A time for love, murder, dreams, free-floating anxiety, film shoots and clandestine refrigerator raids, night has long been a favorite of poets, criminals, ghosts and neurotics. At the Muckenthaler Cultural Center through Sept. 22, guest curator Jim Reed has mapped out a guided tour of the wee hours, based on the work of 38 artists. The concept is attractive, even if most of the art consists of blandly unexceptional figurative paintings. The better pieces generally operate in a theatrical way, showcasing vivid or unusual images, and setting the mood with appropriate lighting.
Billy Kelly's "Girl With French Bread" is a painting of suburban obsession: In a kitchen with a sickly green glow, a girl rolls little dough balls from a loaf of French bread that looks bizarrely like a false limb.
F. Scott Hess's painting, "The Shoot," details the reactions of a film crew wearing protective masks while shooting an actor being pushed by a gunman through a glass window. The crewmen, who hold booms or watch the scene on videotape, are a uniformly cruel-faced group, baring their teeth in snarling appreciation of a glitch-free technical moment.
In Robert Yarber's painting, "Bar," a red bar counter curving menacingly toward the viewer gives top billing to an empty glass, a cigarette butt and a puddle of slopped drink. Less prominent are the night owls who smooch or argue in the booths, and the bleary woman balancing a glass on her hand for the barkeeper's amusement.
Painting on velvet for that ersatz, garage-sale look (not to mention an effortlessly plush "nighttime" backdrop), Sandow Birk pins down the dynamics of a drive-by shooting in a seedy part of Los Angeles. In "L.A. Drive By," the scene of mayhem takes place outside a liquor store--within shouting distance, ironically, of a Police Department recruiting billboard.
The landscapes in the show tend to be heavy on views of twinkling lights in the darkness, but Darren Waterston offers a tender, painterly view of a dawn sky: a thin layer of pinkish white barely covering a black ground, with vague traces of fading starlight. David Hines takes a clear-eyed, reportorial view of rural nights in "Near Bakersfield," "Sierra Highway" and "Porterville Barn," paintings that capture the purity of light-dark contrasts in places with sparse artificial lighting.
A couple of memorable works in the show really don't have all that much to do with night as a central subject. Rather, they suggest multiple frames of reference that tease the mind beyond the evocation of a particular scene.
Ed Ruscha's 1978 serigraph, "I've Never Seen Two People Looking Healthier," is an image of a huge, glowing sky at dusk and a vast landscape in which two tiny, silhouetted figures can be seen. It suggests several readings.
The title phrase is a cliche, of course--as are sunsets, however beautiful. A viewer can barely see the people in the print to determine how healthy they look, but the cliche has more to do with the speaker's frame of mind than with actual observation, anyway. A sense of the vastness of the world, and the utter inconsequentiality of a single, rather stupid remark also informs the piece.
The centerpiece of the show is Suvan Geer's installation, "Drying Whispers," which is tucked into a small gallery by itself. Lifelike pillows molded with salt hang on the walls and a "welcome mat" of salt spells out the words, "once fluid." Sound issues from inside each pillow--the scouring, snorting sound of labored breath and the clear sound of dripping fluid.
Is someone sleeping? Dying? (The title suggests a play on the phrase "dying whispers"--the last words of someone passing from this life.) Could the liquid be an intravenous fluid dripping into a comatose body? Or is it simply the sound of water leaching away from a salt bed?
Hmm, a salt bed. Metaphorically, salt and sleep begin to seem strangely allied. Sleep and death, of course, are closely linked in symbolic terms. Even sleep and salt can be linked in this context because both have a preserving function. People are "preserved" after death in the minds of survivors; a once "fluid" being "solidifies" into a set of memories.
The word salt does have several distinctive contexts in our language--think of smelling salts (a restorative), salty humor, and the phrases, "worth one's salt" and "with a grain of salt" and "salt of the Earth." For that reason, Geer's piece may be accused of being too open to far-fetched interpretations. But at its core, the installation links sleep, death, the body and the idea of preservation in a meditative, almost mystical, way that resists being pinned down by the logical mind. What: "The Edge of Night: A Guided Tour," works in various media by 41 artists.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 22.
Where: Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton.
Whereabouts: Orange (57) Freeway to Chapman Avenue. Go west. After Chapman merges with Malvern Avenue, look for the center on your right.
Wherewithal: Admission is free.
Where to call: (714) 738-6595.