To say, as the museum placard does, that Charles Long's "100 Pounds of Clay" begins as a Minimalist sculpture is like saying that Monty Python's "Life of Brian" begins as a biblical epic: It's true, more or less, but the payoff lies in where the work goes from there.
Long begins with that hallowed alpha of orthodox Minimalism, the cube. There are 100 of them in the installation, 1 pound each, arranged in a grid on one wall of the lobby of the Orange County Museum of Art, each on its own illuminated shelf. With a nod to Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Carl Andre and the other giants of Minimalist sculpture, Long has fashioned the cubes from an impersonal, vaguely industrial material (clay), which he presents in an apparently pure state, unmarred by any trace of the human hand. Indeed, he seems to have just taken the stuff directly out of the box. Sleek, spare, reserved -- so far so good.
The first twist is the color: cherry red, banana yellow, cotton candy pink, grape Popsicle purple. This isn't rich, dark, masculine clay, drawn from the bowels of the Earth, but something more along the lines of Play-Doh. Each block is a single color, but arrayed together on the wall they give the cheerful impression of a child's birthday party.
You can almost hear Serra groan.
But wait, there's more. Several feet in front of the piece you'll find a worktable and a few tools. The aforementioned placard encourages viewers to shape the clay into anything they like, which is why the installation can be said to have a beginning -- it's interactive and ever-changing. Indeed, unless you arrived at the museum in the first five minutes of the opening, the sleek and spare part may have been lost on you altogether. (Although the museum staff replenishes the clay at intervals, at its discretion.)
And if that weren't enough fun for one museum trip, Long also provides a soundtrack composed of random selections from 100 CDs chosen by the museum staff. Whereas Minimalism strove for the absence of stimulus and prided itself on compelling viewers to confront their own boredom, Long gives them Shuggie Otis, Aimee Mann, Nina Simone, Luscious Jackson, Moby, Morcheeba and David Bowie to keep them company.
The work, in short, doesn't just look like a birthday party but behaves like one too.
At a glance, it all seems too friendly, too earnest and a little too conducive to feel-good family activities to be taken seriously. Step back a moment, however, and a delicious layer of sarcasm emerges.
Put Minimalism in the hands of the masses, and what do they do with it? They make flowers, monsters, teacups, palm trees, hamburgers, robots, handguns, and all sorts of strange, unidentifiable little things, most of them extremely creative and remarkably well-crafted. Before your very eyes, Minimalism's sacred cube erupts into candy-colored rococo.
The work isn't just fun, it's parody, taking the legacy of Minimalism to task for its exclusivity, detachment and often dour self-importance.
When the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, mounted its sweeping Minimalist survey a few years ago, many in the art world lauded the show for finally giving an underappreciated movement its due. There's no question that the movement had a major effect, on art history if not necessarily the general populace, but for that reason, the corrective lens of parody is equally in order. Minimalism -- and Minimalist sculpture, in particular -- may have changed the relationship between artwork and viewer, but it fell far short of resolving it. At best, it raised more questions than it answered, leaving it to younger sculptors such as Long (who emerged from grad school in the late 1980s) to build on these innovations while winning back the attention of the public.
"100 Pounds of Clay," which was conceived in 2001 and acquired by the museum shortly thereafter (this is the second time it has been exhibited there), tips toward the crowd-pleasing side of the scale. In the context of Long's developing oeuvre, which combines sleek formalism with a generous sense of play, it is a worthy diversion.
`Charles Long: 100 Pounds of Clay'
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, extended until 8 p.m. on Thursdays; closed Mondays
Ends: Aug. 27
Price: $8 to $10
Contact: (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net