LAGUNA BEACH — What's wrong with this picture: A museum. Art on the walls. People dressed nicely. People laughing. People laughing a lot. People laughing repeatedly. There must be a mistake.
Nope, no mistake. It's Ilene Segalove giving a lecture at Laguna Art Museum where her first career survey is on view through July 8. And as people inevitably do when they look at Segalove's work, on the walls or on the video monitor, or when they listen to it on the radio, the folks gathered Thursday evening laughed. A lot.
"A number of years ago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gave me a Young Talent Award," said the 39-year-old commentator on popular culture. The prestigious prize, no longer awarded, brought recognition, some cash and a chance to have the artist's work shown at the museum.
"But a lot of the people on the (selection) panel didn't think I should win," said Segalove, who was told then that her work just wasn't mysterious or obtuse enough.
"One woman on the panel meekly said, 'I understand your work. Art isn't usually so accessible or funny. So I'm thinking, maybe it's not art.' "
An admitted television addict growing up in Beverly Hills, Segalove began making people laugh when she first picked up a video camera in the early 1970s. The tube and its profound influence on her adolescence often take center stage in her art. Her works tell of a TV repairman that became a fantasy lover and hero, or how she earnestly sketched the CBS "eye" logo in Jewish nursery school when assigned to draw her vision of God.
As wryly funny in person as on tape, the Venice resident told a story she hoped would help explain how she ended up doing such "accessible" work and so much video. As a teen-ager, she learned that Andy Warhol's iconic painting of a Campbell's soup can was considered "great art," the kind that hangs in museums, but Walter Keen's pictures of children with gigantic, droopy eyes, who at least "have feelings," were "junk."
"The problem for me was that I liked TV a whole lot more than museums," she said. "I knew I'd rather get stuck inside a TV set than some museum."
The artist, whose 18-year retrospective includes videos, photographic works and pieces she has made for radio, also spoke of her mother, the subject of one of her first videos, "The Mom Tapes." In these, the senior Segalove demonstrates her acumen as a 1970s middle-class, suburban housewife, advising her daughter as to the best, cheapest place to buy an area rug, a good piece of meat, electric appliances.
"Mom believed in something, like Brim," Segalove said, recalling how she once showed the work at The Women's Building, a downtown Los Angeles women's art center established during the heat of '70s feminism.
"Some women thought it was exploitative. But I had brought Mom that night and she got up in front of everybody and said, 'Girls, you've got to keep a sense of humor about yourselves.' I was so glad I brought her that night."
The tone of the brief talk at the museum did turn serious, however, as Segalove explained that she didn't consciously set out to be humorous. Early in her career, she said, she wasn't convinced that she was funny. "The Mom Tapes," for example, was just something she "had to do. I just think it's important to remember we're human."
Segalove has often said she prefers making art that, like her radio pieces, "slips into people's lives," rather than works that require people to enter the hallowed halls of culture. But now, midway through her first major museum show, being "stuck" inside a museum isn't so bad and is, in itself, "rather human," Segalove said.
"It's not quite the white, icy walls I imagined."