ON preview day for the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, the headline in the newspaper said: "Legal Battle Over Detainee Bill Likely." The story chronicled the nearly unimaginable national debate underway over the constitutionality of military tribunals conducted without federal court oversight and the torture of prisoners.
Today's topsy-turvy world is a powerful undercurrent in OCMA's gratifying biennial survey exhibition, which presents 127 works in every conceivable medium by three dozen artists from throughout the state. (Twenty artists are based in Los Angeles, 11 in the Bay Area and five in other parts of California.) Few works are explicit in addressing topical events, as was common in the often jejune social and political art of the early 1990s. Instead, many contemplate modern political conditions in a more plangent sense, as a complex network of social relations involving authority or power.
For a show in which just six artists are older than 35, the 1960s emerge as a surprising -- and revealing -- touchstone. The show resonates with references to an era of failed and hubristic foreign war, aggressive expansion of civil rights at home and the emergence of a mature American art world attempting to shake off monolithic thinking.
"Kalifornia Uber Alles," a sly two-channel video sculpture by Joel Morrison, stacks one black video monitor atop another. The bottom screen glows blank. The top screen loops a clip from Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller, "The Birds," in which scores of black crows silently alight on a schoolyard jungle gym behind an oblivious but nervously smoking Tippi Hedren.
Hitchcock films by now constitute an entire subgenre of artists' source material, and it's hard to find something fresh to do with them. Morrison has. One clue is the title, which riffs on the first song recorded by the Dead Kennedys.
Morrison digitally erased the jungle gym onto which the birds ominously descend. He replaced it with a modular cubic sculpture by Sol LeWitt, also from the 1960s. "Kalifornia Uber Alles" turns Hitchcock's Atomic Age Cold War scenario away from a pop-narrative of nature's revenge, released in the year of the Kennedy assassination. It becomes instead a provocative story of culture's retribution. The image echoes in the present, when '60s ideals lie in a shambles.
My Barbarian, the inventive performance troupe whose principal members are Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade, has made a video projected in a darkened museum gallery, where a large blanket spread out on the floor is suggestively strewn with lounging pillows. Eccentric and often funny, the video recalls the 1968 rock musical "Hair," about soulful peace-and-love in the rainbow family of humanity.
Largely plot-free, the revue is satirical but serious. The Age of Aquarius is cast as today's equivalent to the mythic Golden Age of pre-classical antiquity, which once fueled artists like Cezanne and Gauguin. Given the repressive religiosity tearing apart today's world, paganism emerges as a reasonable, supernatural-free alternative. Sign me up.
Color-field painting, long dismissed as the losing genre in the 1960s battle that saw Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art emerge triumphant, has been an inspiration to numerous artists in recent years. (Discredited art often serves that purpose.) Jane Callister is among the revisionists' most accomplished practitioners.
In addition to several fine canvases that insert shark-like fins into a Pepto-Bismol-colored primordial soup, she created an immense wall painting composed from blotches, splashes and swoops of brightly colored acrylic. They're painted on irregular pieces of transparent adhesive film and dispersed across the wall. The exuberant mural -- free-form color suspended in contained shards -- is simultaneously irrational and thoughtfully considered.
Similarly high-spirited is Tim Sullivan's do-it-yourself special-effects art, especially a video in which he and a friend soar over San Francisco in a bright red roller-coaster car. The playful "Magic Carpet Ride," like the 1968 Steppenwolf song, makes one long for another Summer of Love -- while giving new meaning to current nutty notions of cultural tourism.
Binh Danh, born in Vietnam in 1977 during the noxious reign of the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia, has made an installation based on the famous 1969 issue of Life magazine that recorded "one week's dead" during the Vietnam War. In a conflict that Vietnamese call the American War, the 242 casualties Life depicted were American. That dichotomy is poetically evoked in found photographs that the artist turns into negatives and then prints with sunlight on leaves and natural fibers.