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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Juried Shows Needn't Be Guilty of Dullness : 'Issues of Oppression,' at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, demonstrates how the form can foster distinctive work.

July 13, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

I've just been to three juried art shows, and I'd like a time machine, please. As I understand it, these annual grab bags used to mean a lot more decades ago, when art-making was a less divisive endeavor.

Oh, there's always been rivalry among artists. But local juried exhibitions once attracted virtually every promising painter and sculptor (and a lot of unpromising ones too, of course), eager to have their work judged by a respected art world figure, keen to pocket the significant cash awards, proud to be included in a popular local show.

Early winners of the All-City Art Festival in Los Angeles, begun in 1948, included Helen Lundeberg, Lorser Feitelson and Jack Zajac, who also took the honors in the 1953 Newport-Mesa Unified School District contest. Four years later, the winner of that Orange County competition was 29-year-old Robert Irwin.

But times change. Today, there is a huge gap between contemporary art (as top artists and museums conceive it) and the traditional-minded work being made by artists ignorant of or dismissive of current trends.

An ironic young installation artist is unlikely to want his or her work seen in the context of watercolor landscapes or a piously "uplifting" bronze statue. Visionary young artists whose work is really weird and exciting and full of promise seem to prefer showing in offbeat places run by like-minded people, and who can blame them? Why bother entering a competition you know will be stuffed with cliched retreads of yesterday's styles--and visited by no one whose opinions you care about?

How could juried exhibitions regain their art-world clout? Here's a modest proposal: Find well-known jurors with brilliantly off-the-wall taste, open the contests to the widest possible geographical area, support them with a big purse, and winnow down the entrants with positively ruthless zeal.

The three local shows I saw were Orange County Visual Artists' Ninth Annual Art Exhibit, the fifth annual "All Media" exhibition at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, and the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's 13th Annual Juried Exhibition.

Of the three, the OCVA exhibition--at Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, through Friday--is the least engaging. It was open only to members, and the membership seems to be composed primarily of people whose work is mired in tired, cliched approaches and wishy-washy expressions of emotional platitudes. Frankly, I was unable find a single work in this show that made me curious to see more work by the artist.

Juror Charles Desmarais, director of the Laguna Art Museum, chose 28 works from 85 submissions. He notes diplomatically in a brief posted statement that despite their "lack of irony and self-reference of most mainstream art today," many of the OCVA artists demonstrate "anxiety" about such issues as AIDS, war in Eastern Europe, and censorship in the United States. Other artists offer "a vision of spiritual redemption."

Alas, even art that deals with vital issues isn't worth much if the approach is one-dimensional, the imagery is stale and the format has been done to death. (Consider how many novels are written about crucial life issues but how few actually give readers fresh insights into human relations.) Similarly, so-called "life-affirming" work too often comes off as cloyingly simple-minded, a la poet Rod McKuen.

"All Media '93" (through Aug. 17 at the Irvine Fine Arts Center) casts its net wider; the contest--juried by Noel Korten, program director and curator at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park--was open to all Orange County artists. Unsurprisingly, the level of work is higher.

Yet with 84 works by 77 artists--almost 39% of the 198 entrants--this is a more inclusive show than it should be. There's a lot of mediocre stuff and too little evidence of fresh thinking and formal risk-taking. The curious lack of engagement with contemporary art issues is extremely disappointing. Even contemporary media are almost nonexistent (there is only one, amateurish, installation, and one video.)

As usual, many of the voices protesting social and political inequities--poverty, war, racial and gender oppression--declaim in hackneyed, outworn ways. Provocative ambiguity is scarce, while flat-footed obviousness is wildly popular. Much of the abstraction is weak and blandly decorative.

The work in the show that I found the most interesting and unusual--Gregory Lincoln's naively rendered painting "Hasib and the Serpent Queen"--didn't win any of the 10 awards. The haunting mysteriousness of Lincoln's nocturnal desert scene (this myth, if it exists outside the artist's imagination, is unfamiliar to me) makes its flat, delicate style even more appealing. The combination of ambiguous emotional byplay, a fairy-tale atmosphere, and the childlike simplicity of the rendering is wonderfully piquant.

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