World in upheaval

Special to The Times

In a recent talk at REDCAT, New York-based artist Walid Raad described what it was like growing up in 1980s Beirut under the constant threat of car bombs. The frequent explosions -- he cites more than 3,600 in 15 years -- turned cars, buildings and bodies literally inside out. They also created a persistent, visceral awareness, not only of the possibility of sudden, violent death, but of a world out of order. Raad notes that since 9/11, this state of dread and unease has found new homes in places like Baghdad, Gaza City and New York.

An exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art attempts to capture this zeitgeist of upheaval. "Disorderly Conduct: Recent Art in Tumultuous Times" features work by nine local and international artists whose works address topics as diverse as war, terrorism, consumerism and sexism. However, rather than present these issues as isolated phenomena, the works in "Disorderly Conduct" reveal how all are inextricably intertwined.

Organized by Karen Moss, the museum's curator of collections and director of education and public programs, the exhibition reflects something of a sea change in the ways social and political issues are represented in contemporary art. "About half of the works are by artists who came of age in the 1990s, people like Mike Kelley, Karen Finley, Martin Kersels and Daniel Martinez," Moss says. "They came out of that post-Jesse Helms, NEA period where artistic freedom and very didactic work was coming about in reaction to the conservatism in our country."

Moss is referring to the 1980s, when many artists challenged the exclusionary practices of the art world with works that forced it to confront gender, racial and sexual difference. Ensuing battles over representation, decency and 1st Amendment rights effectively gutted the National Endowment for the Arts, and transformed aesthetic and cultural debates.

The works in "Disorderly Conduct" can be seen as a reaction to the strident tone of that period; although they still engage social and political realities, they adopt a more poetic, even humorous approach.

"One of the things that's really exciting about this list of artists . . . is that they're concerned with a variety of issues in their work," says Karin Higa, who embraced a similarly multifaceted approach as co-curator of "One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now," an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum that pushes the limits of racial and ethnic categories. As she sees it, the struggles of the '80s opened up a broader range of possibilities for the artists in "Disorderly Conduct."

"They're concerned about form . . . and they're also concerned with communicating a socially engaged point of view," says Higa, who's the adjunct senior curator at JANM. They do it not by making overt political statements, she says, but by using "complex codes and languages, some of them in fact very personal."

Finley, who became infamous in the '80s for performances that involved smearing foodstuffs on her nude body, now takes an irreverent, pseudo-scientific look at femininity and war. In a 2007 series of drawings analyzing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's physical appearance, she turns Rice's hairdo and eyebrows into airy abstractions and makes a color chart of her makeup shades. A wall-sized image titled "My Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Eyes of Condoleezza Rice," depicts a stealth plane dropping bombs shaped like Rice's eyes.

Finley's emphasis on these markers of femininity shows that Rice is "a human being, but she's also somewhat of a facade," says Moss. The work also examines the tangled strands of feminism and militarism that Rice represents. "She's the first African American woman to have such a high position in government, yet just because she's a woman and just because she's black doesn't mean that she's necessarily more compassionate," adds Moss. "She's part of this war machine."

Similarly, Martinez's "The House That America Built," from 2004, takes on another iconic female figure: Martha Stewart. Martinez's installation is a full-scale replica of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski's hide-out, decorated in colors from the 2008 line of Martha Stewart paints. A brilliant mathematician turned terrorist, Kaczynski may not appear to have much in common with Stewart.

But Martinez's work suggests that both are products of the same utopian impulse. (Kaczynski modeled his shack after Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond; Stewart promotes a '50s-style idyll of domestic perfection.) "The candy-colored coating is the way that the lifestyle expert creates again a facade of the deeper truth of what that shack was," Moss says.

The show also includes younger artists who have emerged for the most part since 2000: Los Angeles-based Pearl C. Hsiung, Glenn Kaino and Rodney McMillian, as well as Spaniard Pilar Albarracin and South African Robin Rhode.

Like that of their older counterparts, their work goes beneath the surface to reveal intricate connections between politics, culture and personal psychology.

In his video "Untitled (The Michael Jackson Project)," 2004, McMillian dons white clown makeup to evoke the complex cultural influence of Jackson's continually morphing face. "I was questioning his transformation in a certain way," McMillian says, but "it's more about what we project onto faces, or onto personas, and clowns are definitely things that we project onto and that also supposedly provide a mirror."

In Jackson's case, the man in the mirror reflects the highs and lows of a generation. "When we see current-day Michael Jackson almost in his 50s . . . it's a very different look than when he was 8 years old," says McMillian, 39. "So part of our understanding of him is through our memory of having seen him perform and transform before our eyes over the past 30 to 40 years." Jackson, he says, "represents dystopia, the American dream gone south or gone awry," he says.

Hsiung's paintings represent another kind of dystopia. Her boldly colored, almost psychedelic canvases re-envision the environment as a psychologically laden site of catastrophic change. "The landscape elements I've been focusing on have been volcanoes or geodes or certain kinds of figures that are good metaphors for a disturbed human experience," she says.

In "Guanocano," 2006, a bright red mushroom cloud erupts from a mountaintop covered with bird droppings, while in "Zealophiliac," 2007, an orange river spills over a cliff and morphs into fingers wearing red nail polish.

Assessing the damage

Moss sees Hsiung's imagery as a comment on global warming, but the artist prefers to think of the works as portraits of a damaged personal or cultural psyche. "I'm projecting onto the landscape genre, so it ends up being a fusion or a mutation of characteristics that are very human," she says.

Whereas Hsiung confuses the line between people and their environment, Kersels' work turns that relationship upside down. His video "Pink Constellation," 2001, depicts a suburban teenage girl's bedroom in which the occupants -- a "girl" (played by 40-year-old choreographer Melinda Ring), a dog and the 6-foot-7 Kersels -- appear to walk on the walls and the ceiling.

"You realize fairly quickly it's one of those tricks like they used in early film where they build a room and you think that the person is walking on the wall, but they're actually on a floor," says Moss. Kersels says he chose a girl's bedroom because he wanted a space in which his bulky male frame would be an unexpected, somewhat inappropriate presence. But as the video progresses, the furniture and decor begin to succumb to the force of the room's rotation, and everything falls out of place.

"Pink Constellation" is accompanied by the rotating set in which it was filmed. Filled with debris, "Tumble Room" is a reminder of the fragility of the environments we often take for granted. and an apt metaphor for a world that's increasingly fractured and unfamiliar. But Moss maintains that the show is not entirely pessimistic, noting that the works pose more questions than they answer. "These artists are representing in their own personal vocabulary the truths about the precarious times that we live in," she says, "but I do think that they have a great sense of humor and even an optimism in their questioning."

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"Disorderly Conduct" continues through May 25. For information, go to www.ocma.net.

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