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ART REVIEW : Framed in Controversy : Problems Surround Solid Works in 'Orange Curtain' Exhibition

October 17, 1995|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — There are many problems with "From Behind the Orange Curtain," organized by Sally Waranch for the Muckenthaler Cultural Center (through Dec. 31). In fact, the only aspect of the show that, for the most part, is not a contentious matter is the art itself.

Chris Burden, Craig Kauffman, John McLaughlin, Vija Celmins, John McCracken, Kim Abeles, Tony DeLap and 14 others are represented by one work apiece. The idea is that everyone in the exhibition has lived or worked in the county at some point in their lives and gained national recognition for their art.

The selections in the show will not come as a surprise to anyone who has kept up with contemporary art. They are solid works that represent the artists well.

Although the show contains a wistful early portrait from 1959 by John Paul Jones, it is most heavily concentrated in the '70s and '90s. The accelerated generations of artists who emerged in the past 20 years are smartly represented.

The cream includes Carol Caroompas' rampaging sexual dialectics in paint; Burden's deadpan display of lethal weapons; Kim Abeles' early drawings of city skylines, each seen by revolving in one spot; Fred Tomaselli's meditations on pain and pleasure and Deborah Brown's glittering images of self-doubt.

Waranch stretches the idea of a national profile to include such promising newcomers as Susan Hornbeak-Ortiz and Yolande McKay, but their presence probably will mostly be an issue to other local artists miffed that they weren't included.

The problems begin with the fact that, for all her goodwill, Waranch--owner of Sarah Bain Gallery in Fullerton--is a dealer whose financial stake in art is at odds with the non-commercial public interest for which public, nonprofit institutions like the Muckenthaler are founded.

Waranch writes frankly in the catalogue introduction that her initial motives in curating the show were "slightly defensive on behalf of the [Orange County] art and artists I have known and promoted for so long."

By including one of her gallery's artists (Ron Pastucha) in the show, Waranch steps over the line into outright conflict of interest. (Called last week for a comment, she said she asked "several people, including the board" of the Muckenthaler about the propriety of showing Pastucha's work, and "everyone seemed fine with it.")

Even apart from this issue, the show is riddled by confused premises and poor scholarship.

Waranch eventually came to realize, she writes, that the show could be "a motivator for change" in prevailing attitudes about the county as a complacent and conservative. If serious art requires risk-taking, why, Orange County "is full of the same . . . Angst- ridden individuals that all other places have."

But this view, apparently based on the old-fashioned image of the tortured artist, doesn't address the real dilemma: a scarcity of the fresh insights and conceptual abilities that make for viable art.

Historically, geographic areas that have produced an unusual concentration of exceptional artists are very few. Instead, artists generally migrate to places hospitable to them.

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Most often, these are cities with a high density of top-notch places to study and exhibit art, low-cost live/work spaces, an established group of collectors and an array of local publications dealing with contemporary art. Orange County could claim--at most--a couple of these advantages, and only at certain times.

It is no coincidence that 12 of the 21 artists in the show were students or teachers, or both, at UC Irvine, mostly during the art department's golden age of the early 1970s. (Other illustrious former UCI students, such as Maria Nordman and Alexis Smith, could have swelled the university's representation even further.)

As it happens, hardly any of the artists in the show still live in Orange County--DeLap is the only major figure who hasn't moved away--and readers of Roberta Carasso's catalogue entries are only spottily informed of the reasons they left. Of Kauffman, for example, who lived in Laguna Beach from 1959 to 1986, we learn only that "he regrets moving away."

It would seem that whatever lured these artists to the county to begin with--an education, a teaching job or an accident of birth or upbringing--it was not enough to keep them here. (The one exception was John McLaughlin, and Carasso doesn't explain what attracted him to his final home in Dana Point in 1946.)

How else can we interpret this mass exodus, other than to acknowledge that Orange County is not an art center? With Los Angeles--second only to New York as an art capital--just a 45-minute drive away, this should not come as a surprise.

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