When 12-year-old Ariel Quinones encountered David Salle's painting of a half-dressed woman at the Newport Harbor Art Museum last week, he scanned it out with desultory interest and noted, "Nice lady."
His brown eyes didn't linger over the large picture, titled "The Loneliness of Clothes," before turning toward another piece nearby.
So much for those worries that the searing fingers of Eros might be inflaming young minds at the Newport's new show of art by graduates from the California Institute of the Arts.
"I expected giggles and smirks," said Jane Fowler, the volunteer tour guide, as she led Quinones and eight other sixth-graders from Fullerton's Commonwealth Elementary School through the show. "They didn't even seem that interested. These are kids who go to movies and watch TV all the time, and they've seen things that are a lot more explicit."
If the nine Commonwealth students are any gauge, their generation appears to be practical above all. Many of their questions focused on the more material aspects of art. Their most frequent query: "How much does it cost?"
Fowler's catchall answer: "It's very expensive."
Some questions that tilted at the perplexing nature of contemporary art set Fowler a bit off balance and would have lowered the noses of a few art snobs.
Standing before an abstract painting called "Measure" by Marc Pally, Richard Richey, 11, stared with wide, dark eyes. He raised his hand and asked, "How can you take this stuff, slob it all over and call it art?"
Fowler took a deep breath. A woman with an easy smile and warm manner who studied art history in college, she responded: "This is an original work. Everything in it is intended."
Her hands did a ballet of explanation in front of the painting, framing one part, then another. "You see, everything is connected."
"Does this belong to the museum, or do they borrow it?" asked Thomas Lopez, 12.
"These are borrowed," Fowler answered.
"What happens if there's an earthquake and all the art falls down?" asked Allison Taki, an 11-year-old with a prematurely sagacious expression.
"We hope that doesn't happen," Fowler said.
The group stopped in front of a piece for which artist Barbara Bloom had stacked laundry-fresh T-shirts in front of a photograph of a sculptor working on a plaster torso while wearing a T-shirt.
Allison's hand shot up again. "Why is this important?"
"Ancient sculptures were often made of the nude body, the male body," Fowler said. "And here she's using T-shirts. She's poking fun, you see, at the classical idea about sculpture."
"OK," said Allison, brightly.
"Is this going to be worth a lot of money someday?" asked Travis Pillars, 11.
"Maybe," Fowler said. Travis looked unconvinced.
The group stopped at an installation work, specially designed by Mark Stahl to let viewers enter. Titled "From Public to Private," it includes a wall-sized photograph of a crowd and some fake rocks on the floor of a green room that looks like a sauna.
"Who is responsible if it breaks, the artist or the museum?" asked Travis, a large, restless boy who paid more attention than he let on. He would look away from everybody, then lob a question over his shoulder.
"I don't think I can answer questions about liability," Fowler said.
When the group met Salle's half-naked woman, Fowler was ready with an explanation to diffuse its sensuality. "In case you're wondering what she's doing, it's hard to say for sure," she said. "She might be at the doctor's, waiting to get a shot."
Most of the group had already turned toward another multimedia work that included a continuously playing cassette of a Michael Jackson song.
"Sure, she might be waiting for the doctor," Travis said, under his breath, to no one in particular. "She could also be waiting for some guy, right?"
He said this as if it was important to get it out, in case somebody entertained the notion that he'd been born yesterday. Then he joined a friend to listen to the Jackson tape.
Tour over, Travis' teachers spied him at a plastic cylinder the museum keeps in its lobby for donations. The boy dug into his pocket and dropped in some change. The museum had inspired a new donor.