Great Park Gallery's All-Over-the-Place Exhibition 'Balance' Grows on You

It's almost tempting to say the Great Park Gallery's latest show, “Balance,” is the perfect exhibition for these troubled, out-of-balance times. According to the press release, it's about the “evolving relationship between nature and humanity,” but from the outset it's not at all clear that that is what you're seeing. Laid out with care and thought by curator Kevin Staniec, what initially feels conceptually thin will grow on you, despite some missteps and filler, taking you to an altogether different place than what the PR poofery might suggest. It's only after the fact that you'll see how all these pieces are interconnected.

Our complicated history with the earth is the story behind Vaughn Bell's low-key Pocket Biosphere. She has sealed bits of earth in wobbly, recyclable plastic containers. The idea is that you pick up one of the containers, after filling out “adoption” paperwork nearby, promising to take responsibility for your bit of terra firma, and take it home. It's a libertarian conceit: You own it, so you do with it as you please—you can nurture it or pitch it in a bin, and no one would know—and a sweet symbol for both ecological preservation and the casual disregard with which we treat our surroundings. Likewise, Esther Traugot's 25 arboretum seed types, each wearing a tiny mustard-yellow sweater, also seems a potentially twee idea for an art project, but looking at them brings to mind protective mothers, the artist a literalized Mother Nature, making sure her “children” are dressed warmly, protected from the elements. Placed under bell jars, the glassware does double duty, lending the pieces respect as something scientific and living, but also focusing our attention on them as objets d'art.

The four geometric pieces by local artist Andre Woodward, gray concrete blocks balanced by wire hanging from a cat's cradle of metal supports, is the least subtle work in the show. Sprouting from each gray square is a tree branch, but the block isn't cracked, with nature forcing its way through an urban landscape; the concrete fits tightly around the branch or stalk, trapping and suffocating it. Intentionally rickety, there's the feeling that one wrong move may take the whole thing down, but that obviousness short-cuts moving us to look at things in a new way and, instead, just nudges us on to the next part of the exhibition.

In the age of tiny houses, the novelty of Jedediah Corwyn Voltz's miniature treehouses (erected next to houseplants) will bring a smile, the simple furnishings—beds, rugs, petite paintings—all handcrafted from scraps of wood, plastic and fabric. Ignoring any sort of architectural reality—skimpy ladders connect the precarious levels of each house, alongside watermill wheels that dwarf the buildings—the sculptures are nice to look at, especially inside the well-chosen environmental planters, but they're the kind of thing one admires for the amount of time put into the effort and little else.

The handful of photographs of various art sculptures amid the natural surroundings at Storm King Art Center are documentary, not always even good shots of the work, and while the New York center may be thoughtful about where it places public sculptures on its vast acreage, the photos don't overtly have much to do with balance. In fact, they look as if they're there only because the gallery had a spare wall that needed covering.

In contrast, photographer and journalist Marissa Gawel's mixed-media installation, taken from her “American Attraction” series, spans an entire wall of the gallery. Her travels to small museums, many located in people's homes throughout America's heartland—a jagged, red-string cardiogram pinned from map to title card to photographs tracing the journey—is the show's highlight. Most of the places she visits are where individuals have obsessive/compulsive relationships with their hoarded collections and, however clumsily, have created businesses, a place for their stuff and a community. The rotting carcasses of automobiles collect rust in Old Car City; there's Tennessee's Salt & Pepper Shaker Museum; Fouke Monster Mart, accompanied by a pizza shop, celebrating Arkansas' swamp creature/folk hero popularized in The Legend of Boggy Creek movies; there's the Birdhouse Paradise of Bill Larkin, featuring almost 4,000 bird homes.

There's no sneering at the yokel here; just a journalist's love for the eccentric and an appreciation for the stories of people outside the mainstream. Gawel has photographed the owners or their places with a sharp eye for the intriguing detail and included QR scan codes, allowing you to hear short smartphone interviews with the individuals involved about the places they love. If the smile on the co-founder of MBAD African Bead Museum in Detroit is any indication, it's the only serious way to find happiness in the world, as well as the real theme of the show: surrounding yourself with the art and history that you love, then inviting people, especially strangers, to come in and partake, is our “nature”—and the surest, most highly evolved way to get in touch with our humanity.

“Balance” at Great Park Gallery, Palm Court Arts Complex, Irvine, (949) 724-6880; Open Thurs.-Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Feb. 19, 2017. Free.

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