'Baker's Dozen' at the Torrance Art Museum

'Baker's Dozen' at the Torrance Art Museum
Nathan Redwood's "Into White" (2009). (Torrance Art Museum)
Less than a generation ago, annual and biannual exhibitions surveyed the highlights of the latest season. Curators selected the art they judged to be best, and viewers came to see it. Everyone quickly fell to arguing about who was in and who was out as well as all sorts of other grave injustices. It was great fun.

But those days are long gone. The proliferation of exhibitions, not to mention the proliferation of art, artists and art venues all over the world, has dulled the point of such surveys, transforming them from must-see touchstones into fairly generic theme shows: selections of conceptually, stylistically or materially related works. Passionate arguments about the most compelling art have become polite discussions about the appropriateness of the theme, its timeliness and inclusiveness.

At the Torrance Art Museum, "Baker's Dozen" tries to have it both ways.

Organized by curator Max Presneill, it is a good, old-fashioned theme show dressed up as a good, old-fashioned survey.

The works by its 13 artists define a sensibility in which mutation, damage and excess dominate. But the exhibition pretends to be a straightforward survey, a sampling of unrelated works seen over the last year in and around Los Angeles.

The problem with such neither-fish-nor-fowl ambivalence is more than simple disingenuousness. As a survey, the show does not cast its net wide enough. As a theme show, it fails to develop sustained relationships among its works. Breadth shrinks. Depth diminishes. Visitors are left with a half-baked exhibition.

There's still plenty to like about Presneill's selections. Individually, the works are engaging, multilayered and complex. Strong works far outnumber weak ones.

Some of the best are terrifically slippery mutations. These include Jared Pankin's malformed beasts, made of carpeting, scrap lumber and hand-crafted mushrooms; Aragna Ker's sculptural fusion of Buddha, Superman and the Statue of Liberty, mostly made of toothpicks; and Tia Pulitzer's "Oh Deer," a shiny black fawn, trapped in a spiraling antler that behaves like a boa constrictor.

Allison Schulnik's two juicy paintings, "Currier & Ives #3 (American Winter Sports)" and "Black Monkey," turn 19th century Americana into a great excuse for piling up gooey paint and making it say something about taste's unsavory underbelly.

The idea that the damage has been done and we're living in its aftermath takes queasy shape in Nathan Redwood's hallucinatory landscape paintings and Mark Dutcher's rough and funky pattern painting, "T.P.S.G." The same goes for Chuck Moffit's two untitled, multipart, multimedia sculptures, which appear to have gone to hell in a handbasket and are all the more poignant for it.

McLean Fahnestock's "Mercury in Retrograde (backwards into the future)" zeros in on those awkward, in-between moments of public speaking, repeating the "ahs," "ums" and nervous lip-licking to make American political leaders look even less human and more diabolical than they are. It's deeply unsettling. And right on the money.

Memories, generations, even centuries pile up in Augusta Wood's multilayered photographs, Matthew Picton's overlapping street maps, Ann Diener's densely interwoven organic imagery and Eric Yahnker's clever sight gags.

Excess for its own sake defines Keith Walsh's "CAB 1" and "CAB 3," two handsomely crafted pieces of designer furniture that are so driven by the desire to be multitasking hybrids that they are doubly ineffective: dysfunctional coffee tables and impractical storage cabinets. They make fun of the indecisiveness that often comes with too many options.

"Baker's Dozen" could learn a thing or two from them. Doing one thing well sometimes beats doing two poorly.