Visiting an exhibition of art produced by members of a community art guild after swinging through a few Los Angeles galleries is likely to induce culture shock as well as a distinct feeling of time warp.
Yup, there still are folks who paint hackneyed scenes of boats in harbors and surfers bottoming out. There are draftsmen who pick up their sticks of charcoal to give the world another image of a cowboy on horseback and sculptors who lavish their time on vignettes of Youth in Nature.
These and other weary treatments of overdone themes surface once again in the Irvine Creative Arts Guild's first juried exhibition, selected by Janice Lyle, curator of education at the Palm Springs Desert Museum and on view through March 19 at the Irvine Fine Arts Center.
The strange thing about this sort of work is that it seems to be done in some hermetically sealed world oblivious both to the moods and directions of contemporary art and to the deeper wellsprings of serious art in any era.
Looking at the exhibit, I kept thinking of a middle-aged woman I know (call her Ella) who has plugged away at drawing and painting all her life but who has never gone beyond timid classroom-style sketches.
Ella has a circle of artist friends with whom she takes classes (certain Orange County artists are virtually her gurus). When she ventures out to look at art by other people, she tends to go to local galleries showing derivative, provincial work. Once in a long while she takes in a major museum show.
Ella's life has had exceedingly trying, even hellish, moments, but you'd never know it by looking at her art, which reveals virtually nothing about her as a person. At the same time, she is only vaguely aware of today's bewildering variety of deliberately impersonal, theoretical approaches to art. Instead, Ella works in a vacuum, trying to hone her technique without having anything in particular to say.
It is true that many artists in America support themselves by turning out work that has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of art written about in Art in America or Artforum. And, yes, some of the work so earnestly discussed in these magazines is turgid, phony or wildly self-promotional.
But good art, whatever school it follows, whether traditional in nature or not, digs deeply into the mysteries of things, the stuff that falls between the cracks of everyday life, and reveals new connections. Good art doesn't simply illustrate something, and it refrains from harping on connections that have been made so often that they are now cliches.
Although a wall text in the Irvine exhibit claims that Lyle made her choices based in part on how successfully the work "spoke" to her about the artist's particular vision, precious few of the works offer anything remotely resembling the "vision" a seasoned gallery-goer demands of a work of art.
One exception is Maclay Burt's photograph "The Jurors," a scene inside a French art museum in which rows of bald-headed dummies dressed in long black gowns and sitting on rickety folding chairs seem to be looking at a Warhol silk-screen of identical head shots of Elizabeth Taylor.
The dummies were probably part of another exhibit. But the eye that made the amusing connection is an eye sensitized to the incongruities of life. (It's also an eye that may have overdosed on Walker Evans photographs, based on the evidence of "Georgia Store," a straight-on view of the facade of a cluttered emporium visited by a couple of cats.)
Good art starts with a provocative, quirkily individual way of seeing. It's an ingrained habit that feeds off the tiniest experiences and smallest moments and is also nurtured by an intimate personal dialogue with the great art of the past and present.
Too many of the artists in this show seem hobbled by low artistic horizons and the curious complacency that so often accompanies them.