LAGUNA BEACH — "Nasty," a show at Stuart Katz's Loft (through May 11) is supposed to be about sex--or rather, "gender issues," the contemporary lingo that emphasizes the conflictive aspects of carnal impulse.
But for some reason, guest curator Dorrit Fitzgerald Rawlins (curator of the Irvine Fine Arts Center) shies away from the darker implications of her subject. Her introductory essay for the catalogue sounds as though she's trying to sweet-talk Jesse Helms instead of addressing people accustomed to looking at contemporary art.
Rawlins writes that she chose the 11 artists in the show "not only for their intelligent, aesthetically pleasing and often humorous presentations of sexuality but for their fidelity to all the tenets of 'good art' in the way they educate and entertain viewers."
Come again? Where are these so-called tenets inscribed, and why should we be interested in such sanitized-sounding treatments of such visceral themes? In this context, even "aesthetically pleasing" (according to whose standards?) has an unpleasantly dictatorial sound. What if we skip the lessons and games, and look to art for personal, fresh, quirky and non-simplistic points of view we haven't encountered before?
If we take that route, Rawlins' theme begins to seem like a vague catchall for vastly different kinds of work. They veer from drollery to didacticism, from academic and amateurish work to innovative stuff--some of it (Lauren Lesko's gold lame "Solar Anus," Millie Wilson's wig piece, "Merkins (Virginia)") rather overexposed in recent gallery and museum shows.
As it happens, the exhibition's freshest treatments of sex are the light, throwaway pieces.
The biggest treat is Michael Arata's "Male Angel Larva," pop-eyed creatures with feather wings and tails made from men's socks, labeled with chemical symbols for gases.
The larva swarm hopefully on the floor underneath a "Little Virgin Dress," a chaste white bell shape with a skirt lined in pink flowers. You have to look up the skirt to see them, of course, which is precisely the idea.
Gomez (who goes by just his first name) is a stylistic chameleon seen here with mixed-media pieces invoking sexual body parts. Though these are not as fresh as his neo-Surrealist paintings, the diminutive scale of "Don't Forget Your Penis"--a little black box with a tiny hand poking into the viewer's space, offering a bullet--gives the piece a goofy appeal.
A somewhat similar idea lurks behind Pat Sparkuhl's "Mighty Mick"--an assemblage in which a Mickey Mouse doll holds a rocket where his privates belong--but the satire is stale and obvious.
Similarly, Lynn Kubasek's would-be kinky assemblages made from multiple dolls' legs are blandly formulaic. The more you see of them (Kubasek is showing about 16 of these pieces in "The New Degenerates" show at the Caged Chameleon Gallery in Santa Ana), the less you see in them.
Martin Euchler's idea of portraying guys with headdresses made of multiple penises is certainly unconventional, but the paintings themselves are amateurish and the concept isn't developed into anything beyond an oddity.
Other work includes a didactic photo-and-text piece by Cheri Gaulke and Sue Maberry, academic male nude etchings by John Sonsini and an oversized ceremonial image by Pat Merrill that reeks of New Age pieties.
Though the idea of showing work drawn from several different "art worlds"--other than the one that feeds directly into highbrow art museums--is appealing, in this instance it exposes the large gap between risk-taking innovators with a clear sense of contemporary art issues and others whose vision somehow lacks the same sense of imaginative possibility.
* "Nasty" continues through May 11 at Stuart Katz's Loft, 2091 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Hours: 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; Saturday and Sunday by appointment. Admission: Free. (714) 497-1098.