We Kill Beauty

Photo by James BunoanSome years ago, the Huntington Beach Art Center became the subject of a power play by the city's community services director, who claimed the shows at the center—which were pulling in visitors from around the country and had critics at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal vomiting with joy—weren't in line with “community standards.” He cleaned house, bringing in objectionably unobjectionable pictures of squares. Really, they were horrid.

Since I didn't have anything nice to say, I've done my best to avoid the place—you know I don't like to be negative! But I got a sweet e-mail from one of the artists currently exhibiting, and since this has been a terribly lackadaisical art season (not just here but in LA, too), I had no other options before my deadline hit. Can someone tell me what's happened to the art scene this year?

I trudged down to Surf City for “Selected, Preferred, Chosen” by three artists who had been selected, preferred and chosen from the center's annual “Centered on the Center”—an exhibit that's a holdover from the good old days when staff didn't curate or jury the show, but let in any of the unwashed masses who answered the open call, with paintings stacked on the walls sometimes seven deep. It was a shockingly egalitarian way to conduct business.

So how surprised and delighted am I that “Selected, Preferred, Chosen” left me surprised and delighted? Very!

Let's leave aside the impolitic name of the exhibit, which in just three words completely negates the happy, democratic inclusiveness of “Centered on the Center.” Instead, we'll take the unprecedented step of focusing on the work of the three artists who make up “Selected, Preferred, Chosen.”

Ian M. Kennelly fills the first large gallery. His electrical towers are not new—in fact, Tom LaDuke has shown the same things with the added touch that the landscape on which they sat was a cast of his own invaded body. But Kennelly's vision of grimy urbanity is one I'm always surprised and delighted to see. Parastereoscopic is a diptych showing cranes in the scary process of building freeway overpasses—and also showing the detritus of concrete progress. Island Sanctuary shows CalTrans guys tearing up El Segundo Boulevard, while one of them steps into the Andy Gump smack in the middle of the street. Behind the Andy Gump, a transformer fills the vertical plane. Are Kennelly's ugly electrical towers a device for showing a blighted landscape, a way to measure the have-nottishness of a place (the rich never live by such ugliness, or their purported cancer clusters)? Or are they an homage to man's ability to erect? Electricity is a fine, happy thing—thank you, Mr. Franklin!—and Kennelly's transformers, ugly though they may be, are high and impressive, with a whiff of the Eiffel Tower to them.

The funniest of Kennelly's works is Blue Skies Over Ralph. A skewed sense of perspective has us looking at a high overpass from freeway level (though we don't see the freeway itself). A light post rises high into the even higher expanse of sky, while a lone mural on the gray, drab concrete shows . . . is that Ralph Macchio, circa The Karate Kid?

In the third gallery, Tram Davies' black-and-white photos are absolutely lovely. The first, Exit, is a road scene so clear you can see each individual scrap of roadside mulch, while the cars coming toward us have the same glowing headlights that might have hypnotized you into complacency as a child on long Sunday night car trips.

Those glowing lights are a bit of magic repeated in Urban Decay, where a fenced building is covered in dead ivy like the encompassing brambles in Briar Rose, but where, under a mottled sky, street lamps still give off starbursts of light like pixie dust. Despite that description, the photo is neither disgusting nor fey.

Davies goes from magical ghetto to sad suburb, where a lousy-looking rosebush in the front yard of Suburbia shares a frame with a terrific pool in the back yard, the black-and-white medium making the water black and sludgy like the famed lagoon.

Then she's off to what could be Prague, London or downtown LA for Quarters, where we see the rooftops of high buildings with graceful, well-made cornices. At the far end of our city view, spot beams shine into the night sky, creating sun rays like a child draws.

Mirage is at first the kind of modern beach house that everybody slobbers over—all concrete and glass and rounded roof—until we notice receding into the distance not just similar but identical homes. This is tract-house living for rich people with anonymous taste. Beneath this photo, again sharing the frame, are a castle's cobbled ruins. Message: we kill beauty.

Davies' photos, devoid of humanity unless it's packed (as “Synchronicity II” says) like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, are a perfect exploration of how we dwell. They show urbanity (and its alternatives) without tiptoeing fastidiously into ghettoes like some kind of exploitative tourist. They juxtapose class and region without the slightest need for a sledgehammer.

But in the middle gallery, Betsy Lohrer Hall's work is less good. Her installation Field and Jetty comprises dozens of broken chunks of concrete and asphalt, for which I'm sure the preparators at the HBAC who had to lug them in didn't thank her. What does Lohrer Hall do with her chunks of junk? Not much. She sets them on the floor. Poof! It's an urban mess! Such meaning.

Meanwhile, on a large wall, Lohrer Hall's videos loop. We stayed only for one, a closeup of her hand as it tries to shape a boxy little bit of architecture with what look like iron filings but are actually coastal sage. It was singularly dull. We can't blame her, of course, and if I'd had the stomach to stay for the six other films, perhaps one might have dropped me. As it is, even the best among us needs an editor. And as that wise old sage Meat Loaf so famously said: two out of three ain't bad.

Selected, Preferred, Chosen: Works by Tram Davies, Ian M. Kennelly, Betsy Lohrer Hall. Thru Dec. 21. Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650. Open Wed. N Fri.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Sun., noon-4 p.m.

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