Think curator Stephan “Bax” Baxter's chasing a review by gathering together four artists who've been named Best Visual Artist in OC Weekly? You're just being cynical. Think his sneaky appeal to our vanity succeeded because you're reading that review right now? Absolutely right.
No longer with the Magoski Arts Colony, Baxter has done a fine job transforming half of Max Bloom's Café Noir into a pop-up gallery. The four artists he's showing in “Quatre Meillures: OC Weekly's Best Artists”—Valerie Lewis (winner 2014), John Sollom (2012), Kebe Fox (2013) and Russ Pope (2010)—all radically differ in style, but they are concerned at some level with social issues and their works hang well on the same walls, a testament to our, ahem, good taste at this distinguished rag.
Working late nights to get the venue in gallery shape doesn't ensure that everything that needs to get done does, however. When I attended, the lighting had a mind of its own, and the work was bizarrely unlabeled, so I will describe instead of name pieces. Here's hoping there was a lull at some point since then, and Baxter could get this very important part of curation finished.
Fox's sly Happy Medium leads the show. Previously reviewed as the focal point for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's show of the same name, it's still as cool as it was back in June. In other work, against a bruised skyline, three gray, pallid women bob up and down in rough green water as though “buoys,” with a cat floating in the air nearby; a bald, fat Michelin man/child stands in a bathtub, as a traffic sign warns that men and women are passing; an elegant, beturbaned, expressionless woman talks into a cell phone as a hummingbird approaches her open ear with its hypodermic beak, searching for nourishment that doesn't exist.
Sollom's human-sized Mickey Mouse, sculpted from tomato baling and copper wire, his pizza-sized, jagged metal hands at his sides (until he reaches out to disembowel your children) gives the corporate spokesmouse the appropriate sinister edge. Sollom's painting of an unconscious Kelly Thomas being pawed by faceless, plastic-glove-wearing police officers is disturbing and powerful. Above, a crucified Christ bleeds out from a homey living-room wall, the word “Fullerton” painted across the image in blue, the letters smeared and flaking, suggesting bloody wounds underneath. In comparison, Sollom's assemblages—visually intriguing items obsessively organized on little wooden shelves and in boxes, with painted addenda—seem less specific and more open-ended, politics touched on with a buzzword meme (“drones kill,” “be explicit”) that seem more incidental than narrative. Reagan, Elvis, Muhammad Ali, '60s-era Batman and Nixon all make appearances on smaller pieces, but as with the paintings of the assemblages that are also featured, they're an interesting exercise in cubbyholing memories, but otherwise superfluous.
Pope's caffeine-drenched canvases are always a hard sell, but they exquisitely capture angst and discomfort with their cartoonish, street-punk aggressiveness. Binder-clipped to makeshift black frames of cardboard or old wood, the squinted eyes, mouths agape or teeth gritted, and muted colors have the cumulative effect of making you laugh nervously and raising your anxiety level. A man in a car hangs an arm out a window, glaring from the interior. Another tightly grips the handle of an umbrella, black sheets of rain dripping off the ribs as if tears. Yet another is a bipolar mug shot, half depressive concrete blue, half white, his face a drawn, reptilian Lon Chaney's. Another is a man fearfully peering over the rim of his coffee cup, a face on the front of it looking as if it's going to take a bite out of whoever gets too close. It almost made me swear off coffee.
Lewis' works are arguably the most emotional in the show and easily the most moving: A young woman smokes a cigarette during a moment of calm respite, as an otherwise chaotic atmosphere—gold, green, auburn and rust—roils around behind her. “ROLL OVER OR STAND UP” is stenciled repeatedly over an image of curator Baxter, holding a protest sign, a strip of duct tape covering his mouth. The remaining portraits are erotic celebrations of art and male beauty. In a loving portrait of her boyfriend, Lewis splashes fluorescent green paint around him as if a protective blanket, isolating and bringing attention to his shoulder-length hair and smooth features. Even more sensual is Lewis' painting of a shirtless/possibly naked young man drifting in a sun-lit ocean of pale yellow and orange, his face tilted back in sublime ecstasy. The final piece, quoted in our ode to her in 2014's Best Of issue, is her gorgeous painting I Am Naked and Foolish, a statement every painter should embrace.
Or just give up and sling coffee.
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.