Laguna's Hippie Mafia Inspired a Book and an Art Show. Stick With the Book

Reading a book and “reading” a piece of art may seem similar—both involve the intricacies of interpretation, for example. But books lay out their information to entertain and inform, have to grab the reader's attention and hold it enough to get them through 300 or so pages. If the writer stumbles in delivering his or her vision, an editor will step in and clean house. Visual art, on the other hand, doesn't give a damn if you understand it or not. This is why books rarely inspire art exhibitions.

Curator Bolton Colburn's intriguing “Orange Sunshine and the Mystic Artists: 1967-1970” came into being after Colburn read OC Weekly managing editor Nick Schou's enthralling Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World. The book details the true story of a Laguna Beach collective's missionary zeal for psychedelics and its aim for an LSD-enhanced spiritual and political renaissance during the 1960s before being derailed by the U.S. government and the group's own internal dynamics.

Colburn's guest exhibition at Coastline Art Gallery narrows the scope of that epic story down to one small part: works displayed at the art commune/front for drug sales, Mystic Arts World. For obvious reasons, art done under the influence is always a mixed bag, and wandering through the gallery won't disabuse you of that idea. In fact, some of the best, least-dated work is what can't specifically be pigeonholed as drug-inspired.

It starts with ephemera: An entire side of the gallery is full of sketches, hand-drawn posters for “happenings” (an improvised, audience-immersive event with music, drugs and performance art), many of them referencing Jesus Christ or various religious figures. While the detail in the work of people such as Steve Kensrue (Art Gallery Meditation Room and Easter Week fliers) is admirable for its quality, I'd say all of this qualifies more as historical detritus than artistic brilliance, the Jesus-hippie hokum a hallucinatory precursor to the onslaught of religious fanatics heading OC's way via Chuck Smith and his Calvary Chapel “Jesus People.”

The middle section of the show attempts to paint the ensuing chemical chaos, but I'm hard-pressed to see Isaac Abrams' A Bad Trip as anything but the opposite, with its rich colors and swirling shapes. There may be faces in it mildly reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind's aliens, but there's nothing overtly dark or alarming. It may be Abrams' point that there is no such thing as a bad trip, but it's unclear. Beth Pewther's mixed media “Yes Lord In 3 Aspects,” her messy, seven-paneled painting of angels and surfers and Adam and Eve and water turning to apocalyptic fire and LAPD brutality protests and meditating men in yoga positions is another fine example of the overall lack of clarity: It feels as if it's the ramblings of a schizophrenic religious nut. The weird blend of religious politics and visionary art style makes more sense in Body of Christ, Body of Man, with her crucified Christ on fire, his body a collage of soldiers, men, women and children (as well as an ill-placed clown).

I liked Roger Armstrong's The Day of the Generals, but we've seen versions of monstrous warmongers before and since. As with Pewther, his second painting works better: The Beast of Vietnam has targets for eyes, a hand nailed to the ground (one assumes the nearby hammer was used), the colors around it fiery and nauseating, reminiscent of Ralph Steadman's jittery aesthetic. Paul Darrow's spectacular Omniscience is an abstract rendering of a nuclear explosion eviscerating the Earth below it, the flesh and blood of the planet violently rendered and streaked across the canvas.

The third section of the gallery—assemblages (including some by Darrow), acrylic-on-paper landscapes, sculptures and ceramics—feels more contemporary: Robert “Jocko” Johnson's carved-ironwood teardrops become marijuana pipes with a simple twist; his Chair is all sleek and smooth ergonomics, before the word became a marketing gimmick. Gerd Stern's mixed media includes an oval in the shape of a mirror, “reflecting” back a word collage, all indicating forward-thinking and positivity. And Jane Callender offers an energetically crude portrait of controversial local Beat coffeehouse Café Frankenstein, the musical and artistic precursor to Mystic Arts World, which deserves its own gallery exhibition.

In the end, however, much of the art here isn't very good or even worthy of remembrance, dismissible as nothing more than a narcissistic vision by naive manques wholly incapable of creating the world they wished for. My own experiences with LSD were revelatory, but only to me, and as with the artists here, I'm unable to fully describe even what those revelations were. They're intense, too personal and sound ridiculous to anyone who a) hasn't taken acid and b) isn't the person that took the drug. The exhibition is like that wide-eyed, pharmaceutical-train-wreck friend cornering you at a party: He doesn't get that his spiritual consciousness is his alone or that the wide eyes and “spiritual” debate doesn't make any sense outside of the tiny little universe of his own tripping brain cells.

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