, encouraging us to sit down and stare back at this inanimate object. Is this what it feels like at that first AA meeting, when the only thing on some people's minds is how badly they don't want to be sitting there, when all they can think of is, in fact, exiting? Or did we just wander into a storage room by mistake and get way too analytical?
Fox isn't as successful with his busy mixed-media paintings, all pseudo-psychedelic to convey some sort of acid/heroin imagery. With their clichd tie-dyed backgrounds, they look more like Jerry Garcia blew his wad across the canvas. Better, though predictable, is Hooked, a string of capsules stretching out from the mouth of one of Fox's acid people, ending in a nasty-looking three-pronged fishhook. "Hooked" . . . on drugs! Yeah. Got it.
Our favorite work is Joy Marie Shannon's The Fall and Ascension of Penguin, a Behind the Music-style saga of sin and salvation as seen through the plastic, beaded eyes of a one-and-a-half-foot-tall stuffed toy penguin. Like the trendy wandering-gnome prank that's been getting a lot of press lately, we see photographs of the penguin at the beach, lounging by the pool, playing on swing sets, buying hip-hop CDs—and that's when things turn bad!Soon he's slamming smack into his flipper, buying condoms, sexin' up the ladies, hanging out in front of liquor stores and passing out in an alley beside a trash bin. Then comes redemption, including a stop at the Crystal Cathedral, where, we're informed, the penguin was escorted away during the photo shoot (goddamn Robert H. Schuller! Neo-Nazis are okay, but—please!—no flightless birds!), so now he's investigating Buddhism and Hinduism instead. It's a nice idea with which to leave the show: drugs in just about any form may have potentially hellish consequences, but they're almost always good for a joke.
"Hooked" at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore St., Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517. Through April 28. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free, but donations welcome.