Biennialus Interruptus at OCMA

Two hours into walking through the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2010 Biennial exhibition, after eight pages of handwritten notes, through 16 artists and only a third of the exhibition under my belt, my feet began to ache and the needle in my brain started to dip into the red zone.

And I mean that in a good way.

OCMA’s latest Biennial—curated by Sarah Bancroft—is a buffet for the eyeballs, so dense and chock-a-block o’ great one review isn’t going to do it justice.

This review covers some of what I saw on my first visit, but to be more thorough, I’ll break up the rest of the work into two or three more excursions, giving the remaining pieces their due consideration in my Art Whore posts on the Weekly’s Heard Mentality blog.

A great start is Drew Heitzler’s There’s Always Money In the Banana Stand (a reference to the television comedy Arrested Development), in which 60-plus inkjet prints are themed around Orange County’s . . . arrested development. Taking up three walls, the images in white frames are a mix of the silly and the serious: a post card of Richard Nixon’s birthplace, a Boy Scouts’ 1953 National Jamboree badge (held in Orange County and the inspiration behind the long, looping road of the same name), corporate logos of weapons manufacturers that have boomed and busted here, a song label for the Beach Boys’ “Santa Ana Winds,” a predatory wolf leering at Red Riding Hood and Mischa Barton (of The O.C. TV series), among others. Simultaneously nostalgic and finger-flipping, the installation feels like the best biography ever written of our county.

Just one of Alexandra Grant’s mixed-media-on-paper “Portal” series would have done the trick—instead of the three on display—and would have saved room for other, more exciting work. The reversed cursive words are often unintelligible—which I assume was the point—but I don’t buy the tired argument about the difficulties of communication. Her aesthetic feels like doodling posing as a statement, adding nothing to the conversation.

Alex Israel raids Hollywood prop warehouses, rents unusual pieces and creates narratives in the way he juxtaposes them. The temporary status of the art—pieces have to be returned, so his installations can’t be bought or sold—is an added bonus and an intellectual rebuke to a career focused solely on making money.

Luke Butler’s “Enterprise” series of paintings based on Star Trek images removes the background or isolates characters against the TV series’ vague-desert/planetary-rock studio sets. His Spock painting has Leonard Nimoy’s titular character dissolving in mid-beam up, an existential loss of self worthy of Albert Camus.

I was unimpressed with Mari Eastman’s grade-school-styled portraits of women, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her wood carving Standing figure with black hair. A rough-hewn approximation of a female figure looking stiffly ahead, her patchy black hair adorned with glitter, her features amorphous, much like the future she’s facing down.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sherin Guirguis’ work is big on ideas. Her smoothly latticed giant earring, Bein El-Qasrein, made of walnut, plywood and aluminum, would hang perfectly from the earlobe of the 50-Foot Woman. A small group of schoolgirls gathered around it enthusiastically on the day I attended. Whether they saw it as something beautiful or realized it as a warning of potential beauty burdens, I can’t say. Equally large, fierce explosions of green and blue ink splash across Guirguis’ mixed-media-on-paper triptych Untitled (Dome). With sections cut into an Eastern Arabic mashrabiya screen pattern common to homes, the painting suggests a family dwelling, one that is hiding from us or has been destroyed by some sort of violence and splashed into oblivion.

Feminist concerns also inform the work of Taravat Talepasand in her paintings The Censored Garden and Hey Haji and installation “Angel of Iran (Dirty 50cc).” Hey features an emaciated woman in a Glamour pose; the decorated motor bike used by Islamic-fundamentalist-youth gangs represents religious and sexual oppression.The replica on display is decorated with flowers and a spray-painted stencil of a woman hiding her face with a veil. The image of a violent young man straddling the bike, as a woman’s face and flowers snuggle up against his crotch is perfectly poetic in its irony. The woman at the center of Talepasand’s Censored is in a burka, her eyes sparkling, her nude body beneath the garment a series of digital, flesh-colored censorship pixels. The artist says the painting is meant to reference the repressions of Islamic culture, as well as the U.S.’s tight-ass attitudes, but the computer-generated covering of nasty bits instead reminded me of Japanese porn.

Most unusual was Nina Waisman’s site-specific installation “Between Bodies/Tijuana.” Walk through the myriad of tiny sensors, and dozens of environmental sounds—birds, helicopters, sirens, bells, cocks crowing, cars, concrete being broken or shoveled—fill the air. Even if you think you recognize what you’re hearing, it’s never the same for any two people because your height and size, the way you move, and your proximity to the sensors change the delivery. I spent 10 minutes walking back and forth, waving my hands and orchestrating, addicted—and I was only partly done with the Biennial.

“2010 California Biennial” at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through March 13, 2011. $10-$12; children under 12, free.


This review appeared in print as “Biennialus Interruptus: OCMA’s latest installation of its every-two-years art orgy is chock-a-block o’ great!.”


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