Strange Land

Photo by James BunoanHey! There's a whole big world out there that's very different from the US of A!

It's true. Just take a trip to the cinema, where for your enjoyment and edification, there's an “It's a Small World” of movie choices, but with people we hate. There's those smelly Europeans, and those other, arrogant Europeans. We can't hate the cute, pet-like Japanese anymore, but we can still laugh at them! Don't you wish you had a cool Japanese trend-friend, with the funny new wave glasses? Ho, ho! Cute, funny Japanese!

You know who's not funny? Iranians and other assorted Middle Easterners. They're hairy, and they yell at you when you're in their Kwik-E-Mart, or else they lech all over you to make you, like, their fifth mistress and call you “baby” and hold fast to your hand when you're just trying to get your change.

Also? They're evildoers.

With “The Poetics of Proximity,” Chapman University hands over the Guggenheim Gallery to a group of artists with suspicious last names like Sedira and Abdul. They're remarkably subtle—there is no whining about discrimination they've doubtless faced. There's none of the heavy-handed identity politics you'd see in any group show where the theme is “chicks.” (Yes, we know: you menstruate!) Nobody's making overt political statements like those silly footballers in Irvine did when they tried to name their team The Smiting Jihad. Subtle is rare in any gallery, and it's particularly nice in a case where there's so much goddamn volume shrieking from talk radio (and the fine folks shrieking for our bloody corpseless heads in the Middle East itself), to have to lean in to hear a whisper.

Taraneh Hemami's Hall of Reflection comprises two thick slabs of mirror taking up one corner of the gallery. The mirror—one of those 1970s hallway jobs with the marbled design intermittently clouding it—is printed with photo transfers dating back to the '40s or '50s. Middle Eastern women look lovely in their bouffants and flip hairdos; they look as American as The Supremes, and they've got as much young joy to them, too. They're hard to see; the marbling of the mirror and the glare both make you take a step back to focus—and from your removed distance you can see it all. Groups of men stand in formation for what looks like a picture of the Class of '62. A woman smiles softly from beneath her headscarf; she could be the Holy Mother of God—if she were just a little less Semitic.

Masood Kamandy's My Grandfather's Factory is a large drab photo of a mountain of worn-out shoes. It shouts “Holocaust,” but Kamandy declines to spell out for us exactly what his grandfather did. Another photo shows what may be a jet's broken fuselage; it's hard to tell, especially for the Luddites among us—and it's also hard to tell because Kamandy is again being subtle.

Gul Cagin's Landscape Mimicry is the most fun of the works: a chair covered in tin foil, a dead tree of tin foil, a monster of tin foil (and a white fur rug), and a graphite drawing of a wolfman/Yeti/Chewbacca all converge to tell a tale of . . . “issues of globalization and displacement as manifested in diverse cultural narratives,” as the gallery states? No, it can't be that. What then? I haven't the faintest, but all that pretty, shiny foil made me think of Ann Coulter and the voices in her crazy head.

There are only a few other works in the small, square gallery: a couple of bad, pointless installations (these kids are as self-indulgent as anyone else), and a couple of annoying, but effective, works. Serkan Ozkaya presents This Is a Work of Art—thanks Marcel!—which is a mockup of a newspaper called Radikal. Photos are drawn in loose and lush, and all the lettering is done by hand. But Radikal is all in foreign! And whatever Radikal is trying to say is lost without translation—unless you're one of those other people who talk foreign, in which case it's probably hilarious. Secretive mysterious foreigners! (On a related note: yes, white ladies. When the Vietnamese girls giving you a manicure start speaking in Vietnamese, they are talking about you, because you are a bitch.)

Drawing on the same principle—the principle of annoying me—is Zineb Sedira's Mother Tongue. On three monitors, on low-grade video, two women speak to each other in some sort of Arab. There is no translation. They just talk and talk and talk. Mostly the old lady talks—old ladies!—and the young chick has to listen to her carping, or her advice, or her words of love. Who knows? I don't! I'm not a member of the club—at least, until I go to Europe, at which point I'm automatically enrolled in the club: that would be the closest American bar, where they've got American eggs and American football on the TV. That's when I get to hide from the world being so different right outside the door. But here, in this gallery? The woman listening to her mother is just like every other girl who has to listen to her mother—especially those moms from the old country, who won't let you pierce your ears or go out of the house without a hijab. Moms!

Was it Mary Kay LeTourneau's dad, OC Congressman (and John Bircher) John Schmitz, who said Jews are just like everyone else, except more so? Well, these kids are just like everybody else, except exactly the same.

“The Poetics Of Proximity” at the Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 997-6729. Through March 20. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., Noon-4 p.m.

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