Un-American Activities

Photo by James BunoanThere are an awful lot of retreads out there that don't have dick to do with Postmodernists knowingly "appropriating" the past. Usually, it's a lot more prosaic than that: young women artists excitedly tapping the Power of the P don't know they're following in the footsteps of every female artist of the past 30 years, who are all piggybacking on Judy Chicago, who's mining Georgia O'Keeffe, who herself has a lineage stretching back to the bulbous labia (not to mention that juicy ass!) of the original vixen, the Venus of Willendorf.

And that's fine. Anyone who expects artists to do the heavy philosophical lifting for all of society has obviously forgotten that the point in becoming an artist is not having to get a job—that and getting laid. Leave the thinking of new thoughts to those high-priced think-tank beards; they don't have the distraction of people wanting to have sex with them. Art? Just give it some style and some skill and nothing too obviously hackneyed—i.e., mutilated baby dolls; yourself crucified; mutilated, crucified, baby doll vaginas—and you can rip one another off until your faces turn blue.

So what's the point? Big, famous muckamuck artist Ken Price, who has practically been canonized for his ceramic work, is retreading Santa Ana filmmaker Bob Pece. Oh, sure, Price probably doesn't know it; he probably wouldn't know Bob Pece if Bob Pece came up and very hesitantly punched him in the throat—which is not at all Bob Pece's style, but you never know.

Price's "Small Is Beautiful," showing at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, is just what it claims to be. Small elemental designs pack color, beautiful line and sharp whimsy into acrylic paintings that are perhaps five inches by eight inches, all told. And they're extremely similar to Pece's—who, I am delighted to point out, did them first.

Pece's paintings, like Attack of the Three-Legged Thingies With Hats, are candy-colored, simple designs bounded in black that anthropomorphize building-like structures into lumbering (but unthreatening), faceless monsters. The best of Price's paintings, like Here Comes a Sculpture, are candy-colored, simple designs, etc., etc. that anthropomorphize blobby, amoebic "sculptures" into lumbering (but unthreatening) monsters. They kind of have a feel of some of the better Far Side cartoons, too. Oh, and did I mention the UFOs, with which Price is apparently obsessed and about which Pece made a film called UFOs On Your Doorstep, wherein the immortal question was "Befriend or Befoe?"

Despite limping along like the hare to Pece's tortoise, Price's works are charming. (And really, most of them have nothing to do with the delightful marauding sculptures, though the UFOs are omnipresent.) They're fresh little oases of sky and sea and RVs crashing over winding cliffs, delicately drawn with a graphic artist's clarity and skill of line. They depict ocean waves as a series of cursive U's, with peaks that fan out like dorsal fins. There are phalluses; black-creviced mountains rise high and sharp. Are they the Tetons? The Badlands? Price has traveled, and with a reductivist's eye, he creates our national landscapes as design motifs. Forget overblown paeans to purple mountains' majesty. These works are un-American in their modesty. Lovely.

Price's works don't take up too much space, so a couple of galleries are given to "Selfportrait.map" by Lilla LoCurto and William Outcault, whose works are as forbidding and grim as Price's are chatty.

LoCurto and Outcault took three-dimensional digital scans of their bodies and then worked with cartographers and computer scientists to create mapping software that allowed them to flatten the results into 2-D. The squished and distorted results show parts of the body in high relief (the parts they tended to focus on were ass, breasts, faces and hands) while the rest becomes an elastic mess of boneless skin. The results are mutant blobs, with an occasional elegant collarbone shining out, or a pair of Mary Pickford lips under a nose that's stretched like a Modigliani. Occasionally, there is chunky, pixel-edged white space removed from the flesh-toned maps, evoking a lack of essential data. What else don't we know?

With titles like B.S.A.M. BC2sph(8/6)7_98, LoCurto and Outcault aren't aiming for accessibility; they're shooting for esoteric, but with a compelling visual twist instead of just some unreadable dissertation or hacker's code. Don't tell them that some of the most prominent topographical features of their maps are an occasional flare-up of backne.

"Small Is Beautiful" and "selfportrait.map" at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761. Open Tues.-Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Fri., noon-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. Through Oct. 27. Free.


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