More than 2,000 years ago, the Silk Road emerged as a network of flourishing trade routes between Asia and Europe, as well as parts of North and East Africa. Cultures crossfertilized. Civilizations prospered, others flamed out. Art recorded the complex new entanglements.
For the next 4½ months, a modern Silk Road is passing through Southern California. This superhighway runs through the Orange County Museum of Art, where the 2013 California-Pacific Triennial is now on view.
A prime difference from its ancient predecessor is that Asia's trading partners here focus on the Americas, not Europe. Enlarging the geographic purview to encompass artists working in countries around the vast Pacific Rim, OCMA has changed its old biennial format, which looked exclusively at California artists.
The organization period necessarily grew from two years to three. As OCMA curator Dan Cameron notes in the show's catalog, the Pacific Ocean is by far the largest single geographic entity on the planet. It dwarfs continents, even making the sky look rather small.
So one difficulty in shifting from a California focus is that the vast Pacific Rim geography can make the happily ambitious show feel thin. It surveys current painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation art in 15 countries as diverse as Honduras, Thailand, Peru, Indonesia, the West Coast of Canada and the U.S. and more — but there are only 32 artists. It's a thumbnail sketch.
The show might better be described as offering a quiet curatorial polemic. It means to shake off a narrow but very common American cultural view, which looks out across the world of art from a perspective confined to a perch at the edge of the Atlantic Rim. That shift is important, and it manifests itself in several thoughtful ways.
First is a beautiful mural encompassing the entry gallery. Titled "Sharawadgi," a gardening term that means "borrowed landscape," the walls are covered in an exquisitely painted chinoiserie pattern, all sinuous floral motifs, fanciful pagodas and gracefully attired scholars set against a limpid, sky-blue background.
Chinoiserie emerged in the 1600s as a wildly popular European design style that embodied a colonial fantasy of the Mysterious Orient. "Sharawadgi," however, is by China's Michael Lin. His chinoiserie slyly suggests that any concept of cultural authenticity is its own fantasy, especially questionable in a media-saturated, post-colonial world.
That theme gets a comic turn in a raucous homage to the Vatican by Mark Dean Veca (U.S.). His big installation reconfigures Bernini's extravagantly Baroque throne of St. Peter using florid design motifs recalling intestines and an alimentary canal. Scatology merges with eschatology, the end of digestion with the end of the world. Deposited as the centerpiece is a beanbag chair in sparkly gold vinyl — part suburban rec-room vulgarity and part VIP-room furnishing for an urban nightclub.
With Europe's art-historical glories thus summarily dispatched, the show teases out its New Silk Road analogy with something specific: Diverse works by half a dozen artists are focused on textiles.
The most compelling are by Lin Tianmao (China), whose rainbow of silk threads puddles on the floor, cascading down from a frieze of mammal bones that rings the gallery and puts human and animal life on equal footing; Kimsooja (Korea), whose nearly silent video of traditional Peruvian weavers exposes a powerful social choreography centered on the feminine hand, flourishing within our technological era; Tiffany Chung (Vietnam), whose homespun but otherwise vaguely ominous aerial maps (think bombing and surveillance targets) are sewn with colorful embroidery, sequins and buttons; and Raquel Ormella (Australia), who unravels her national flag, transforming the arbitrary borders it represents from a political insignia into a celebratory shower of stars.
Even paintings by Hugo Crossthwaite (Mexico) could be seen in this light. Chaotic, absurd and finally poignant pictorial mashups evoke freaky sex and violence in a format that derives from sideshow banners common in rural carnivals.
The age range in the triennial is wide, with an emphasis on midcareer artists. Half are in their 40s.
The eldest is Mexico's Pedro Friedeberg, 77. The artist was born in Florence, Italy, and he and his family fled the darkening clouds of World War II when he was 3. He's represented by 16 drawings, prints and sculptures made over the last 50 years — a miniature retrospective within a show otherwise limited to recent art. With work displayed in both of the museum's two main halves, he's positioned as the show's godfather.
Friedeberg is famous for his iconic, 1962 Pop Surrealist hand-chair. Like a gilded hand of Buddha, its palm forms a seat, bony fingers a backrest and bent thumb an armrest.
I've never acquired a taste for Friedeberg's dense graphics — maze-like compositions assembled from arcane texts and Victorian-style collage elements, as if they are ancient manuscripts left behind by a lost era that is in fact the present. His sculptures, including the chair and a devotional assemblage that blends Catholic, Hindu and Aztec iconography, are more persuasive. The hybrid work's thematic usefulness for the triennial is plain.
More engaging overall are displays of ordinary cultural artifacts — Mexican American-themed record album covers, cheap knickknacks, etc. — archived by Robert Legorreta as conventional indicators of twisted identity. Legorreta, known for his transvestite performance character Cyclona, is a self-taught artist.