A Pair of Compelling Exhibitions—Both Artistic and Animalistic—Are Now on Display in Irvine and Fullerton

“Slaughter” by Joseph Paul Gerges/Courtesy Irvine Fine Arts Center

At the end of the day, we’re on our own. Even if we’re partnered or surrounded by friends, there comes a moment when others simply can’t help and we have to muddle our solitary way through our trials and tribulations. We fuck up, fall down, and have to figure a way to pick ourselves back up again. The great joy of art is that it can take that difficult emotion, that pit of despair and disaffection, and define it, give it meaning and help you put it into a consumable context. Simply put, great art tells you that you may be on your own, but you’re not alone, that someone before you felt what you felt, went through what you went through and is openly acknowledging it.

Nowhere is that solitary twisting of grief, joy and sublimity more evident than in the phantasmagoric work of printmaker/painter Joseph Paul Gerges. His solo exhibition “Quietus” at Irvine Fine Arts Center—as well as the elegant and informative hardcover book accompanying it—presents him as a striking artist resurrecting a laborious Old Master medium that’s equal parts emotion, exploitation and raw, open wound. Using the material of a treasure trove of bad life experience that affects most of us at some point—divorce, estrangement, depression, anger, the death of a loved one—Gerges shapes it into a series of images that embrace his crushing sadness.

The Latin word quietus means “to quit,” an archaic word for death, but it can also refer to passage, a moving from one place to another. In Gerges’ world, dead and wounded animals, often lying in their own gore, are interspersed between paintings of his two very much alive daughters; tender prints of a trio of sleeping animals cover one wall in a Warhol grid of repetition; there are gilded self-portraits that resemble mug shots, roadkill; Bacon-esque sides of meat hanging on hooks; video images of his ailing father alongside process videos showing the painstaking method and precision required to make the art hanging on the walls.

Gerges’ images are delicate, detailed, intimate things, not only in their themes, but also in the labor that goes into making them. He’s showing you things you may not want to see, but that he feels are important to look at, to notice, and he does so unblinkingly. He’s saying that there is life in death and death in life, and sometimes there’s more than you can bear, but you can, and you will, so let’s walk together and talk about these hard things. The gruesomeness of a handful of images doesn’t make the show depressing or even dark. Quite the opposite, in fact: The profound takeaway is that the intermingling of the precious and the unthinkable is good for the soul. It’s an expansive, welcome vision.

“Joseph Paul Gerges: QUIETUS” at Irvine Fine Arts Center Main Gallery, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine, (949) 724-6880; www.cityofirvine.org/irvine-fine-arts-center/current-exhibitions. Open Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Sat. Free.

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On Saturdays, anyone can feed the insect inmates at Fullerton Museum Center. Insectariums built to resemble an ancient jail are complete with metal doors and oversized locks, sinks, toilets, and beds. Inside the half-dozen cells are Chilean rose tarantulas, black widow spiders and scorpions the size of your palm, some in plain view, others hiding from the prying eyes of the tap-on-the-glass public. A feature of the traveling museum show “Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders,” the feeding is popular with the young ones. “There’s a lot of squealing and screaming,” curator Kelly Chidester says. “The kids love it.”

It’s not just the kids. My friend and I, Chidester as our guide, gasped and squeaked a few times ourselves. We shook involuntarily at the idea of the millipede excreting cyanide, peeked into the dim boxes to see scorpions glow under black light, examined the three stages of beetle larvae living in the cover of a fake sarcophagus, listened intently for hissing cockroaches, and watched giant vinegaroons stalk and devour crickets.

It’s a nature show, not an art show, but there’s a tongue-in-cheek gaudiness to the affair that’s perfect for the young ones, and it’s knowingly tacky/camp enough for adults to appreciate. The walls are decorated with insect facts and festooned with flamboyant, lurid banners that promise “The Devil With Two Heads!! ALIVE!”; in others, giant insects prey on a man in a hazmat suit spraying him with a noxious cloud, reminding me of those elaborately awful Ghanaian movie posters. There’s even a grotesque “frozen” bit of carnival fakery, screaming, “TerAntTula! AMAZING! BIZARRE!,” something guaranteed to send you back in time to a cheesy sideshow in a Middle America state fair. Even if you’ve never been to one.

“Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders” at Fullerton Museum Center, 201 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545; www.cityoffullerton.com/gov/departments/ museum/default.asp. Open Tues.-Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., noon-4 p.m. Through April 14. $5; students/seniors, $4; children younger than 12, $3; children 5 and younger, free.

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