ART / CATHY CURTIS : Juried Shows Needn't Be Guilty of Dullness : 'Issues of Oppression,' at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, demonstrates how the form can foster distinctive work.

I've just been to three juried art shows, and I'd like a time machine, please. As I understand it, these annual grab bags used to mean a lot more decades ago, when art-making was a less divisive endeavor.

Oh, there's always been rivalry among artists. But local juried exhibitions once attracted virtually every promising painter and sculptor (and a lot of unpromising ones too, of course), eager to have their work judged by a respected art world figure, keen to pocket the significant cash awards, proud to be included in a popular local show.

Early winners of the All-City Art Festival in Los Angeles, begun in 1948, included Helen Lundeberg, Lorser Feitelson and Jack Zajac, who also took the honors in the 1953 Newport-Mesa Unified School District contest. Four years later, the winner of that Orange County competition was 29-year-old Robert Irwin.

But times change. Today, there is a huge gap between contemporary art (as top artists and museums conceive it) and the traditional-minded work being made by artists ignorant of or dismissive of current trends.

An ironic young installation artist is unlikely to want his or her work seen in the context of watercolor landscapes or a piously "uplifting" bronze statue. Visionary young artists whose work is really weird and exciting and full of promise seem to prefer showing in offbeat places run by like-minded people, and who can blame them? Why bother entering a competition you know will be stuffed with cliched retreads of yesterday's styles--and visited by no one whose opinions you care about?

How could juried exhibitions regain their art-world clout? Here's a modest proposal: Find well-known jurors with brilliantly off-the-wall taste, open the contests to the widest possible geographical area, support them with a big purse, and winnow down the entrants with positively ruthless zeal.

The three local shows I saw were Orange County Visual Artists' Ninth Annual Art Exhibit, the fifth annual "All Media" exhibition at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, and the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's 13th Annual Juried Exhibition.

Of the three, the OCVA exhibition--at Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, through Friday--is the least engaging. It was open only to members, and the membership seems to be composed primarily of people whose work is mired in tired, cliched approaches and wishy-washy expressions of emotional platitudes. Frankly, I was unable find a single work in this show that made me curious to see more work by the artist.

Juror Charles Desmarais, director of the Laguna Art Museum, chose 28 works from 85 submissions. He notes diplomatically in a brief posted statement that despite their "lack of irony and self-reference of most mainstream art today," many of the OCVA artists demonstrate "anxiety" about such issues as AIDS, war in Eastern Europe, and censorship in the United States. Other artists offer "a vision of spiritual redemption."

Alas, even art that deals with vital issues isn't worth much if the approach is one-dimensional, the imagery is stale and the format has been done to death. (Consider how many novels are written about crucial life issues but how few actually give readers fresh insights into human relations.) Similarly, so-called "life-affirming" work too often comes off as cloyingly simple-minded, a la poet Rod McKuen.

"All Media '93" (through Aug. 17 at the Irvine Fine Arts Center) casts its net wider; the contest--juried by Noel Korten, program director and curator at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park--was open to all Orange County artists. Unsurprisingly, the level of work is higher.

Yet with 84 works by 77 artists--almost 39% of the 198 entrants--this is a more inclusive show than it should be. There's a lot of mediocre stuff and too little evidence of fresh thinking and formal risk-taking. The curious lack of engagement with contemporary art issues is extremely disappointing. Even contemporary media are almost nonexistent (there is only one, amateurish, installation, and one video.)

As usual, many of the voices protesting social and political inequities--poverty, war, racial and gender oppression--declaim in hackneyed, outworn ways. Provocative ambiguity is scarce, while flat-footed obviousness is wildly popular. Much of the abstraction is weak and blandly decorative.

The work in the show that I found the most interesting and unusual--Gregory Lincoln's naively rendered painting "Hasib and the Serpent Queen"--didn't win any of the 10 awards. The haunting mysteriousness of Lincoln's nocturnal desert scene (this myth, if it exists outside the artist's imagination, is unfamiliar to me) makes its flat, delicate style even more appealing. The combination of ambiguous emotional byplay, a fairy-tale atmosphere, and the childlike simplicity of the rendering is wonderfully piquant.

In a completely different vein, Meg Rowntree's huge abstract painting "Green Dye No. 1" offers by far the strongest marriage of conceptual acuity and visual appeal in the exhibition. Large irregular red platelets--suggestive of magnified cancer cells--are painted with an aniline dye that soaks into the wood surface, mimicking the action of a carcinogenic substance (the green dye of the title) eating away at the body.

The prize-winners in this show struck me as inferior to these works. David K. Morgan's terra cotta reliefs, "Self-Portrait With Medflies," winner of a Curator's Exhibition Award, and Hamid Zavareei's untitled First Prize-winning landscape painting (in which the boulders turn out to be huddled human masses) struck me as exactly the sort of serious but unexciting works that tend to be honored in juried shows.

Carefully crafted, engaged with a timely issue, ponderously literal or at least extremely obvious, these are works that lack the rough edge of experimentation, the subversive understanding of popular culture and the engagement with ideas that signal the emergence of a fresh vision in today's world.

