Great Slabs O' Dead Stuff!

Photo by Jack GouldYou can pretty much count on it. Like a bad performance artist pounding nails into his own sac, “Extreme: Ill-Mannered Art” ought to be one of those silly shows that positively grovel for attention.

Except the new exhibit at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) doesn't grovel. And it doesn't suck. When one enters the largish, Santora-adjacent gallery, signs of “Sensation” abound. But like that scandalicious Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit, “Extreme” is more than it first appears. (The much-maligned “Sensation,” in fact, was the best show I saw last year, bar none. The only people condemning it were those who hadn't seen it.)

The first room of OCCCA's gallery, in fact, holds only a few works, and two are ringers for some of the more controversial works in “Sensation.” One is Carlee Fernandez's 7100-Goat. Fernandez's taxidermied goat—turned into a fully functional pull-along suitcase— mightily evokes Damien Hirst's slabs o' dead stuff. But while the associations are strong and immediate, they're only skin-deep. Fernandez's travel accessories (only one is shown here) are sanitized, clean and functional. They're quite clearly dead things, but they're also whimsically dead, like the island of dead animals at the La Habra Children's Museum. There, the animals have been loved by so many generations of children that they're becoming worn and raggedy. Here, Fernandez's pristine goat has a useful function. It's almost like the Native American practice of using each part of the animal so its death is not also a sacrilege. In opposition to both, Damien Hirst offers only death's stench—its formaldehyded organs and its cavalcades of flies. Hirst needs a punch in the throat. Fernandez, on the other hand, needs commissions.

Just a few feet away, Cynthia Minet's Her is clearly cut from the cloth of Ron Mueck's Dead Dad—another bit of magic courtesy of “Sensation.” Dead Dad was laid out on a platform on the ground; he is tiny, perhaps 3 feet long, and one can crouch down next to him and examine his teeny uncircumcised penis and the hairs on his legs. Mueck sculpted a death cast of his father that exposes Madame Tussaud for the fraud she was. Every hair is implanted perfectly, from Dead Dad's legs to his nostrils to the diminutive cloud around his dick. Death has sunk his cheeks; his soles are wrinkled, his toenails thick and grubby. A thatch of gray curls behind his ear and every line of his palm have been delineated. I have never seen anything like it.

Her is almost the same size, but what looks like congealed candle wax forms bones: elbows, clavicle, pelvis and femur. She does not have Dead Dad's detail or perfection. Instead, she is what's going on under the hairs and earlobes. She is bones and a little meat. She has been dead longer than Dead Dad, but there is none of Hirst's squalid unpleasantness around her decay. It's perfectly natural—even happy. Perhaps Her could get up and do a funny little skeleton dance!

There are very few stupid works in “Extreme.” None are offensive, but they try to be, which can be its own brand of offensiveness. Laurel Paley's Scarification, for instance, is a series of photos in which fingers insinuate themselves into sphincters and pendulous breasts are scrunched like Play-Doh into painful-looking shapes. Also, there are some pictures of scars and abused veins. Ho-hum. The whole thing is so boring I can't even bring myself to find a clever way to mock it.

Another series of photos shows a silly man trying to fuck a mannequin before and after drilling holes into her head and slicing off her arms, leaving me wishing I had some toothpicks with which to prop my eyes open. A video project in a corner alcove, meanwhile, offers an almost Warholianly plotless look at how to kill time, in which a simple clock is murdered again and again. I choose to kill my time in other ways than watching this claptrap.

But just when one is beginning to become inured to the whole thing, there is Denise DiSalvo's All My Dead Are at Costco. I think it's dangerous to make a viewer work to see one's art—and, in fact, I usually resent it. For that reason, most pieces that incorporate text aren't successful. If you can't draw a gallerygoer in—Big! Flashy! Look!—then what's the use? DiSalvo doesn't offer much to look at: six vertical panels hold small writing, interspersed only occasionally with small pictures. But I put my resentment aside and began to read.

DiSalvo's touching story about her dead sister Olivia, her dead mother, the father she doesn't talk to—hell, even her dead cat and hamster—is a beautiful piece of writing that transports you into the aisles of Costco and the site of her decomposing sister's body as solidly as if you were put there by a Star Trek transporter beam. It is a note of particularly earthbound grace. There is such love there for her dumpy sister and her frail mom (and the cat, and the hamster) that there is no squeamishness when skin sloughs from Olivia's foot and attaches itself to her bed frame. Extreme? Maybe. But certainly a sensation.

“Extreme: Ill-Mannered Art” at ORANGE COUNTY CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART, 117 N. Sycamore, Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517. Through Nov. 26.

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