Golden West College’s ‘Neoteric: The New Avant-Garde’ Captures Life—With Lots of Cement

Andre Woodward’s living sculptures in front of Olga Lah’s installation. Photo courtesy of GWC Art Gallery

“Neoteric: The New Avant-Garde” at the Golden West College Art Gallery doesn’t offer much by way of the experimental forefront, despite the artspeak repetition of its title (“neoteric,” “new” and “avant-garde” are all synonyms of one another). Having said that, the gallery’s new director and curator, Evan Senn, has created a memorable, even inviting exhibition that greets us warmly and asks us to linger, its modest installations gripping us in a bear hug of color and ideas.

I haven’t appreciated Andre Woodward’s sculptures in the past. When I first saw them, I thought his living ficus growing out of cement-block sculptures resembled cheap plastic house plants. At the very least, the ecological message was too obvious, and at its worst, Woodward was killing living things to make his point. I blame that cursory reading on poor exhibition notes and a lack of context because in my walk-through with the informed and enthusiastic Senn, I learned the cement is actually porous, soaked in water to keep the live plants going.

The engineering and ingenuity behind Woodward’s work is indisputable, the blocks of cement and their captive plants balanced on colorfully painted steel stands, with thin wire guylines steadying them as the soft air conditioning above cause them to shiver and shake. They also work on a number of other, more expansive narratives: as a hopeful message of survival, a symbol of understanding breaking free of ignorance, even as a resurrection metaphor.

Caesar Alzate Jr.’s layered paint sculptures on canvas erupt from their white walls, with the most startling being Object No. 18, which looks as if a large slice of skin has been flayed with a knife and left dangling, the slick color resembling an open wound. Equally stunning, but in an altogether different way, is the texture of the aureole surrounding the fossilized volcanic lip of his canvas Object No. 2012.04, the center a sun-baked desert of spidery gesso and acrylic cracks.

Quinton Bemiller’s five paintings, part of his eight-canvas “Vertical Landscape” series, would be a wet dream for any budding biologist, his bacilli shapes stacked on top of one another like visions of denuded forests, as friendly paramecium photobomb their tendrilled surfaces into the image. While there are no discernible ideas being shared in the work—they’re just pretty pictures—there’s an amiable lack of the ordinary infusing the work, its overall serenity making for great associative conversations, from the aforementioned microscopic creatures to cartoon landscapes and the monsters of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Fabric sculptor Mimi Haddon’s pagan feminist fire circle, Topatopa: A Survival Guide, looks more like a romper room for large children than the sober ode to the Goddess one would expect. Stuffed to the brim with glorious, overwhelming eye candy, there are shapes and colors painted on the walls; a large match suspended, waiting to be struck; a playful totem stacked to the ceiling with found and donated items, including textiles that resemble ballerinas who’ve abandoned their tutus en masse, as a large pile of finger-thin breasts, with shiny erect nipples, sits chaotically in a corner. I can’t say I fully understand her intent, but there’s a giddiness to it that’s enlightening and silly at the same time.

Likewise, Olga Lah’s joyous Everything is waiting for you, a wall-length installation inspired by a poem of the same name, is a bouquet of paper, spray paint and plastic blossoms inspired by still lifes. Senn perfectly describes them as a “monster flower mountain thing,” and in a perfect world, it would inspire a legion of selfies. Inviting as they are, however, Lah subversively makes her bouquet a cautionary message, wrinkling the paper and layering in lighter colors around the edges of the blooms, suggesting that it’s been a few days since they’ve been cut, and they’re beginning to desiccate.

I’ve previously admired Chris Natrop’s magical, hand-cut paper sculptures in these pages. Hung from the ceiling and lit with a changing series of colored lights, they create an ever-shifting box of shadows; stepping into Candy Bowl Meltdown Redux has the potential to be a meditative experience. The lighting around the installation here, unfortunately, is too bright, the space allotted far too compact for anyone to really make out the shapes his work creates in a darker room, let alone allow anyone above a certain height to enter without it crashing down around them.

Threadwinners (the collaborative team of Liz Flynn and Alyssa Arney) crochet elaborate food and pop-culture-tech items in two of the most showstopping pieces: Techstile Blanket and Comfort Food Blanket. Demanding interaction, the former encourages you to open the crocheted laptop and look inside, run your fingers over the yarn Tamagotchi, floppy discs and oversized boombox, creating a retro overload. The crocheted pan dulce, shrimp, hotdogs, wedding cake, popcorn, pumpkin pie and ice cream, crowded together in a food orgy, also seem ready-made for selfies, while simultaneously playing on the idea of tech and junk food creating safe places in which we can hide from the world.

“Neoteric: The New Avant-Garde” at Golden West College Art Gallery, Fine Arts Building, Room 108, 15751 Gothard St., Huntington Beach, (714) 895-8316. Instagram: GWCartgallery. Open Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Through Feb. 23. Free.

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