Big Showoffs!

Photo by Jack GouldThe Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) is showing off again. They're like that, you know, with their “big parties” and their “rack of lamb” and their “famous artists” and “very, very rich people” who hide behind the shrubs lining the entryway and then pelt museum officials and employees with money.

The occasion this time is “A Lasting Legacy: Recent Additions to the Collection,” an exhibit of the OCMA's recent acquisitions—and considering the previous sorry state of their permanent collection, rejoicings are probably in order.

In “Lasting Legacy,” OCMA seems to continue its recent habit of not sucking. Just last year, the museum showcased not only an outstanding retrospective of homeboy Peter Alexander's squishily orgasmicized sunsets but also a marvelous show of urban art of the 20th century, from Edward Hopper to the recently dead and blissfully scandalous Paul Cadmus.

There are certainly some problems among the new acquisitions. For one, the OCMA has a decided tendency to settle for major artists' minor works, just like when they presented last year's complete snooze of a Rauschenberg retrospective. And of course, some of the new arrivals are as ridiculously self-important as the works the OCMA was showing in the '80s, when it was still the Newport Harbor Art Museum and was attempting to be so black-clad and “modern”—so in league with New York and LA and Berlin and London—that it might as well have been Sprockets. Touch my monkey!

So it's not perfect. But the breadth and variety of the new acquisitions are astounding—though on a crabbier day, I'd likely deride that same variety as being scattered and confused. Isn't that funny?

There really is a lot of lovely work to look at among the new pieces in the permanent collection. They've added another Diebenkorn, who is best-known, of course, as the leading figure of the Bay Area Abstract Expressionists (and works by him in that oeuvre are already too-amply available in the museum). Here, for a change, is a figurative work—a charcoal of a moody woman that's as messy as a middle layer of a Giacometti painting, though in this instance it's the woman who's angsty instead of the artist. That Giacometti sure was a wreck. (See A Giacometti Portrait for an excruciating look at how often he would erase the head, repaint the head, cover the head with black paint, and paint over it again, all to end up with a giant scribbled head that could have been anyone and looked exactly the same as when it started. Fascinating. For a while.) Of course, the Manuel Neri right next to it looks just like a Giacometti, too.

There's an Agnes Pelton, who was extolled by the Los Angeles Times' Christopher Knight as a newly rediscovered light of the Art Deco variety. Her work was considered minor in 1929, but she's getting a second look—kind of like Tina Modotti, whose photos no longer are also-rans to those of her lover Edward Weston but instead have commanded the highest price paid for a photo. I think it was Madonna who bought it, but if it wasn't, it should have been.

For a change, a preponderance of the younger artists being acquired are women. Local light Kim Abeles offers her smog portraits, which are extremely unassuming—you walk right past them at first—due to their almost invisible gray coloration. But her process is a humdinger: she actually traps smog and paints with it. Jacci Den Hartog's Passing a Pleasant Summer, which was last spotted at the Long Beach Museum of Art, is a churning wave sticking out of the wall. It looks as if it was made from toothpaste—the yummy, minty kind.

And then it's back to Depression-era Social Realism with Edward Biberman's Time, the Present, a practically homoerotic look at a big, strong workingman who could be the cover of icky Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Mmmm, workingmen.

There are all kinds of goodness going on in the museum; there aren't any glaring omissions, though neither is there any kind of thematic strength. There are purty pictures of 19th-century nature scenes—though not the Plein Air seascapes jealously guarded by the rival Laguna Art Museum. There are blocky organics of the kind favored by the Modernists, spiced up with a jigger of AbEx. There are '80s-ish photos of body parts that look like the popular refrigerator magnets. So it's a bit shocking to realize the most engaging work in the show comes courtesy of actor Martin Mull. He's not the donor; he's the painter. The triptych We Had Such Hopes features '80s runny paint in ugly colors. In the middle is a retro '50s boy, his thin legs portrayed naively as sticks. Paint dribbles with the consistency of blood, and cruel boys line up at the edge like an evil Snip, Snap, Snurr. Surely they are about to kill something.

Oh, and of course, I can't forget about the pistachio-green slab of shiny John McCracken. It wouldn't be an OCMA show without one!

“A Lasting Legacy: Recent Additions to the Collection” at the Orange County Museum of Art's Beall Galleries, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; $4-$5; free on Tues. Through May 14.

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