Hansen: Learning to break the rules

You can always judge an art opening by its shoes; the more interesting the art, the more interesting the shoes.

Fittingly, the opening of the "Best Kept Secret" exhibit at Laguna Art Museum last Friday was iconoclastic, collegiate and surprisingly devilish.

Which meant very interesting shoes and accessories.

There were red leather shoes and bright orange flip flops, pink leggings and black round glasses, diamonds and oversized costume jewelry.

Scarves, ascots and a full Islamic body suit that looked like it came off a Versace runway.

There were $800 custom flapper dresses designed by artist Paula Sweet.

There were vintage felt hats and well-worn cowboy boots.

Armani suits, berets, Chuck Taylors, Kermit the Frog T-shirts and frayed professorial sport coats.

I've never been to a USC cocktail party, but it reminded me of one.

The point is, this particular exhibit is like a college reunion — because it is.

Best Kept Secret is part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, an initiative of the Getty that includes more than 60 institutions across Southern California.

Laguna is showcasing UC Irvine and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California from 1964-1971. It runs through Jan 22.

What all of this means is that there is some random, compelling art at the LAM, all made possible by a group of talented students and teachers at UCI.

"Art school is kind of an odd thing; it's a place to meet artists and meet professors," said Sweet, carefully choosing her words. "It was a certain time."

She did not want to admit that it was the '60s, and there was some crazy stuff going on.

Sweet flew in from her New Jersey home because she didn't want miss the opening and reconnect with old friends.

"What is inside is what you need to discover. Nobody can teach you that," she said. "You need to push a person to find themselves. It's about the mystery."

The notion that art can be taught has been debated for years. Some believe that the mechanics and tools of the craft can be learned, but the actual "art" part is more elusive.

The Best Kept Secret, therefore, is perhaps an attempt to prove that art can flourish anywhere, even UCI.

"The Best Kept Secret is we're telling the outside world what took place there," said Tony DeLap, who taught at UCI from 1964 to 1991, and now lives and works in Corona del Mar.

"They just thought we were artists already," said then-student Ann Titus. "And if they could help, if they could answer any questions, fine, but they said, 'The basic thing is you need to be out there looking.'"

At a minimum, the students learned the rules in order to break them.

Like Nancy Buchanan, who received an art scholarship from Laguna Beach High School to attend UCLA but transferred to UCI in 1965. Strongly feminist, she said in an interview that the "wonderful thing about Irvine is that it didn't matter how different everyone's work was. There was this solidarity."

Buchanan's provocative work features a stark picture of a nude woman next to large, triangular mound of aluminum shavings. Her giant hairpiece is also oddly funny and poignant.

Make no mistake, this is not a college art house show that shocks for no real value. These works stand on their own, largely because of their sincerity and originality.

This type of authenticity is what elevates art, bringing with it a universal, timeless story — a story of defiance, irreverence, precociousness and ultimately, a tender type of truth and vulnerability.

But it's our vulnerability, not theirs.

It's our nudity and love on display.

It's our rules that were meant to be broken.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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