Laguna Art Museum's 'Best Kept Secret' Shows What Zot Wrought

Documenting the furious creativity of the early years of UC Irvine's School of Fine Arts, curator Grace Kook-Anderson's revelatory exhibition “Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971” celebrates the underappreciated work of almost 40 once-local artists, the instructors who mentored them and the educational department that helped Orange County be a substantial factor in the LA art scene, instead of a New York also-ran. Part of the epic Pacific Standard Time collaboration, it's one of many simultaneous exhibitions at galleries and museums throughout Southern California.

The browning paper in Charles Christopher Hill's He Needs a Nice Title (1972)—with its jagged, stitched arrows and string woven through its layers—is the perfect opening salvo. Like an ancient, wrapped package, it's a neat metaphor for hidden work that has nearly disappeared during the past four decades. Likewise Laddie John Dill's 1971 series of Light Sentence sculptures made of argon and glass tubing; piercing the dimly lit gallery with their glow, the colors feel washed-out because the gallery isn't dark enough, but even the limited illumination is as apt a metaphor for the artistic process as there ever was.

Bruce Richards' Black Edge is timeless; a canvas sprayed with asphalt emulsion and salted with bronze powder, as rope binds brown cloth to the black top, it feels completely modern and would look right at home on a Nine Inch Nails album cover. Ed Bereal's two assemblages on display also feel like industrial precursors: The voodoo-esque Junkers Ju is a blackened, heart-shaped pouch adorned with a counterclockwise swastika, pipes attached like aortas. And his Focke-Wulf FW 109, which uses similar materials, looks as though it was once an evil medical bag belonging to Dr. Mengele and has to be nailed shut to prevent anything from escaping.

It's design (instead of content) that grabs your attention in several works. Larry Bell's elegant, glass, square sculptures are as exquisite as they come. It's easy to imagine John McCracken's sexy, sleekly lacquered Nine Planks V inspired Stanley Kubrick when he was brainstorming 2001: A Space Odyssey's black monolith. Using a magnifying glass to burn holes through stacked sheets of gridded vellum, the blackened cavities in Jerry McCafferty's Untitled create a giant Swiss cheese of unpredictable dark and light. Tony DeLap's Four Dots resembles a four-sided Greek amphitheater trapped inside a shiny, silver, glass case. At its center are four black dots imprinted on one side with the letters F, O , U and R—one in each corner—in red; on the reverse, the letters D, O, T and S, also in red. I kept returning to the smooth curves of his Dedi of Desnefru, a giant wall sculpture whose delicate bows and arches make it look like an enormous billiards rack.

In Richard Newton's Cantina installation, hundreds of flattened food containers blanket the gallery floor, their flat, gray, steel color punctuated by stray patches of green, blue, yellow and red from olive oil, cheese, beer, cookies or soda cans. Audiences walked on the original installation—which was accompanied by the sounds of cans being flattened—but we're told to not do so here. Is that because we're more litigious now, and one slip might mean a lawsuit? Is the work too fragile? Is the museum just afraid its floor will get scratched up? I don't know, but art pieces made for interaction that aren't interacted with, are always something of a disappointment. The artist's 1969 mixed-media installation Parfum suffers from the same problem: A complex bit of commentary connecting the beauty industry and oil consumption, pink- and scarlet-painted oil cans become display stands for an amalgam of dairy products painted as though they were Dior cosmetics, with foodstuffs painted as Chanel and Revlon products that bear the names of oil fields in Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There is video on YouTube showing audiences engaged with the products on display, picking up and examining the “perfume” bottles or sniffing white strips (that I assume smell like oil) handed to them by a woman in a burka. The work is certainly eye-catching, but the assumed hands-off museum setting prevents anything but the obvious layers from being accessible.

The more adventurous work (i.e., pieces that contain nudity) is hidden away in the museum's basement space: I spent several minutes puzzling over Nancy Buchanan's memorable ode to pubic hair, Twin Corners, then many more chuckling when I finally got it. Catharsis, Marsha Red Adams' disturbing black-and-white photo documentation of an effigy of herself engulfed in flames, a bull's eye on the crotch, is visually striking. Her series of eight hand-painted photographs of a nude woman attempting to extricate herself from bondage—Woman Bound/Woman Withdrawn—is equally remarkable: Look closely at these riveting images, and you'll see that each binding has been hand-stitched into the photos.


This review appeared in print as “What Zot Wrought: The Laguna Arts Museum remembers when UC Irvine art scandalized OC—and helped to shape the SoCal scene.”

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