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PICTURE PERFECT : California: Where Strangers With Cameras Can Reveal the State of Things

May 02, 1991|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

What is love? Video artist Wendy Clark asked people at a mall to talk about it for three minutes apiece. "A perfect man, a perfect house," suggests a delicate-featured blond woman in sunglasses whose relationship has just ended. "It's the thing that would take me out of this crazy world."

A middle-aged man in a sport shirt says he has known "overpowering love" for a 3 1/2-year-old child but kept his love for a former girlfriend a secret for two years, during which he felt constantly fatigued. A fifth-grade girl who says childhood is stressful recites some of her darkly baroque poetry. A well-groomed woman in pearls asserts that love is the feeling she has for her dog.

Where else but California do people offer such personal revelations to a stranger with a camera?

In "Off the Beaten Track," at Security Pacific Gallery through Aug. 17, still photographs and videos by 16 artists offer perspectives on life in the state popularly believed by outsiders to be the home of oddballs, flakes and fast-lane freebooters. While some of the works spoof those notions, others attempt to define the diverse real-life populations of California.

As a group, the video pieces are the most absorbing, though they vary greatly in style, tone and effectiveness.

"Spalding Gray's Map of L.A." may not be the best thing the well-known monologuist has ever done, but it does have its moments. In the video, Gray's monologue segues into his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, where he is met by a pair of adoring fans: a tall, reedy woman in skimpy running attire and a tubby man in a rainbow-colored outfit.

They help a bemused Gray into the storage area of their convertible coupe and proceed to argue loudly and ridiculously about driving, directions and map-reading. ("I know where the traffic is!" says the woman. "Up is North and Down is South!")

Later in the video, a driving school instructor pilots a Rolls-Royce Corniche down a broad avenue in an expensive neighborhood. ("E-e-ease it gently," he purrs. "A stop is a chance to be seen. Don't ever show emotion.") Nancy Buchanan's video, "California Stories," consists of brief remarks from a bunch of milk-fed Minnesotans who think of California as "America's insane asylum," "too crowded," full of "banal and evil people" and so forth. It's all pretty much to be expected; too bad Buchanan didn't think of a fresher way to present the material.

In "Lee and Larry Rains," Eric Poppleton initially seems to be mocking a plump, elderly small-town couple whose dreadful taste in clothing is amply displayed in a row of color photographs for which they posed, seemingly with good humor.

In the accompanying videotape, the couple--who met nine years earlier at their church--sit in their living room and hold hands. They speak shyly about their life together. "We're both sort of loners," Lee says. "We're the only people that can tolerate us." Larry says haltingly, "My marriage before . . . was the best I knew." As they speak, they reveal a hard-earned, honest-to-God domestic happiness that transcends mere matters of style. The viewer who came to jeer stays to listen with warmth and respect.

The still photographs are concerned mostly with documenting some of the diverse pockets of California culture in a straightforward manner that tends not to be particularly novel or engaging. Subjects matter more than style in most of this work.

Carol Nye focuses on elderly Chinese people in a San Francisco retirement home (a phenomenon unheard of in previous Chinese generations, when old people lived with their children) and mildly rebelling youth in Chinatown.

Bored juvenile delinquents in a summer detention "camp" are the subjects of Dennis Olanzo Callwood. Bill Aron snaps carefree-looking homeless people at Venice Beach, and Anthony Hernandez sniffs out nests of discards used by the homeless to make temporary camping places.

Kenda North isolates the stares, once-overs and same-sex huddles of youth culture at the beach with black-and-white and color shots placed side-by-side. (Color tends to make the subjects look less universal, more like people living in the Age of Neon.)

John Harding's images are distinctive because he has the knack of finding slices of life that are banal and weird at the same time. In one of his photographs, a restaurant is the setting for a sober-faced girl opening a pizza decorated as a birthday cake in front of her smiling, lei-decorated family. Another image shows a formally dressed singer and accompanist performing in an elegant museum gallery before a sea of empty white plastic chairs.

Margaret Moulton looks for evidence of a dislocated society in chance encounters. Although the incisiveness of these images varies greatly, one that packs a punch shows a boy whose awkward body seems hastily put together, lying--apparently abandoned--on a swatch of turf.

Andrew Bush's circle of photographs mounted on large pieces of metal surrounds the viewer with the bored profiles of drivers of various ages and races, each one sitting at the wheel of a hulk of metal going nowhere. The installation is eye-catching, though it operates only on one basic level.

Other works in the show are by Jeanne C. Finley, Chip Lord, Branda Miller and Elizabeth Sisco.

What: "Off the Beaten Track," photographs and videos by 16 artists.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, through Aug. 17.

Where: Security Pacific Gallery, 555 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Street exit. Anton is off Bristol between the freeway and Sunflower Avenue.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to call: (714) 433-6000.

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