Well-Behaved Art

Photo by Jack GouldThe Salton Sea, somewhere to the left of San Diego from where we sit, should be a hideous excursion into the kind of flatness that saps the soul. You know—like Texas. But Phil Marquez finds beauty in a lake that looks as devastated as if it were once a quarry—replete with cast-off tires as frothy accents. He finds saturated blues so serene one's eyes flutter and the tension leaves one's shoulders. It's the kind of blue that once formed the Virgin's mantle, before those people in New Mexico started putting her in bikinis. Of course, try as they might to raise an international snit la the Brooklyn Museum, it's all just becoming old hat. Oy!

But Marquez's photos make me sigh. There's nothing new or innovative about them, and they don't make any grand statements about the human soul. But thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson, I can safely say that beauty is its own excuse.

I'm ashamed to like them: they're so straightforward and so . . . pretty. They're the kind of work the tall, slim, perfectly made-up couples who came to the intimate afternoon opening (who were really quite terrifying in their tall slimness) would like: they don't require any leap of faith into disturbing new trends or asymmetry or chaos theory. There's not the slightest abstraction or any necessity of going out on a limb, taste-wise. They are understated and simple, as blue and clean as God's own country. They would look fabulous in one's study.

But can one blame the works just because the people milling about them make one feel short and . . . ethnic? Well, of course, one can, but it seems mighty small—as well as short and ethnic. Marquez's works are marvelously shot: each rock in the foreground is as clearly delineated as those in Millet's Les Glaneuses. And they're lovely. And strip mine or no, you can see God where the water meets the sky.

With Mark Wessel, on the other hand, things are not nearly so straightforward. Leaps must be made. Of course, his pieces are still well-behaved, as befits the Laguna gallery in which he's showing.

There's a classicism to his works—you see it mostly in the tanned parchment look of his canvases and the stony, Apollonian figures in the background. But then he must scrawl across them his philosophies and tenets; and while they're sometimes lovely in a hippy-dippy, chakra-tracking kind of way, they're often illegible, and it gets really annoying when one must stop halfway through one of his screeds because he's written across a dark patch and one can't make out a damn thing.

Visually, Wessel's works are just fine, if too often seen in the Laguna environs; they're soothing and colorful but not overweeningly so. There's still a lot of elegant beige—the better to go with any upscale decorating motif. But it's his ideas he wants you to behold. And though they're pat and perhaps a bit Joseph Campbell, there's still something to be said for the fortune-cookieish koan "Out of perfection, nothing can be made." Well, isn't that nice? Doesn't that make you feel good? Me, too!

Meanwhile, in the backroom of Galerie 224, Bill DeBilzan shows his lollipop trees and picket fences mooned over by elasticized figures—like the illustrations for a James Baldwin children's book—in scumbled blue jeans on carmine fields. It's rich, primary-colored countryside, but DeBilzan (unlike Thomas Kinkade) doesn't wallow in nostalgia for a world of cottages inhabited by hobbits and mule-faced dogs. Rather, he presents an Expressionist fiction of lopsided purple houses abutting almost-square churches, while the same elongated figures face the viewer—that is, they would if they had faces. Oh, and DeBilzan presents breasts. Lots of 'em. Delightful breasts, with personality and raspberry-colored nipples—but in the back room, where they won't offend any tourists. Thank the good Lord for art that's well-behaved.

"A Changing View of the Salton Sea" at Old Town Gallery, 150 E. Main St., Tustin, (714) 734-9088. Through April 21; William DeBilzan and Mark Wessel at Galerie 224, 224 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-5757. Through April 7.


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