‘2017 California-Pacific Triennial: Building As Ever’ at OCMA

Considering the death of the Orange County Museum of Art’s recent attempt to move from Newport Beach to Costa Mesa, it’s apropos that the art leading into the 2017 California-Pacific Triennial is an open grave chiseled from the museum’s concrete floor. The title of Mexican artist Santiago Borja’s This Is Architecture is taken from architect Adolf Loos’ quotation equating buildings with places of burial, and it sets the tone for the rest of the show. Subtitled “Building As Ever,” expectations were that this would be the last show at the current space. The excellent work inside—much of it created specifically for the Triennial—is focused on the impermanence of the structure housing it. Plans snuffed and headed to the boneyard, the museum’s stalled future has led to work that recalls homelessness, gentrification, new beginnings and demolition.

Senior curator Cassandra Coblentz (aided by assistant curator Alyssa Cordova) has taken that precariousness and run with it, exhibiting an international cadre of artists from throughout the Pacific Rim. Of the 28 artists listed, 13 are from California (mostly LA, two from San Diego, one from Oakland); the remaining artists work in Asia, Oceania and South America. While one could and should ask why Coblentz couldn’t find and feature an artist from Orange County, she has otherwise chosen well. The work is focused and thoughtful, her curatorial notes densely informative.

After the burial mound, it’s Vietnamese artist Trong Gia Nguyen who makes the first strongest impression. Nguyen has cut 2D representations of French colonial gates and fences out of sheets of wood, painting them in oil and acrylic. The thin sculptures suggest the ever-present reminders of his homeland’s former occupiers, as well as the fragility of that historical memory more than 60 years later. Even more enlightening is his series of mounted inkjet prints of U.S. homes that his friends have lived in over the years. Smaller pastel portraits that resemble a remedial coloring book have been inserted into holes cut out of the photos. The child-like drawings, displaced from the photographic realism of their surroundings in both medium and style, is haunting, reminding us of the dislocation that refugees face every day.

All the work here is political in its recognition of intransigence and loss of history, of the things we try to remember and forget, but Ken Ehrlich’s collection of archival images of Iranian mosques are the most political with a capital P. Initially unremarkable black-and-white vintage photos upon closer viewing reveal CIA documents laser cut into each one. As the current administration circles Iran like rabid weasels, threatening war, it sent chills up my spine reading the unclassified details of the 1953 U.S. and British coup that overthrew that nation’s democratically elected prime minister and opened the country’s oil fields to foreign powers.

More subtly political, the sturdy, lightweight orange-and-gray framing in Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman’s Mecalux Retro-fit: Framework for Incremental Housing resembles something you could pick up in a Home Depot. Walking underneath it, however, it’s refreshing to see it as something that is not only pretty to look at, but also something functional: With some coverings, it could work as an activist’s station for the easy dissemination of community info or, even better, an adequate, low-cost godsend to our homeless populations.

Gentrification isn’t always internal in Alex Slade’s photographic documentations of downtown LA. Essentially majestic variations of scaffolding hiding renovated structures, the long titles of the pictures tip us off: the name of the building, its location, the billions of dollars budgeted for repair and (shockingly) the foreign company (usually Chinese or Korean) that owns it. That neglect of the once grand in our own back yard is echoed in performance artist Pilar Quinteros’ destroyed model of Newport Beach’s China House, a Chinese-style home built in the late 1920s and torn down in the ’80s. Quinteros walked from the site of SanTana’s former Chinatown (burned down at the command of city officials in 1906) to Corona del Mar, dragging a model of the quaint abode attached to a rope behind her. She documented its disintegration on an accompanying video, then placed the shambles inside a viewing case.

We don’t know what, if anything, is buried in Borja’s grave. While we may be privy to his intent via notes, it also works on other levels: as a warning, a cynical aside, even a threat (to memory or the future). Likewise, Coblentz’s programming isn’t just another art exhibition or an examination of the museum’s angst. Instead, she’s given us a snapshot of what was previously an unexpressed transition throughout the world, capturing something that everyone was aware of, but few able to articulate. That she’s gathered so many fine artists lucid enough to do so with such fervor and prescience under one roof, however temporary, is a marvel.

“2017 California-Pacific Triennial: Building As Ever” at Orange County Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Wed.-Thurs. & Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Sept. 3. $7.50-$10; Fridays and children younger than 12, free.

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