Valentin Popov is eating my brain!

Photo by Chris ZieglerIn law—on those occasions when it's working properly—intent is the difference between not guilty and 25-to-life. In art, intent is about as relevant as sour, old Wally George. Once the work has left the studio and been hung somewhere for the public's gawking, it no longer matters what the artist's grand point was; it matters only how I feel about it. An increasing number of artists try to cheat by scratching into their canvases long treatises or “mysterious” fragments of sentence. Leave it alone: either make pictures explicit enough that people can interpret them without your crib notes, or let them supply their own damn inferences. Stop micromanaging the experience; I don't care what you want your painting to say!

Except. “Val Pop” at the Huntington Beach Art Center (HBAC) has me as confused as George W. Bush trying to figure out the waiter's tip. Russian immigrant Valentin Popov seems straightforward enough. There are his famous fake Rembrandts, better than anyone else's fake Rembrandts. There are some irony-coated Victorian cherubs. Good so far. It's the first room of the exhibit, the one covered in the kind of sunsets for which Newport Beach-born Peter Alexander made the world safe, that's the noggin-scratcher. Sometimes the skies are feathery, without candy colors. Sometimes they are stormy. Sometimes there are seas, with what looks like a heavy impasto. But though the strokes are loose and choppy, there is no ungainly amount of slathered paint. They're nice. And on these aluminum panels are printed New Agey legends, such as Dreams' “The tree and its shadow, the lizard darting about my foot, the person watching this—with their own mood—all these will return time and time again, for everything returns.” Isn't that nice? And isn't that so Jim Croce (“Time In a Bottle,” not “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”)? Well, isn't it?

You're probably wondering what's confusing about that. This: Valentin Popov is known for his satiric ex-votos, religious allegorical treatments of Batman (complete with altars and hagiography) and the like. He calls himself a romantic cynic. So I'm having trouble wrapping my puny mortal mind around his intent. Are the slightly cloying (though nice enough) sky and sea works, with their embossed legends “Dream” and “Sky” and the like, meant to be ironic? Are they meant to be cloying? Or is Popov forsaking the cynicism of “romantic cynicism” in favor of bourgeois contentment? Does the HBAC's coup d'etat a few years ago—where they purged the intellectuals who were curating edgy works that got them nationwide raves in favor of art that was more in line with the “community's standards”—figure into this? In other words, did they purposely include in their exhibit only works that could grace a Tony Robbins book jacket? I don't know. I don't know enough about the gallery's recent management to make that call. And I don't know enough about the current state of Popov's head. For once, I really, really care about an artist's intent, and it is killing me.

It's a terrific exhibit, “Val Pop.” It's alternately meaty or scattered, depending on your mood; there are examples of many different bodies of works, sometimes grand illustrations on thick, pulpy paper, sometimes huge, electric-hued pouty children that look like etchings. But though there are enough of them to fill three rooms, there's not a cohesive theme; as it is not a retrospective, there are no examples of his other myriad styles. Batman, for instance, has not been invited. What is included is either Hallmark hokum and gentle drivel (the Ken Kesey-ish “Lose Your Mind and Come to Your Senses”) or a light skewering of those same sentiments. Surely Popov is joking when he reiterates in several panels, “Nothing Dries as Fast as Tears.” But as we here at the Weekly learn every time we advocate turning the Mission San Juan Capistrano into a really plush Pottery Barn, irony can seldom be employed with subtlety. (You would not believe the outraged letters people write.) Hell, even when you're using the proverbial sledgehammer, plenty of people still ain't gonna get it.

Maybe Valentin Popov is saying exactly what he means. Maybe he wants us to remember little Zen koans like “If you seek it, obviously you don't see” and “Is there life before death?” and the classic “Wherever you go, there you are.” Maybe he wants us to look at skies and dream dreams. Maybe he really does want us to dry our tears. It takes a real curmudgeon to pooh-pooh that, I guess. I just know there's something wonderful and funny and romantic with cynicism in there—I have faith in Popov that there is—and I don't have the key to unlock it. And the treatises engraved in the panels are only making matters worse.

“Val Pop” at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650. Through April 14. Open Wed. N Fri.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Sun., noon-4 p.m. Free.

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