Fonts of Wisdom

Photo by Jack GouldDoesn't bald-headed art lady Rachel Rosenthal seem like she'd be murder, on a par with those women who hoard all their hostility and aggression like well-scrubbed pennies until it's time to spend them making some waitress feel low? Doesn't she seem like she'd bark orders at you like you were her gay houseboy? I bet she'd want you to do her laundry, but first she'd purposely smear it with cow dung (to represent Mother Earth). Or she'd throw stuff at you after first smearing it with cow dung (to represent Mother Earth). Or she would be all like, “Don't put your glass on the table! USE A COASTER!” And all the hangers-on would go, “Oooh, la Rachel! Eeet was your most magneeficent performance ayver!” And then other hangers-on would be all, like, “Ja.”

She's just so big and bald and performance art-y. And we all know she could kick your ass.

But the Don Cribb Project Room at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center is hosting Rosenthal's “Nihon Journal,” a modest, elegant and spare show. Most shockingly, though, it does not expect you to know everything in the world. It is happy to fill you in on the particulars instead of smugly wearing its esotericism as a badge of honor for the cognoscenti. And miracle of miracles, when it teaches you something new, it is neither condescending nor dull.

The premise and presentation are simple: slapdash brush drawings in basic black evoke things Rosenthal saw in her Japanese journeys. She dots some haiku-like lines around the edges in a hand that is surprisingly graceful and fuss-free. And she has taken the trouble to transcribe those verses and print them out (in a red font, which, in its well-suitedness for the project, reminds me of the Ani DiFranco line, “I know the font for teriyaki,” and it's true!). When she alludes to something with a Japanese phrase, she gives a quick definition! Then, if her haiku-ness is a bit too abstract, she actually explains the metaphors! Sweet, inclusive Rachel, broadening her reach and not calling you a moron for being unaware that a torii is a gate! Gentle Rachel, with her witty asides often featuring ritual disembowelments! Softened Rachel, who even makes the words fucking and shitty sound genteel! I'll do her laundry, if she'll tell me more about the lacquered gates.

Just a few steps away, “Un-Professional” sprawls appealingly through the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. The premise? Commercial artists strut the stuff they'd be doing if they weren't reaping fat paychecks off the backs of ad companies. In a lot of cases, the two aren't so different. I noted in last week's column the immeasurable superiority of the late painter Elsie Palmer Payne to her late husband, the much more famous Edgar Payne; it's worth pointing out that Elsie was a commercial artist, creating ads and signage before she got started on canvases that kicked Edgar's Plein Air ass. So put away your prejudices, dears.

Bryan Cantley, a local architect, offers disturbing, black and charcoal architectural models of a future OC (with Carrier Johnson Architects) in which at, “August 8, 2027, 3:27 p.m., Orange County achieves complete saturation of density. Maximum gridlock. . . . People are forced to abandon cars where they are and a new social order is born.” Cantley's models may be multifaceted, compressed spaces with neato techno gizmos that allow for disparate uses (and have vertical, rather than horizontal, green space!), but they're painted such depressing shades! It's very A.I., though without the infuriating ending. He has his futuro-fonts down, too.

You could spot Walter Urie as a professional photographer from three kilometers: his photos are unfashionably clear and decipherable to be “art.” But the series is riveting—and shockingly sentimental. We start with a gelatin print of our hero, a bald-headed, goateed doctor. He's dashing, with a stethoscope 'round his neck and thick-lashed eyes. We move on to the next: a man bent over, with microscopes affixed to his glasses, then to fingers holding scissors and threads. We see another, then doctors gathered around a mass. Finally we see it's a baby, with tubes in its mouth, gloved hands attending to it with forced sterility. In the final, we see the bandage, on which has been drawn a cartoon face.

Michael Johnson's Christmas cards are insanely beautiful. Using Renaissance madonnas as a starting point (Raphaels and some that look like Fra Lippi and Da Vinci; another looks like the Sistine Madonna, but I don't think it is. I just wish Johnson had cited which works he was appropriating), Johnson prints them, faded and scratched, onto yellowing parchments, adorns them with vines and blooms and butterflies like medieval manuscript illuminations, and decks them out with Latin sayings like “Let us rejoice before you with a perfect heart.” They are profoundly commercial—and exquisite.

In fact, almost all the works here are strong—probably because commercial artists aren't afraid to create work that's visually solid and aesthetically pleasing, even though that hasn't been a prerequisite for high art for decades now. Mike Sasso's digital collages are artily upside-down, but they're still arresting and still have something to say. Ana-Victoria Aenlle's scratched-up rainbow sheets “girls, girls, girls, bugs and kicking ass” are highly stylized and totally whimsical and delightful. The least compelling work in the show—an installation called “Time”—strives less to please the eye, and is the poorer for it. Lazy installation with some kind of big, fancy point? That's so '95. Bring on the ad designers.

Rachel Rosenthal's “Nihon Journal” at Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentral Through May 26. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; “Un-Professional” at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore, Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517. Through May 26. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; and by appt.

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