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KITSCHY KITSCHY COOL : 'Thrift Store Paintings' Is Clumsy, Amateurish and a Complete Delight

October 22, 1992| Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

You've laughed at them at garage sales. You've passed them by at swap meets. You've rolled your eyes when an eccentric uncle showed you his collection. But now you're finally likely to realize the extraordinary qualities of the clumsy and passionate paintings made by amateurs.

Gathered by artist Jim Shaw into a gloriously crowded show called "Thrift Store Paintings," these hobbyist works have had much-praised showings in Glendale, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, New York, Chicago and Hawaii before settling in for a spell at the Laguna Art Museum's South Coast Plaza satellite (through Jan. 3).

Invested with raw yearnings, fears and fantasies about sex, loneliness, success, attractiveness, evil, drunkenness, the Hereafter and even art itself, these paintings are a world apart from the stuff you find in galleries.

Although some of the artists have mastered the basics of composition and rendering, their work usually differs markedly from the stuff that's made to sell. Even the paintings that borrow heavily from the work of Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte (a big favorite), or studio yearbook photos, or psychedelic record jackets, or the covers of sci-fi novels have a certain something that's missing in the originals.

Call it wistfulness, call it wishful thinking--it's simply a gut-level honesty that seeps out, probably in spite of the artist's actual intent. Some works in the show are hilarious simply on account of their anatomical weirdness or the craziness of basing an entire work of art on such objects as a roll of toilet paper or a pair of ladies' shoes dolled up with winking eyes and rosebud mouths.

For example, "Woman in Underwear Smiles at Photo by Pink Couch and Painting" (Shaw gave each piece a purely descriptive title) captures the sort of odd at-home moment most artists would never think of putting on a canvas. A woman in blue underwear stands in what appears to be her living room and strikes a model pose in front of a photo, which is turned away from the viewer. You wonder if the subject is a lover or maybe even the woman herself, in a particularly winsome pose she instinctively duplicates in person. The painting hanging behind her--just a few inept swipes of color on a big field of nothing--must represent the artist's uncertain notion of abstract art.

The painting Shaw calls "Man With No Crotch Sits Down With Girl" is another winner. Was it simply a rendering problem that caused the man's legs to attach themselves so abruptly to his belt? Or are we to infer some psychological problem on his part as he cozies up to a buxom young woman on a couch?

Some works are utterly mysterious, such as "Turtle in Hat With Cigar, Saying 'Ybsaia (Baby),' " in which a turtle in a porkpie hat and green necktie smokes a cigar next to a preternaturally blue body of water. His name (or utterance or thought) is written right on the canvas.

Or how about "Headless Beat Girl With Text and Paint Brushes in Neck," a sinuous composition of a mermaidlike woman holding her own head in a gloved hand, with a cocktail wafting from a green mist?

The portraits, mostly of women, include a probably unwittingly fiendish-looking smiling little girl, a topless woman with an I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this expression on her face and a bizarre cross between a figure study and a still life, "Woman Made of Pillow, Wax Lips, Green Thing."

The anecdotal scenes range from a truly wrenching evocation of isolation ("Boy With Duck Toy Peers through Rusty Gates") to a zesty series of occasionally X-rated robot adventures. The visionary art scenes include the image of a yellow surfer riding Technicolor waves while an egg drops from the sky and a spectral Last Supper hovering over a city with a smiling face monument, fast-food emporiums and rushing cars.

Just possibly the strangest of all is an image Shaw calls "Strange Interstate Bondage Image," in which the silhouette of the state of California has turned into a baleful-looking animal bearing a squarish (Midwestern?) state on its back--rather painfully attached with a series of black stitches.

The fact that all the artists are complete unknowns working outside any avant-garde or academic tradition adds to the fun. We are free to imagine whatever we want about their backgrounds, motives and sanity. There's nowhere to look for information about these paintings except our own intuition about what makes people tick. What: "Thrift Store Paintings."

When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; through Jan. 3. (Closed Nov. 25-30.)

Where: Laguna Art Museum satellite at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Suite 1000 (near the carousel) in Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Bristol; take central Bristol Street entrance to mall.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to call: (714) 662-3366.

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