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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Collecting’s Human Touch : Irvine Exhibit Is a Proud Marker of the Past Decade’s Growth in Tastes

One challenge in putting together a show about collectors and their holdings is keeping some sort of balance between personalities and objects. Do viewers care more about Ms. X, who divorced her faithless megabucks hubby, founded a successful widget company and breeds pit bulls, or the abstract sculpture she owns by artist Z? Well, hey, what’s more popular, People magazine or Art in America?

When the subject is local collectors, the balance may be even more delicate. “Irvine Collects: 10 Years After"--at the Irvine Fine Arts Center through Nov. 7--serves as a hearty pat on the collective backs of Irvine residents, a proud marker of growth in collecting tastes since 1983, when the first “Irvine Collects” show was organized by the center. (Sue Henger, former museum editor at Newport Harbor Art Museum, curated both exhibitions.)

During the past 10 years, more art-collecting individuals and corporations have moved to the city, and two museums have put down roots in Irvine (the Severin Wunderman Museum, which memorializes the art of Jean Cocteau and his circle; and the Irvine Museum, a repository for California Impressionist paintings).

But whether the show offers proof of “growth” or expansion in local collecting in a grass-roots sense is an open question. Half the lenders to the current exhibition--drawn from 18 collections--are, or have been, involved in some facet of the art world.

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In addition to the two museums, four lenders are present or past employees of art institutions (Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum, Ellen Breitman, director of education at Newport Harbor, Phyllis Lutjeans, former education curator at Newport Harbor, and Peggy Mears, former director of the Fine Arts Center), one teaches art history (Monica Rothschild-Boros), one is an art consultant (Dennis Hudson, a former Irvine resident), and one couple are art dealers (Susan and David Stary-Sheets).

A more hopeful sign is that, while the earlier exhibition was augmented with objects from collections in neighboring cities (such as Beacon Bay Industries in Newport Beach, and Saddleback College in Mission Viejo), the current show seems to be furnished exclusively with works owned by people who have lived or worked in Irvine.

The current version of “Irvine Collects” has roughly the same mix of nationally known and local contemporary artists as the 1983 show, although nearly all the names are different this time around. For some reason, UC Irvine--a major presence in the previous exhibition--is represented only with work by three current or former faculty members (Gifford Myers, Tony DeLap and John Paul Jones).

Novelties include several older 20th-Century pieces (two paintings by Millard Sheets, an atmospheric small work by Sam Hyde Harris and a seaside view by Alfred Mitchell) as well as artifacts from American Indian and other cultures (Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Mexico and Cameroon, in west-central Africa), most of which are collected by people who also own contemporary American art.

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One exception is Sun Ten Laboratories, which specializes in 20th-Century Taiwanese works. The two samples on view are quite bland.

In Chen Tseng-whei’s 1937 painting, “Lady With Orchids,” a wistful young woman in a gray cheongsam holds a sprig of flowers. Taiwan was still under Japanese occupation in 1937; it would be interesting to learn whether political realities--or the influence of an allied but alien culture--had anything to do with this otherwise unremarkable portrait.

Rather surprisingly, “Irvine Collects” fails to reflect the influence of a decade of exhibitions at Orange County art museums--granted that newcomers can’t be expected to have seen these shows.

One possible exception is Suzanne Caporael’s weirdly plaintive 1985 pastel, “Stay the Night” (loaned by Doree Dunlap and Ed Dornan); the Los Angeles artist was the subject of a Newport Harbor “New California Artists” exhibition in early 1985.

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Overall, there’s a good deal of middle-of-the-road stuff, as well as some disappointing showings by significant artists. Short of begging for dinner invitations, there’s no way to tell whether the collections are all fairly represented by what’s on view, or whether some collectors declined to lend better pieces.

Happily, the collections of Peggy and Christopher Mears, Foresight Capital and a few others spice things up with adventurous contemporary works.

The Mearses loaned Kim Dingle’s wonderfully deadpan “Great American Landscape"--a large painting of grass and sky with the names of likely details (dew, ducks, “unidentifiable rodent,” Piper Cherokee, and so forth) written in tiny script.

Also from the Mears collection are Nick Vaughn’s huge photo (“N.A.V.”) of himself trapped within a curious monogrammed garment of his own design, and Vernon Fisher’s painting, “Two Campers.” In this dreamily metaphorical piece, life on the road is linked to the snugness of a Nautilus shell and perceptions of the passing landscape recall the hazy complexities of calculations on a rubbed-out chalkboard.

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Foresight Capital’s seven pieces in the show include John Baldessari’s witty lithograph, “Cowboys and Grid with Blue Master Stroke” (cliches of Minimalist, Abstract Expressionism and Pop art superimposed on a found photograph of what looks like a theme-park recreation of a cliched cowboy confrontation from a Western), an Ilene Segalove mixed-media piece about the intimate world of radio (“Home Entertainment”) and Robert Williams’ wryly futuristic painting, “Vanity of the New.”

Other loans from Foresight (whose co-owner, Greg Escalante, was a driving force behind the Laguna Art Museum’s popular “Kustom Kulture” show) include work by virtual unknowns, such as Michael Knowlton (whose painting, “Car Haystacks,” reinterprets one of Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s late-career subjects with urban discards seen through a smoggy haze) and somebody who goes by the initials XNO (“When Old Friends Meet,” a screamingly lurid view of Frankenstein and a slimy creature--Wolf Man? Swamp Thing?--having a tete-a-tete in a Disneyesque purple landscape under a poster-perfect sunset).

Stylistically different as they are, works from the Foresight collection represent a distinctively ironic view of life and art.

In their postmodern way, these works acknowledge that nothing can be taken on face value and virtually everything has already been given a “spin” by the media or the movies or advertising. No other collection in the show telegraphs such a specific attitude with such a wide-ranging body of work.

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The phenomenon of collecting as an obsessive activity comes through most clearly in a display of beads from many cultures from the collection of Vesta Ward. In a wall text, she recounts how her youthful interest was sparked in 1966 by the first “ethnic” necklace she ever saw, worn by former Cal State Fullerton gallery director Dextra Frankel.

Ward began collecting Art Deco and Victorian beads, got intrigued by ancient Egyptian beads and the problems of determining authenticity, met with a specialist, did a lot of reading, and eventually traveled to Egypt, Africa, China, Afghanistan and Turkey in search of specimens.

For some reason, comments by Irvine collectors included in Henger’s well-documented catalogue for the show are strictly anonymous. Since no one seems to be giving away his or her innermost secrets, the anonymity seems misplaced.

Remarks range from generalized rapture (“art is joy”) to a delightfully specific recollection of seeing a Robert Williams painting on the cover of Thrasher magazine and being “pushed over the edge of just liking something to wanting to own it.”

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In the end, it is the human component of shows such as this that wins the viewer over--the sense that someone went to a studio or gallery and picked out a piece simply because it seemed to be on his or her wavelength.

An observer might wish certain collectors were willing to broaden their reach beyond a small circle of familiar names, but no one can quarrel with the impulse to be surrounded by stuff that makes you happy.

The big difference between such a warmly community-minded show as this one and a display of art owned by a famous person is that viewers aren’t particularly motivated to salivate or disparage, but simply to observe the vagaries of their neighbors’ personal taste.

* “Irvine Collects: 10 Years After,” remains through Nov. 7 at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine. Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Monday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday , 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Free. (714) 552-1018.

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