Discovering the fine line between joy and despair is the theme of the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's “Happy Medium,” featuring the work of Stephen Anderson, Donald Gialanella and OC Weekly Best Visual Artist of 2013, Kebe Fox. Curated by Anderson and Fox, the exhibition is inspired by Fox's painting of the same title: a turbaned mystic putting a smiling mask on a crystal ball as she gets sucked down a whirlpool. That insightful image would make power-of-positive-thinking critic Barbara Ehrenreich beam with pride, and while most of Fox's considerable work on display suggests an outlook that's (at best) dimly hopeful, his fellow curator seems less cynical, offering an activist's kick up the backside with his work; Gialanella, meanwhile, riffs on a Buddhist-lite view of detachment.
The three introductory pieces in the lobby set the contradictory philosophical tone for the show: Grab and spin Gialanella's painted steel Topsy-Turvy Mechanics on its wall mount, and the grinning, buck-toothed face and pomaded hair disappears—with a loud, ominous guillotine clang—changing into a bearded bald man, poking his tongue at you. Based on carnival circus art (though it more resembles the cheap Wooly Willy magnetic face toys to me), the kinetic sculpture suggests happy/sad is an ephemeral two sides of the same coin. Anderson's A Complete Circle canvas pictures an Earth-shaped sphere surrounded by coffee-ground-colored sky, its pyrographic surface a brackish green, textured with curling paper that has torn as if exploded, the land neglected and uninhabited. I'm an admirer of Fox's work, including those on display, but what he was trying to say with his lobby piece—it looks a little like an electrocardiogram of Dow Jones taking a nose-dive—escaped me. In the four years since OCCCA's “Father Material” exhibition, Fox has embraced a more abstract tone in his work; while still identifiable as his—3D effects, easy-on-the eye color palates, vibrant cartoonish visuals, title puns—it has a vaguer social conscience that I found confusing here. Fox intentionally leaves his work open for interpretation, but if I don't have any idea what I'm looking at, if I'm unable to identify the imagery in pieces such as Poppy Tot, Sigh Lens or V-Noose, what's my take-away other than it was a pretty picture?
Anderson's more ambitious work—in both scope and medium—is Altar to Happiness (In Triangular Form), a massive mixed-media installation topped by a depressed, blue-neon happy face that has suffered a bleed-out of its familiar yellow splashed down the wall of the gallery. Eighties-band album covers suggest the consumption of music in its fleeting joy; clips from reality-TV shows—in which we always feel superior to the sad exploits on camera—mixed with celebrity quotes, bookend video screens of tranquil water. Below are wood blocks illustrated with the chemical effects of such drugs as Viagra and well-known anti-depressants; a series of yellow happy faces transition from smiling to frowning underneath that, followed by a row of 3.5-inch floppy disks, the fragile database of memory that the pyramid rests on. Completely absorbing, it's both a visual overload and a thoughtful, complex work of depressive beauty.
Polished blocks of wood give a shine to hoary pop aphorisms in Chapters: Series of 10, with each 3D piece resplendently titled with trite sayings such as The Mind Plays the Central Role or Happiness Is a By-Product. Covered in vintage medical illustrations and cut-up quotes from right-winger Dennis Prager's self-help tome, there's a little too much irony on display for me to fully love the work, but if you're in on the joke, you might appreciate it. Even better is An Ode, Anderson's wall sculpture using leftover scraps from Chapters, reminding us that disremembering may be the best possible way to move forward, with the words “Forget,” “Fog,” “Forge” and “get” painted in white and blending into the white walls of the gallery as if they're in the process of fading away.
Gialanella's mixed-media sculptures occupy the back gallery, and while I admired the labor and humor involved—especially Near Nirvana's smiling Buddha head painted on a Hollywood freeway sign—as well as the reference to reincarnation by using recycled materials, the tenets of Buddhism referenced seem an afterthought, an attempt to add dimension to something that doesn't really have any. To be fair, I'm deeply resistant to any suggestion that we further disengage from the troubles of the world, especially if the reason for doing it is somehow “spiritual” in nature. Telling someone homeless or starving, on their last unemployment check, or targeted by drones that their pain is illusory and fleeting seems specious and apathetic. In the end, engagement with the world and alleviation of the suffering of others may not make us happier, but it will make us easier to live with (as well as kinder to one another). That, in the end, seems much more like the real key to life's happy medium.
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.