Laguna College of Art and Design’s Students Impress

There’s an embarrassment of riches in “Emerging Masters 2016,” Laguna Art Museum’s exhibition of the work of Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) Masters of Fine Arts students. Curated by Peter Zokosky, LCAD’s masters of fine arts painting and drawing chairman, the work is heavy on thoughtful narrative and arresting imagery. An extraordinary painter in his own right, Zokosky brings his unique eye to his curation of the show, embracing the risk-takers and thinkers in his department.

Unlike someone whose work feels like a retread of painters they admire, Averi Endow’s paintings are singularly her own. Like her brutally clear-eyed paintings of children at Costa Mesa’s DAX Gallery seen last year—part little animal, part terror, but with tender beauty intact—her two pieces on playground equipment, Heisenberg and Advent, give us a swing set and a slide, but coats them in a shadowy ambiguity suggesting that every molester and child murderer in the world is lurking just out of frame. In Heisenberg, the isolated blue swing seats look like torture devices, the slack-jawed metal Walter White figure balancing them on outstretched arms, the thing of nightmares. The solidity of Advent‘s stairs leading into a blackness where only streaks of color exist suggests a stepping-off point leading to some hellish abyss.

There’s a much lighter, almost child-like, but nevertheless melancholic, story being told in the opulent colors of Jacqueline Nicolini’s Looking Back. It’s illustrative art at its finest: a small zebra finch perched inside the doorway of a dollhouse. The miniaturized surroundings—pictures hanging on the wall, tiny bookcases filled with tinier books, a bird in a cage, a grandfather clock—are all perfectly captured, designed and painted. We feel ourselves in the finch’s place, and Nicolini does this without a smidgen of anthropomorphism, creating a fully fleshed-out world and then drawing us into it with the richness of her details. Her second painting, Lonely Tom, again creates its own specificity: It’s a tiny diorama of a train station, with a man holding a briefcase, walking down the street, a cat passing in the other direction and a train on the tracks behind them. Tom—and we don’t know if Nicolini is referring to the cat or the man—is us, perpetually on our way somewhere, but frozen in place and never actually getting there.

The numerous details in Catherine Kaleel’s delightful Getting Ready—two young women getting ready at a dresser, a crumpled note with a boy’s phone number nearby, kitsch ceramic kittens, David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album spinning on a record player, a large perm, a Led Zeppelin shirt, a nose ring and a black bra—doesn’t tell us if it’s a nostalgic period piece or a retro fantasy, but it’s not really important. Her throwback to a liberating musical moment in history—as the dinosaurs of rock began to transition to glitter and punk, captured in the party plans of two girls—whether remembered or just re-created, is filled with joy and personality.

Chloe Allred’s bloody triptych of women’s battered bodies, Violation, is difficult to look at, more PSA than beauty, forcing us to take in what we normally wouldn’t. That’s what any great artist should do, but aside from it lingering in your mind longer than you want it to, it’s powerful despite my uncertainty about what my take-away is supposed to be. In other figurative work, there’s only the vaguest of unspoken stories behind Kenny Harris’ oil on panel Inara. His subject sits at a piano, sheets of paper haphazardly resting on the music rack, no notes visible, stacks of books nearby, sans legible titles. Her face is demurely turned to the left, partially reflected in the mirror behind her. She’s waiting for someone—perhaps the painter?—and they’re taking more time than expected. The tension in the moment is expressed as she cradles her hands in one another, feet crossed at the ankles, her toenail polish, dress (and mood?) sharing the color blue. Shawn Warren’s exquisite Portrait Study of a Tuareg, meanwhile, contrasts the dark skin of the Saharan nomad he’s painted with the flowing representation of the man’s long indigo alasho (veil). Photographic in quality, the oil painting is deft and assured.

While there are the obligatory seascapes and nature portraits on display, Sansanee Boonyad’s drawing on polytab paper, Origins, goes a step further, presents those organic surroundings as scary, sexual, Giger-like places, where human faces and features and orifices appear in the dark ground, the stark branches of bent and twisted trees like jagged fingernails abrading the air around it. Despite being relegated to the basement, the quality of the work here bodes well for the county’s artistic bloodline, with several of the artists (especially Endow, Nicolini and Kaleel) worthy of their own solo shows. Visionary local curators would do well to visit before the show closes on July 17.

“Emerging Masters 2016” at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; Open Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through July 17. $5-$7; children younger than 12, free.

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