Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro was built on what was the largest lima-bean field in North America, owned by farmer James Irvine Sr. The corps broke ground on the air station in 1942, and it opened to the public eight years later on Armed Forces Day. Reveling in the exhilarated patriotism from the painful victories of World War II, it was part public-relations maneuver/part charitable event, and the annual celebration eventually transformed into the El Toro Air Show.
Thousands of people attended the initial event, but that number expanded into millions by the time the base closed in 1997. It wasn’t just ex-military who were in thrall to the old planes; the war scenarios presented—including a questionable atomic bomb simulation in the late 1950s/early ’60s that featured explosive-created mushroom clouds—offered free entertainment the entire family could enjoy, even as the U.S. ventured into conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf.
El Toro was decommissioned in 1999, throwing it into a financial spin while numerous court cases championed the different ways the property could be used: Would swords be transformed into ploughshares, turning the space into a community park? Would developers get their hands on the property and build more homes? What about the toxic waste left by the military’s presence?
The aptly named exhibition “A Brief History of the El Toro Air Show: 1950-1997,” currently at the Great Park Gallery, rests on land that once belonged to the air station. It’s a no-nonsense show, focused on fond memories and not overtly divisive politics, its handful of photography, paintings and posters curated with spartan taste by Cynthia Castaneda, Paul Gavin and the City of Irvine staff.
The mid-’90s video footage of Joe Conway III’s “A Mission to Thrill: El Toro Air Show” playing in the gallery offers an unintentionally corny idea of what happened during those weekend events: Over stiff cue-card narration, there are quick cuts of Marines carrying weapons, playing as if they’re engaging the enemy; “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the soundtrack is intermingled with bad ’80s-style guitar-and-sax rock. There’s footage of tanks, jets flying and swooping overhead, and cheering and waving crowds. Marines pose as Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photograph, all while hawkers sell refreshments.
In two glass cases are jacket patches, plastic drink cups, tickets, T-shirts and other ephemera, most inconsequential enough that I wondered why they were included. The exception is Paul Gavin’s process drawings; the painter’s pen, ink and watercolor canvases became the go-to for the Air Show’s poster art.
The first two blow-ups of Gavin’s fighter jets chilling on a tarmac (Orange County Centennial) or soaring in the air offer idyllic scenes in which war machines and nature co-exist in an unexpected harmony, the artist’s neatly drawn roads along the side of the base lined with trees and verdant fields of green, the sky a dappled blue, all of it dwarfed by the Saddleback mountains (El Toro Winter). The large reproductions are as high-quality as the original art would have been, but it’s pleasant enough to look at until Gavin’s work morphs into something else: As the Air Show grew in popularity, his scenes become less about idyll and more about fetish. What once offered quiet attention to detail suddenly has sizzle to sell—art transforming into propaganda. The ensuing posters are filled to the brim with planes in increasingly unbelievable, crowded compositions, the artist offering lovingly detailed explosions, soldiers in uniform and an overabundant waving of the flag.
Local photographer George Katzenberger’s “Air Toon” series takes the opposite tack. Using a wide-angle lens and a 35mm film camera, his images are admiring enough of the sexy, streamlined curves of the aircraft to keep an aviaphile in full lather, but the exaggerated angles also anthropomorphize things, offering us visions of the planes that suggest grinning faces and cartoony eyes. An A-10 Thunderbolt II looks as if it’s poking its machine-gun tongue out at the viewer, while simultaneously giving us a beady side-eye (Warthog). In others, the effect is distinctly animal or bug-like: a Northrop Grumman E-2C resembles the face of a goofy puppy smiling and lolling its tongue, the rear of an F-16 Fighting Falcon flashes its gaping ass end like a friendly cat, and a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is transformed into a metallic insect on steroids. The photographer’s tongue-in-cheek images require a little work to “get” his initial vision, but it’s worth the effort, delivering a few laughs while showing us taken-for-granted objects in new ways. It takes the war technology down a few notches, acknowledging its grandeur and its fearsome power, without falling into the moral rabbit hole of mythologizing it.
“A Brief History of the El Toro Airshow: 1950-1997” at the Great Park Gallery, Orange County Great Park, 8000 Great Park Blvd., Irvine, (949) 724-6880; www.cityofirvine.org/orange-county-great-park/exhibitions. Open Thurs.-Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Aug. 18. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.