There are many problems with "From Behind the Orange Curtain," organized by Sally Waranch for the Muckenthaler Cultural Center (through Dec. 31). In fact, the only aspect of the show that, for the most part, is not a contentious matter is the art itself.
Chris Burden, Craig Kauffman, John McLaughlin, Vija Celmins, John McCracken, Kim Abeles, Tony DeLap and 14 others are represented by one work apiece. The idea is that everyone in the exhibition has lived or worked in the county at some point in their lives and gained national recognition for their art.
The selections in the show will not come as a surprise to anyone who has kept up with contemporary art. They are solid works that represent the artists well.
Although the show contains a wistful early portrait from 1959 by John Paul Jones, it is most heavily concentrated in the '70s and '90s. The accelerated generations of artists who emerged in the past 20 years are smartly represented.
The cream includes Carol Caroompas' rampaging sexual dialectics in paint; Burden's deadpan display of lethal weapons; Kim Abeles' early drawings of city skylines, each seen by revolving in one spot; Fred Tomaselli's meditations on pain and pleasure and Deborah Brown's glittering images of self-doubt.
Waranch stretches the idea of a national profile to include such promising newcomers as Susan Hornbeak-Ortiz and Yolande McKay, but their presence probably will mostly be an issue to other local artists miffed that they weren't included.
The problems begin with the fact that, for all her goodwill, Waranch--owner of Sarah Bain Gallery in Fullerton--is a dealer whose financial stake in art is at odds with the non-commercial public interest for which public, nonprofit institutions like the Muckenthaler are founded.
Waranch writes frankly in the catalogue introduction that her initial motives in curating the show were "slightly defensive on behalf of the [Orange County] art and artists I have known and promoted for so long."
By including one of her gallery's artists (Ron Pastucha) in the show, Waranch steps over the line into outright conflict of interest. (Called last week for a comment, she said she asked "several people, including the board" of the Muckenthaler about the propriety of showing Pastucha's work, and "everyone seemed fine with it.")
Even apart from this issue, the show is riddled by confused premises and poor scholarship.
Waranch eventually came to realize, she writes, that the show could be "a motivator for change" in prevailing attitudes about the county as a complacent and conservative. If serious art requires risk-taking, why, Orange County "is full of the same . . . Angst- ridden individuals that all other places have."
But this view, apparently based on the old-fashioned image of the tortured artist, doesn't address the real dilemma: a scarcity of the fresh insights and conceptual abilities that make for viable art.
Historically, geographic areas that have produced an unusual concentration of exceptional artists are very few. Instead, artists generally migrate to places hospitable to them.
Most often, these are cities with a high density of top-notch places to study and exhibit art, low-cost live/work spaces, an established group of collectors and an array of local publications dealing with contemporary art. Orange County could claim--at most--a couple of these advantages, and only at certain times.
It is no coincidence that 12 of the 21 artists in the show were students or teachers, or both, at UC Irvine, mostly during the art department's golden age of the early 1970s. (Other illustrious former UCI students, such as Maria Nordman and Alexis Smith, could have swelled the university's representation even further.)
As it happens, hardly any of the artists in the show still live in Orange County--DeLap is the only major figure who hasn't moved away--and readers of Roberta Carasso's catalogue entries are only spottily informed of the reasons they left. Of Kauffman, for example, who lived in Laguna Beach from 1959 to 1986, we learn only that "he regrets moving away."
It would seem that whatever lured these artists to the county to begin with--an education, a teaching job or an accident of birth or upbringing--it was not enough to keep them here. (The one exception was John McLaughlin, and Carasso doesn't explain what attracted him to his final home in Dana Point in 1946.)
How else can we interpret this mass exodus, other than to acknowledge that Orange County is not an art center? With Los Angeles--second only to New York as an art capital--just a 45-minute drive away, this should not come as a surprise.
The net effect of the exhibition actually is just the opposite of Waranch's fond hopes: It shows that artists of promise move on when career boosts beckon elsewhere; they don't stay to serve as poster boys and girls for the Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, the unspoiled chunks of nature and cheap housing that once kept university graduates here have largely vanished.
The other problems with the show involve inept and incomplete descriptions of the art in both the catalogue and the wall labels, and the surprising omission of a standard biographical appendix listing the artists' exhibitions and publications.
For example, Abeles' pair of skyline drawings, "Los Angeles, New York City Skylines as Seen From One Pivot Point" are delicately distinctive images that represent what she could see in a 360-degree radius from one spot. But this technique is not described in the catalogue, and the word One is dropped from the title, leaving the viewer to wonder where "Pivot Point" might be.
In the catalogue, Carasso describes Burden's "Two .38 Slugs and One Pound Weight" as "random items that relate in concept" (how?) and "impostors--representing past performances which might or might not have happened." Well, not exactly.
Although these bullets were given to Burden by kids who found them on the beach, they allude to his well-known 1971 performance piece, "Shoot," in F Space, a now-defunct artist's space in Santa Ana. The juxtaposition of the store-bought weight and the bullets has been regarded as an invocation of "alchemical mystery"--the transformation of small, symmetrical pieces of metal into instruments of death.
Carasso seems to view Celmins' larger-than-life "Pink Pearl Eraser" of 1967 as part of a liberation movement for ordinary objects, turned "into a work of art in their own right."
This absurdly simplistic description ignores the subtleties that make the piece so intriguing: that the eraser is, specifically, a draftsman's and artist's tool; and that Celmins was addressing such issues as memory, time, perception and the art world's lingering lack of faith in depicting objects, as opposed to working abstractly.
While she offers little or no insight on the genuinely important artists in the show, Carasso turns on the public relations gush-machine for market-savvy schlock artist Mark Kostabi: "The more he demystifies art"--says who?--"the more desirable a Kostabi becomes."
The catalogue also suffers from vacuous descriptions that add nothing to the viewer's understanding of the works. For example, George Herms' witty assemblage--a sexy upside-down female leg positioned to resemble a saxophone--is called "Gamba," an allusion to viola da gamba and gams, slang for legs. But readers get only the message that Herms has transformed "discarded remnants" into "a composite of wonder and beauty."
The wall labels repeat chunks of this material, with a few more overgeneralizations thrown in. Thus Sandow Birk "has adopted a Renaissance painting style" in "Hollywood Hermosa," a painting of street violence in Los Angeles.
Well, the use of a extreme light-dark contrasts as a dramatic device is credited to Italian painter Caravaggio, active in the very late 16th and early 17th centuries--the tag end of the Renaissance. But the brushwork delineating the figures in "Hollywood Hermosa" is highly abstracted and simplified. No Renaissance artist would have painted in this way; it is the work of someone born into a generation of mass reproduction.
These points may strike some readers as pedantic quibbles. But art is an exacting and precise discipline, and such are the niceties that make for a fully professional treatment.
Waranch asks in her essay whether the county can afford "to ignore our own artists, to let them turn away and go someplace else." The temptation is to reply that it's no wonder they do, when shows like this demonstrate how culturally provincial Orange County still is.
* "From Behind the Orange Curtain," through Dec. 31 at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. $2 general, $1 students and senior citizens, free for 12 and under. (714) 738-6595.