Serving up fishy realness, but not in the way you might think, curator David Michael Lee and Coastline Art Gallery have cast a wide net and snagged a bevy of fun, often imaginative, quite enjoyable art around the eccentric theme of California fish. There are several images in “Fish Out of Water” that don’t really belong because they’re foreign breeds or not fish at all—including koi, lion- and goldfish, octopi, even a mermaid—but that’s just a nit-picky snag; those idiosyncratic choices still work because they include some of the most sublime works on display.
The show’s tranquility is best represented by Dwight Hwang’s stunning Japanese-style paintings of koi, lionfish and octopus (Water Butterflies, Lion’s Garden and Flow of Water, respectively). The dried sumi ink has wrinkled the washi paper, indenting the page, suggesting buoyancy and movement around the subjects hovering within the frame. Donna Skinner’s google-eyed 3-D mollusca in “O” is for Octopus bursts from the canvas, demanding its own children’s book. I’m used to reviewing Suzanne Walsh’s work as a curator, so I was surprised to see she’s also a damn fine painter. Her delightful black moor goldfish peers from a circular wood frame resembling the front of a fishbowl. Playing on the false supposition that the tiny pets have minute memories, its tongue-in-cheek title is New Memory, Who Dis?
Equally exquisite is Robert Young’s acrylic-on-wood Palua Lion, far more colorful than any lionfish I’ve ever seen. More fanciful is Elena Mary Siff’s tiny mixed-media treasures, fantasy worlds created with collages and assembled gewgaws. Siren features a loteria naiad cavorting among brain coral, sea anemones and prehistoric fossils as lightning strikes the gold-chain waves above her. In her other pictures in the show, there are flying fish dodging more bolts; sea serpents, sea horses and fish floating near Saturn; as well as a school of fish and sea mammals singing around a lighthouse (The Concert).
On the realistic front, Kerri Sabine-Wolf’s portrait of a steelhead trout, Anadromous Colors, revels in the “rainbow” effect of its gill markings. Exhausted from the struggle of being caught, the fish rests half in and half out of the water, the bright red, pink and yellow standing out from the green of the surrounding water (and of the fish itself). Sabine-Wolf hasn’t included the hand of the person that is keeping it from submerging, the image eliciting pity for its circumstances and awe for its beauty.
California Sheephead are a threatened species, but Bradford J. Salamon’s painting of the fish turns that on its head, accenting its threatening appearance, the open mouth and rows of teeth giving it the look of the antediluvian, its bright colors resembling a coral snake.
There are discomforting truths in Deborah Davidson’s oil-on-panel Jumping Through Hoops, as what resembles a smelt leaps through rings of fire, inevitably cooking itself, and there’s a whiff of current politics in her Sorry I Did Not Listen to You Sooner, with its gaping fish maw, children’s building block and single-level house of cards. The old proverb “A fish rots from the head down” comes to mind, aided and abetted by the sleek, bloody surface her still life looks to be resting on. Live fish swim at the bottom of Croaker, Carolin Peters’ charcoal-on-paper drawing, as a man contemplates a dead one gripped in his hand. It’s a Lynchian moment, also echoing the proverb, this time captured in black and white.
Equally odd, a young woman holds a fish midair in A.M. Rousseau’s elegant oil Teaching Fish to Fly. What gives it frisson is the painter’s setting for the scene: a bedroom, its wallpaper dappled with spackle, her subject clad in a pale nightgown and flip-flops, standing by an open window. This isn’t a typical moment celebrating a successful fishing expedition, but rather an unsettling symbol for burgeoning female sexuality, with any dream of freedom and flying meeting with an inevitable hook.
Ron Yeo’s whimsical ode to the environment, Gatorade Garibaldi, is made from orange sports-drink caps and reclaimed plastic, poking its massive head from a shiny, metallic frame. A diminutive crab eyeing its sulky pursed lips rests nearby and will bring a smile to your face.
The surreal work by Darrick Hanson provides more playful grins, his apex predators and bottom feeders carefully crafted from toys and incongruous objects. Head Count is a black shark built out of a school bus and a steak knife, highlighted by a yellow and black triangular base; Dinner With Jacques Cousteau is a red lobster/diving vessel hybrid resting on a dinner plate with small blue fish swimming about on it. I deeply loved Steve Metzger’s petite canvas, with its red-eyed black fish passing through a sea-blue background, its suggestive minimalism all the more brilliant for its uncomplicated effectiveness.
“Fish Out of Water” at Coastline Art Gallery, 1515 Monrovia Ave., Newport Beach, (714) 546-7600; www.coastline.edu/community/art-gallery. Open Tues.-Thurs., noon-4 p.m.; or by appointment. Through Sept. 27. 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.