What a Concept

It's so important in these unsettled days to be there for "the kids." There's that whole list of things to do: encourage them and inspire them and nurture their small talents like flames until they become at least medium-sized flames—you know, flames that could at least roast a small rabbit or something.

And so it is that when I go to a college gallery, I become the kinder, gentler me—a mentor, a booster, a person who isn't a vile bitch. Things aren't "hackneyed" because the students are producing them, excitedly, for the first time. Ideas aren't "trite" because . . . Okay, often they're trite. But they're coming from sweet, little, 20-year-old brains! How much thinking do you think they have time for, what with all the sex they're having? Do you begrudge them their sex? I don't. Have some sex, kids!

Warm and fuzzy and a booster (or was I a pimp?), I clicked my heels to Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery for the tantalizingly named "Art: Or Is It?" It would take some work not to give in to that snide temptation!

And what I saw there was pleasing. Minimalist works by Mark Bradford, Richard Haga and Daniel Mendel-Black lined the walls, sparely, with two to five works per artist. Some were covered with an insouciant sprinkling of what looked like bread mold. Others reminded me of charred onions off a kebab, and food always makes me happy. The last . . . Well, the last one kinda blew, no matter how kindly and boosterish one is feeling. Even the Finish Fetish-est among us (I'm thinking Ed Giardina) would have shrugged past the white slabs fitted together like tiles and grouted with pink paint or sometimes blue.

But something else was bothering me. Surely I wasn't in gentle mode for nothing? The next day, I put a call in to the gallery office. Were the artists showing in the gallery Chapman students? "No," clipped a prettily accented voice, somewhat along the lines of one of the Gabor sisters. "They are professional artists." The emphasis was hers. I cackled, after making sure I'd hung up. Game on, friends!

But then a terrible thing happened. After having originally seen the works in a generous spirit, I couldn't switch gears back to nasty. Bradford's untitled, charred-end papers—63 of them arranged in small squares stuck directly to the wall—still looked like burnt onions, gleaming and greasy. Haga's untitled layers of smoked glass (think Rauschenberg's late-career transparencies, without any spinning wickets to hold our attention) still had that insouciant sprinkling of penicillin. And Mendel-Black's The Shape of an Automaton I, IIand IV still were unlookable, though he gets points for giving them a title. Of course, we're going to take those points away because he gave them all the same title, and his slabs are nothing like automatons. You can't fool us with your fancy words, Mendel-Black!

So is it art? Well, I'm sure the works are very Conceptual—though, like all those students who graduated from art schools in the '80s without the faintest idea how to paint a picture, apparently it's now possible to graduate from art schools without the faintest idea of what the Concept for your Conceptual work might be.

But that doesn't matter; of course it's art! Haga, for instance, works in the medium of green and tan vertical stripes, with a third showing a brighter green and tan. Then, for a change-up, come some with polka dots!

Bradford offers a pink triptych (though nowhere near as fine as his burnt-end papers) on wood, which clearly has little shapes (mostly the outlines of square end papers) running throughout it, accented with the occasional purple stencil reading, "CLICK."

And Mendel-Black painted something white and then put pink on the jagged corners.

Art? Certainly, the exhibit's belittling title notwithstanding! The exhibit is a pleasant way to while away a good 10 minutes, and the works were probably a pleasant way for the artists to while away 10 minutes of their own. Who's going to begrudge them that?

By the time you read this, you'll likely miss the student photographs upstairs in the Project Room (scheduled to close on Friday). Michael Haight shoots a series of Goth girls looking sad; I modeled for some of those when I was in college, but I missed the part of the shoot where my friend Jess posed languidly on some gravestones because I had a midterm. Goth girls? Looking sad? You can't beat the classics!

Jeff Schulze shoots billboards of happy, well-groomed teens with expensive hair and manipulates them until the ads offer literal salvation. A Tilly's ad becomes "Identity," with the words "Popularity and Salvation" running smaller underneath. His work is understated and charming. And Beth Huber offers creepy skeletal negatives of kids grinning, their smiles becoming leering death masks. Yay!

If I weren't on such a positive trip about the works downstairs, I would suggest the Guggenheim bring out its own. Let the photo students have the real gallery. People could come in and feel kindly and generous about the work. They could see art's next generation and be pleased that the students care about things like theme and storytelling, which are once again not pass. Now on to the sex!

"Art: Or Is It?" at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 997-6729. Open Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Nov. 20. Free.


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