If this year’s presidential race is causing you record levels of anxiety as it pulls you into its gaping maw of ineptitude and mean-spirited behavior, “Amerikan Krazy: Life Out of Balance,” the latest exhibition at BC Space, may require a trigger warning. Inspired by Henry James Korn’s new satirical novel, Amerikan Krazy, curator Mark Chamberlain gathered 22 artists and more than twice as many art pieces, all of them designed to celebrate the worst in American values.
You don’t need to read the book to get the show. The former director of the Art, Culture and Heritage program at Orange County Great Park describes his book as a tipped hat to Franz Kafka’s first novel, Amerika, as well as Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner’s activism of the 1960s, but it’s also a back-handed commentary on Disney, Mickey Mouse and the corporate theme-park mentality of what he calls the “development class.” Chamberlain’s exhibition echoes those concerns, wearing its politics like a neck tattoo. It may be playing a laugh track as it wields its sledgehammer, but subtlety is not the name of the game here.
The worst offenders are fun, if painfully obvious. Case in point: Chamberlain’s collaboration with collage and video artist Max Papeschi, Who’s Sorry Now? Gleefully conjoining Disney characters and other pop culture/corporate icons (the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man) and historical tragedies into a Pop Art freak show, there’s only so many visuals of cartoon characters glad-handing one another in front of nuclear explosions or the Twin Towers, before the whole thing feels like a facile attempt to shock. Likewise, while Glenn Brooks’ black-and-white woodcuts—Equal Justice, Ideal Patriot, Seven Course Meal—are superbly made with a lo-fi punk directness, they’re weak in poetic thought, targeting the usual suspects—political corruption, oligarchies, skewed justice and the USA PATRIOT Act—while adding nothing new to the conversation.
On a more successful level, Brooks’ disturbing mixed-media sculptures work much better than his woodcuts. Good Meds Bad Meds, tucked away in the gallery’s bathroom stall, is the sculpted head of a wide-eyed, screaming man being crushed inside a medicine cabinet. Likewise, Bliss, a smiling bald head with a metal plate screwed into his skull as though a sleep mask, recalls Clive Barker at his finest. The late Dustin Shuler’s End of an Era skewers our continuing reliance on fossil fuels in a sort of loop, applying a photograph of his performance piece/sculpture Death of an Era—a 1959 Cadillac lying on its side, impaled by a 20-foot-long nail—onto a metal panel cut out of an automobile.
t’s Jorg Dubin’s paintings that walk away with the show. His two portraits of the Pope are the most visceral in their Francis Bacon body horror: Nauseating red swirls crawl around under the holy man’s skin in Pontiff; in the second, Boxer, his face is a raw, meaty mess as if he has gone a few rounds in the ring. Sandman urges us to consider business as the new Morpheus, but he warns that the dreams he provides are actually a coulrophobic nightmare, putting him in clown maquillage and oversized shoes. It’s a great companion piece with Army Game, the deadpan Ron English poster of a child in Emmett Kelly hobo-face makeup, colorful camouflage and thousand-yard stare.
Painter Jeff Gillette’s long history of subverting Disney images was the inspiration for Banksy’s Dismaland exhibition last year. His deft slumscape takedown of the Disneyland sign, Fuck, replaces the revered logo with the obscenity, the sign about to collapse under blue skies into the garbage surrounding it. Tom Lamb’s ET Courts‘ aerial shot of dilapidated tennis courts is a perfectly distilled vision of “civilization” being overrun by the anarchy of nature, as wasted tendrils of vegetation pop through the cracked clay. F. Scott Hess’ half-naked revelers in Celebrants carry animal (and suspiciously human) bones in a procession; the cannibalism and oblivious expressions suggesting a moment waiting to happen at a Donald Trump rally near you. Cultural groupthink is also targeted in Jerry Burchfield and Chamberlain’s photo, Animal Experimentation, featuring a nude man surrounded by television news channels in the dark. A TV antenna is wrapped around his head as if a crown of thorns, the plastic tubing he’s sucking a lifeline as well as an intellectual suicide. Last, but not least, Joella March’s inventive Conjure Justice and Treasure Freedom are two light signs that have letters accentuated via different colors, the result sending quite another message than the one in the title.
There’s a touch of the drunk uncle at Thanksgiving lecturing us on why democratic socialism isn’t communism happening here, but one wishes more of the show let us marinate in its ideas without doing all of the work for us. Granted, a bulldozer may be needed to break through the wall of horseshit built up around us, but for those no longer in childhood, the thrill of watching big machines move around in the dirt isn’t as interesting as it used to be. For the message to really connect, we have to get off our ass and do that driving ourselves.
“Amerikan Krazy: Life Out of Balance” at BC Space, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1880; www.bcspace.com. Call for hours. Through May 20. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.