The post-Cold War world has everybody meshuggeneh. Some people deal with daily dilemmas by withdrawing into privacy with its homey, solvable problems. The 18 artists in the Newport Harbor Art Museum's "Fourth Newport Biennial: Southern California 1993" lean to the intimate and the eccentric.
The catalogue essay by the exhibition's organizer, Newport museum chief curator Bruce Guenther, is larded with mind-numbing, polysyllabic cliches in "pc" rightspeak, such as "hetero-sexist maleterminology" and "subvert gender assumptions." Luckily, Guenther's exhibition refreshingly contradicts his ideological prose.
It's true that there are, for example, female artists here who deal with what neo-ghetto makers term "women's issues." Blissfully, the artists understand the leveling nature of humorous paradox.
Rachel Lachowicz's "Bravado" is a cello with a phallic neck about 12 feet long. The curvaceous feminine sound box rests comfortably in its open case, where a steel blade has been placed to lop off the arrogant member. It's an elegantly overstated reminder that in battle of the sexes, cutting off one's nose is still a self-destructive act.
Anne Walsh makes constructions depicting beautiful nude Amazons on kitsch tapestries festooned with chains of key rings from which hang everything from truckers hats to a picture of Joan of Arc. Millie Wilson's main pieces consist of girls' short ponytails mounted like hunters' trophies.
Knowing these artists are women suggests satires on masculine-fetishism. According to Guenther, knowing that the artists are lesbians throws a wonderful monkey wrench into yet another set of smug preconceptions.
We begin to twig that the artists' withdrawal is not all escapism. They want to conjure with the big issues, but as sensitive people, not as demagogues. Mila Castro's pale, minimalist constructions grow from memories of oppression in her native Chile, but are broadened to be about anybody's spiritual nullification. Joan Tanner's little paintings find beauty where none is supposed to be. Kim Dingle paints violent little girls in proper party dresses. Martin Mull's wan canvases are like snippets of unremembered dreams. Margaret Honda dwells on gifts that destroy.
There are confessions of vulnerability. Eric Magnuson's big photo of a man wearing a blue plastic barrel might be a generic portrait of artists after the collapse of the market. There are admissions of ineptitude. Sam Durant dwells on the masculine work ethic. Kent Young makes cuddly bath towel tapestries in humble homage to his rock heroes.
The idiosyncratic attains the metaphysical in the art of Paul Tzanetopoulos and Mara Lonner. Most compelling are the drawings of Russell Crotty. He takes a theme like smoke-belching stacks and scribbles 100 variations on a sheet of gridded paper. The work is sharp and modest, like Sol Lewitt joined to Saul Steinberg.
There are annoyances. Most of these artists are young. Only the best of them avoid sophomoric cliches of jerry-built work. It takes a long time to figure out what serious really means.
Sometimes it means just painting. It means the simple virtues of artists such as David Lloyd and Adam Ross. Sabina Ott's waxy encaustics still evoke the delicacy of the rose and the sensuality of flesh.
John Millei is the best younger painter to turn up around here in years. Mining ancient Abstract Expressionism, he proves the form has joined jazz as something indestructible. Millei is like the musician who can play every instrument in the band.
The biennial is NHAM's clear main stage offering, but a couple of satellite shows deserve attention. The debut of David Salle's new "Pre-Fab" series of paintings reveals a subtle but significant shift in his tack. Works such as "Exit Weeping" still employ such Pop media images as a rubber glove, a vintage Dodge and a gift-wrapped bottle. But Salle's got a new, blonder palette.
Compositions now emphasize structure and surface decor over enigmas of implied narrative. They reveal how little wiggle-room Salle had as a late-comer to the overcrowded field of Pop imagery. When you look at these works, you think mainly of Rauschenberg and Rosenquist.
Lilla LoCurto and William Outcault present "Self-Portrait," an installation. It intends to raise viewer consciousness regarding the contraction of AIDS. Frankly, anybody who skips reading wall labels may miss the point.
A large plastic bubble is suspended from the ceiling. Inside, four stacked TV sets are enclosed by a chain-link cage. The viewer sits at a desk observed by a television camera. Stick your finger in a sensor, your face appears on the top screen. The other three fill out a full body gerrymandered from parts of other bodies, clothed and nude, male and female. Anybody who takes art visually is likely to mistake this for an amusing electronic-age fun house game.
* The Newport Harbor Art Museum is at 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. The Biennial continues through Jan. 30, "Self-Portrait " through Dec. 5, Salle through Nov. 28. (714) 759-1122, closed Mondays.