While no artist in this show fits that description, there are a few other pieces worth singling out: Carol Goldmark's "QUILT/Days Are as Flowers"; Duncan Simcoe's "Abraham Contemplates the Departure of Ishmael"; Jinhi Uh's two paintings, "Space" and "Time"; and Serge Armando's "SA. 44. 92," a coolly abstract painting that seems to be alluding to color theory and '60s hard-edge painting in a deadpan, almost didactic way.

Goldmark's painting combines her long-term interest in memento mori floral imagery with a specific reference to AIDS. Rendered in her meticulous style, the bones, embryos, heart and sex organs that "grow" from the centers of individual flowers--envisioned as panels of a memorial quilt--are sober reminders of the brief span of a human life under siege.

The grieving man (ambiguously both white- and black-skinned) in Simcoe's deftly allusive mixed-media drawing is the Biblical Abraham, seemingly recast as a street person in an urban combat zone under a fiery red sky.

Jinhi Uh's two paintings with all-black backgrounds and weighty-sounding titles have a comically reductive appeal. "Time" features an upside-down alarm clock plugged into a socket; "Space" contains a red planet and a skimpy brown object that looks like a deflated planet falling from its orbit.

Without knowing what Korten had to work with, it's impossible to say for sure, but the selection of works on view suggests that his approach was extremely catholic--a form of open-mindedness that tends to produce a diffuse and dull show. Competing artists may disagree, but I think shows like this work best when they reveal a distinctive viewpoint.

One way to foster distinctiveness is to pick an outspoken juror identified with a particular kind of art. Miriam Schapiro, the juror for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's 13th Annual Juried Exhibition, "Issues of Oppression" (through Aug. 6)--OCCCA's first juried contest open to artists throughout the United States--is firmly identified with the feminist art movement of the 1970s.

Formerly an Abstract Expressionist, she began making altar-like "shrine paintings" in the early '60s, conveying a specifically female vision of creativity. Much of her subsequent abstract work incorporates craft materials associated with women's unsung work throughout history.

It isn't surprising that three of the four "awards" (Schapiro, I was told, doesn't believe in the hierarchy of rankings) went to works incorporating fabric. One of these, Lisa L. Wood's "Gaia"--a small bugle-beaded stitched piece with a female image--is so densely worked that it suggests a talismanic object.

The best piece in the show, however, was the fourth award-winner, Kathleen Kasper-Noonan's sculpture "Spike," a high-heeled shoe fashioned from polished wood and a thorny branch. The deep slit in the shoe is a vaginal reference; the spike heel becomes a true object of pain, objectifying the tyranny of fashion as well as--seemingly--a bitter view of male domination.

Schapiro had to pick through 800 slide submissions to come up with work by the 45 artists represented in the show; I'd have eliminated quite a few more. But there is a welcome amount of passion and conviction in this show, and the homespun quality of some pieces tends to compliment rather than contradict this intensity. (For example, the blobby-looking breasts and nozzle-topped breast surrogates lined up in Nancy Jo Neuman Brown's ceramic "Breast Removal Totem" are at once grotesque and humorous.)

Even rather pedestrian-looking works tend to be gratifyingly specific--not just vaguely lamenting "violence" but dealing with the irony of a particular situation. One of these, Dale Wiess' painting "My Summer Vacation," illuminates the sad, absurd chasm between schoolbook versions of suburban middle-class children's lives and a world in which a Boy Scout brandishes a rifle.

Ann Wisehard's "14 Words" is a picture book for adults that quietly drums home a scenario starkly simple in its tragedy. As you turn the pages, tiny stick figures--symbolizing Guatemalan workers shot in front of their wives and children--are picked off, one by one, and replaced with skulls.

Other works of interest include Marjorie Van Nest's ambiguous "Voice Box," seemingly about official silencing of critical talk, and Janice Ledgerwood's "Sideshow Stories," a photo-and-text piece dealing with the impact of a long-ago brush with a suspected child-molester at Christmastime.

Even some of the most unfashionable-looking works on view here gain credibility because of their clarity, restraint and emotional resonance. One example is Caren Hackman's delicate rendering of a black woman holding a seedling in her hands in a misty landscape where water falls from sprinklers ("Planting Mother Earth").

Schapiro offers no printed statement, but her quote in OCCCA's press release for the show is absolutely in character: " . . . This is not Judgment Day. I am not the Goddess. It's always a matter of taste. I am sad for the wonderful artists not included. Another juror, another time. Keep on truckin'! It's only art."

* Orange County Visual Artists' Ninth Annual Art Exhibit continues through Friday at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Hours: noon to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission: free. (714) 997-6729.

"All Media '93" continues through Aug. 17 at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine. Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Mondays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: free.

Juror Noel Korten will will give a free tour of the exhibition on July 23 at noon. Winning artists will show slides and discuss their work on Aug. 6. Other artists can sign up for 15-minute appointments with IFAC curator Dorrit Fitzgerald on Aug. 20 to have their slides and resumes reviewed for "quality of presentation." (714) 552-1018.

The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's 13th Annual Juried Exhibition ("Issues of Oppression") continues through Aug. 6 at OCCCA, 3621 W. MacArthur Blvd., Santa Ana. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission: free. (714) 549-4989.

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