Menage a Moi

Photo by Tenaya HillsIt isn't often that Laguna Beach's commercial art galleries can please persnickety old us. You get your choice of neo-Impressionist children frolicking at the seashore or flowers tumbling over a faux-Mediterranean balcony (at the seashore). Too often, Laguna galleries are pimping gilded, peeing cherubs. It's a gallery scene intoxicated by the haute vive—what male model-turned-artist Roni Stretch called his paintings of the privileged in their plush cocoons. I suspect that's not very good French, but what can you do? He was a male model. Still, some of his portraits had a nice Modigliani quality to them. And he was really, really ridiculously good-looking.

But what we are talking about today is a Laguna gallery that may be commercial but isn't too terribly vomity. And its current show has not just an interesting premise but a risqu li'l title too. Chew on this: Marion Meyer Contemporary Art presents “Mnage trois.” Oui oui!

But before you either cancel your free subscription or get out a bottle of hand lotion, “Mnage” isn't actually a sex romp. Nor were the three artists sliding nude through body paint and baby oil. Not that I know of.

Three artists—Georges Monfils, Paula Schoen and Christian Lopez, who's new in town—picked themes (sometimes, it seems, out of a hat) and painted pictures in their own distinct style, usually hewing to the theme, but not always. Schoen was itchiest when it came to following directions; in the “Matador” series, for instance, when Lopez and Monfils composed nearly identical body shots of matadors twisting lithely before a bull, she turned in Ritual, which was a bunch of pinstripes and no bull in sight. It can be really hard to tell an abstract expressionist what to do.

It's really an interesting show, not least because the artists installed it without any advice from Marion Meyer. She hadn't seen the works by the time they put them up, so rather than follow professional curatorial instruction, or paint to a gallery owner's specs (and those specs, in Laguna especially, can be very specific—sand here, cresting wave there, soaring seagull and staved-in dory way over there), they had what amounted to a worker-owned and-directed collective. They would paint as individuals, but in a framework upon which they all had agreed.

“Word” is probably the least successful of their themes, though Schoen's work in it is lovely. Her Written in the Stars uses her trademark stripes—often blurry, as if capturing light—as strips of land, ocean and horizon, beneath an atypically realist cosmos. The other two don't fare as well here: Lopez offers Amor, a butt shot of an armless statue, and Monfils gives Imprint, a McCracken-red slathering of paint, but with words built up in the paint (with what took a lot of work) to the shape and thickness of letters in alphabet soup.

“Skull” includes Monfils doing Mexican Gothic (a Dia de los Muertos version of what must now be the world's most appropriated painting, American Gothic); Lopez doing To Gain or Lose?, a David in profile on a flat-black background, with little golden skulls stenciled on his face; and Schoen offering Bird of Prey, the skull of some kind of vulture on her moving stripes. It looks bizarrely like a fetus.

The three painters are an odd match for a collective. Schoen paints stripes in thick, beautifully complementary colors. Sometimes they're in motion like buzzing particles; sometimes they're static. Occasionally she deigns to paint an object along with them, for saleability's sake, I think.

Monfils lets his art deco, candy-colored paint pool together like puddles of melted ice cream. He's concerned with shape and composition, the elemental building blocks of life rather than life itself. He is not concerned with features; his creatures are all form and silhouette. It's like he's painting the carbon on which we're based, or the atoms. It's a relief sometimes to get away from all that messy human life and go to a far, Spock-like remove.

Lopez paints awkward, naive paintings of butts and mermaids-on-the-side-of-a-van and lots and lots of stiletto heels. Judging by the red dots indicating that pieces have sold, Lopez is the most popular painter in the show. And . . . I'm annoyed by almost every one of his works. It's fine to be obsessed with sex, but none of Lopez's works feel really sexy; rather, he seems to be playing for the attention of pervy collectors, like when I title a column “Sluts.” And I can get into the van-mermaid thing, but only if it's retro—and a little more exactingly painted. And the stiletto heels say nothing except that you like to (a) badly objectify women or (b) sell paintings to the kind who like to buy paintings of shoes. And their kind are legion.

It's odd that I'm personally least moved by Lopez's work. Normally, I would probably hold it up as the “real,” the “street,” while the other two I would dismiss as commercial and soulless and snobbily elitist. But Lopez's works aren't street, which lowbrow should always be. There's nothing knowing about them. Either I've just turned a thousand years old, or Monfils and Schoen can paint, while Lopez's attempts at lowbrow are just a bunch of shoes.

Mnage Trois at Marion Meyer Contemporary Art, 354 Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-5442. Thru Sun. Call for hours.

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