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Close but Not Write : New Museum’s First Exhibition Crams Too Much Into Space and Too Little Into Wall Texts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that the opening-day hoopla is behind us, it’s time to look at the art in the newly expanded and renovated Newport Beach site of the Orange County Museum of Art.

By combining the collection of the former Newport Harbor Art Museum with that of the Laguna Art Museum, OCMA got some 6,000 objects to play with. A frequently mentioned benefit of combining the museums--one with a concentration in plein-air painting, the other focused on post-World War II modernism--is the ability to illustrate the breadth of 20th century California art at one venue.

But there’s a big difference between owning a lot of art and presenting it to the public. OCMA’s job is to make discriminations and amplifications--to show us the best of past and present and to foster an awareness of the continuous dialogue between art and art and between art and life.

To do this well requires a sensitive installation of well-chosen art, permitting viewers to contemplate single works and make comparisons. These days, it also requires some form of didactic material. The best wall texts are equally sensitive to artists’ intentions and viewers’ differing levels of appreciation.

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Unfortunately, OCMA’s first exhibition of a portion of its permanent collection sacrifices individual works of art to a frantic attempt at inclusion. The larger galleries have become a jampacked, one-stop art history “shop” for the novice viewer--ironic when you consider that only a few of the works are of major caliber.

Some of the museum’s most important holdings, fondly remembered from the former Newport Harbor collection, are appallingly shoehorned into the self-effacing, classically proportioned galleries.

It is impossible to stand at the proper distance to view David Park’s magisterial “Bather With Knee Up” without having Elmer Bischoff’s “Two Figures at the Seashore” in your peripheral vision. The Bischoff is a stunning painting, but it too needs space to breathe.

Most irritating is the insensitive display of conceptual works (each demanding a wholly different set of mental gymnastics) as if they were so many T-shirt styles at the Gap. The museum also has ignored the space requirements of sculptural works by Robert Irwin and others that were specifically conceived to investigate the effects of light falling on an object.

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Crowding invades the painting galleries as well, with such large and assertive works as Joan Brown’s “The Journey No. 5" and Charles Garabedian’s “Herodotus” rudely elbowing one another a few feet away from a wildly colored Charles Arnoldi sculpture.

Didactic panels about art movements and extended labels for individual works add even more clutter. Couldn’t some or all of this information be conveyed unobtrusively and in more detail in handout materials?

Or how about putting the texts in the orientation area? It now contains only a haphazard timeline that begins with Freud’s publication of “The Interpretation of Dreams” and ends with another world-shaking event: the opening of OCMA.

In the present setup, each gallery is supposed to illustrate one or more art movements. It’s a heavy-handed strategy reminiscent of a survey course in modern art, but replacing slides of famous work with an uneven assortment of art.

The galleries pigeonhole works of art, a strategy that works with cohesive groups such as Bay Area Figurative painting but falls apart with such unwieldy categories as “Conceptual Art and the Recontextualized Object.” Instead, the galleries could be illustrating a different level of connections between works.

For example, the museum is displaying in two different galleries paintings by John Altoon and Richard Diebenkorn that refer to the Ocean Park area of Santa Monica. Altoon’s response was an exuberant scattering of abstracted beach forms (a fish, a lifeguard’s chair), while Diebenkorn’s abstraction evoked a mingling of light and landscape effects.

The main galleries do offer a few pleasant surprises for frequent visitors to the former Laguna and Newport museums. These rarely seen or recently acquired pieces include Lee Mullican’s mystical 1951 painting, “The Measurement,” and Kim Dingle’s 1992 canvas, “Girl Boxing (White Girl Shadow Boxing).”

Yet although Ed Kienholz and Bruce Connor benefit from being shown in slightly more depth in the merged collection, the two museums’ collections appear to contain little overlap. In any case, virtually all the best pieces on view come from the former Newport Harbor collection, from the stunning untitled Hassel Smith to Vija Celmins’ signature “Eraser.”

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Paradoxically, the gallery devoted to photography, one area in which Laguna’s holdings would have shone (despite decimation by last year’s sale of the Paul Outerbridges), is given over to a mishmash of exceptional and indifferent works. They are lumped together simply because they were all acquired (by Newport Harbor) with assistance from the Smith-Walker Foundation.

There are other gaps and weaknesses.

The Modernist era hardly gets its due at OCMA (among the missing: Agnes Pelton, early Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson, Karl Benjamin, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Claire Falkenstein).

Leading California artists need to be represented by more than one or two pieces, to give a fuller picture of their shifting concerns. Meanwhile, we need a much better picture of the new generation of Los Angeles artists than can be seen by a clutch of slight pieces by Martin Mull, Rachel Lachowicz and Michael Henderson.

Faced with the museum’s cram-session approach to exhibiting its contents, this viewer can’t help but mourn the absence of a local but nationally focused museum entirely dedicated to the art of our time. Happily, there is one portion of OCMA that unambiguously recalls the glories that were Newport Harbor’s: the new installation gallery.

Through June 1 it is showing Bill Viola’s “The Theater of Memory,” a prickly evocation of the neural process of memory. Nearly subliminal video images (of children, refugees, soldiers, snow, architecture, pedestrians . . .) skitter across a screen, accompanied by bleeps of static, the soft clang of wind chimes and the flickering of lamps on a real uprooted tree lying in the gallery.

The genius of Viola’s piece is that its patchwork of fleeting images--mirroring the patterns made by sparks jumping from one neuron to another to form our thoughts--is poised to trigger the personal associations and memories of every patient viewer.

* Permanent collection galleries through Jan. 12 (except for “Bill Viola: The Theater of Memory,” through June 1, and “Photography: Gifts From the Smith/Walker Foundation,” through June 15) at the Newport Beach site of the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission: $5 adults, $4 seniors and students, free for children under 16. (714) 759-1122.

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