NEWPORT BEACH — "The Seventh Wave" is a small exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum that describes its eight participants as "all women, all young, all exhibiting together for the first time, all absorbed in the politics of self-identity and all with an overriding concern for feminism."
If this sounds like a remarkably incisive curatorial job of ferreting out a far-flung group of independent artists mining related territory, think again. It isn't the curatorial creation of an artistic school that is at work, it's simply an identification of a shared academic background among disparate artists. For what most of these artists actually seem to have in common is the up-to-date experience of art school--not a specific art school, just the contemporary idea of art school in general.
With the exception of Birgit Jurgenssen, who is 44, the artists were born between 1957 and 1965. They went to school in the late-1970s and early 1980s. They are of a generation that not only could benefit from the contemporary feminist movement, for which academe has been a significant crucible, but that grew up into its newly rushing tide.
The larger cultural phenomenon of professionalized art schools is not often enough considered or examined. Because of it, though, all the adjectival qualifiers applied to this show could describe literally scores of other artists, some more accomplished, some less accomplished than these.
So, why these eight? Beyond the vicissitudes of curatorial taste, which are always mysteriously (and appropriately) at work, one clue comes from knowing that "The Seventh Wave" was organized by a British university (the University of Southampton). Often enough, those inside the academic fishbowl forget to acknowledge the defining power of the invisible but circumscribed glass through which they look at--and organize their view of--the world.
Another useful clue about the selection will be found in the show's peculiar makeup: Jurgenssen, Ona B., Dorothee Golz and Ilse Haider are Austrian; Nicole Eisenman, Karen Finley, Ava Gerber and Lorna Simpson are American. When you realize the show was funded by the Austrian Ministry of Education and Art, the Arts Council of Great Britain and London's Austrian Institute, the decidedly odd pairing of Austrian with American artists is less confusing. It's the art-world equivalent of a small trade show, this time pairing exemplars from a struggling scene with those from a world power, then importing them from abroad.
That's OK, \o7 if\f7 a visitor remembers to take curatorial claims about such a presentation with a grain of salt. (The show's nonsensical title, for instance, is taken from a 1944 essay by Cyril Connolly about the workings of modern progress.) It's best to abandon high-toned pretense, and simply look at the artists individually.
Finley shows a sentimental AIDS memorial displayed last year at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, while Simpson's photographic deconstructions of sign and body language are as visually dull as Jurgenssen's, which feature photographs showing images projected onto, or objects placed atop, a woman's body. Eisenman makes Daumier-like watercolors slamming stereotypical female roles.
Ona B. pairs a florid, brushy, abstract canvas with a leather medicine-ball perched atop a metal stand. The equation between a medicine ball on its tall pedestal and a person standing in front of a painting vaguely brings to life one of Giorgio De Chirico's Metaphysical paintings (elsewhere lampooned by Eisenman).
The works to look at longest are by Gerber, Golz and Haider. Gerber and Haider display a quirky feel for materials, Gerber in ladies undergarments stiffened with wax, stuffed with pillows and strewn around the floor in muffled abandon; Haider in spiny, rectangular pads covered with hundreds of protruding cotton swabs (a motor hidden beneath one pad makes its spines undulate, like the waving tentacles of a sea cucumber).
Gerber's stuffed corsets are a bit too reminiscent of the better-known work of Rona Pondick, while Haider's eccentric material visually recalls Richard Artschwager's repulsively cuddly objects made from rubberized hair. Still, there's an animating presence in the work of both, which perhaps comes from an overriding sense of artistic curiosity.
Dorothee Golz's two odd, off-white constructions of kitchen cabinets with vibrating plastic cushions stacked on shelves and a low, bedlike form with a non-functional drawer on one side and an ominous, protruding slit in the center together establish a genre that might be called "domestic Minimalism."
Evoking the kitchen and the bedroom--two sites specifically charged for the history of women's environments--Golz conjures a quietly disturbing sense of relentless tedium mixed with potentially explosive fury. They're the most enigmatically engaging works in the show.
* \o7 Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, (714) 759-1122, through Feb. 20. Closed Mondays.