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The faces of this place

The state's just a state of mind

October 07, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

California Biennial? What California Biennial? The artists in the Orange County Museum of Art's latest survey of emerging talent are based here, but they come from just about everywhere. If the biennial is a regional show, the region is international.

"The biennial feels representative to me in that it couldn't feel more diverse," says Elizabeth Armstrong, the museum's deputy director for programs and chief curator, who organized the sprawling show with Karen Moss and Rita Gonzalez.

Of the 36 artists represented, 12 were born in California, 15 in other states and nine in other countries. Two come from Britain and one each is from Norway, Denmark, Germany, Yugoslavia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Their work reflects the eclectic state of contemporary art, as might be expected.

"There is no dominant style," Armstrong says. "There is no dominant school. There are not even any dominant artists or influences."

But the art is also the product of a place where natives routinely rub shoulders with immigrants.

"What I find kind of wonderful is that without thinking in terms of demographics and ethnicity and backgrounds and geography, the exhibition became that thing that California is," she says. "That thing is really apparent in the artwork of California."

Whether the artists are longtime Californians who travel extensively or newcomers who call more than one country home, their work follows no predictable pattern. Binh Danh, who was born in Vietnam and educated at San Jose State and Stanford universities, makes shadowy, photo-based works that recall the Vietnam War. But Pearl Hsuing, who comes from Taiwan and went to UCLA and Goldsmiths College at the University of London, produces splashy paintings and sculptures that seem to have burst out of California Pop and skateboard culture.

Lordy Rodriguez, who was born in the Philippines and received his master of fine arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York, transforms maps of real places into mind-bending ink-on-paper works. The Speculative Archive, a team of American artists Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, offers a politically loaded video installation, "not a matter of if but when," chronicling the beliefs of impassioned youth in Syria.

No wonder the introductory essay in the catalog is called "No World Order."

"Long characterized as culturally isolated, young artists working in Northern or Southern California are no more or less disconnected from one another than they are from either the rest of the country or the rest of the world," the three curators write. "Many come here from other states or countries to attend one of California's outstanding art schools or universities and stay on after graduation because of the abundant opportunities. In this climate of burgeoning commercial galleries, thriving nonprofit organizations, and cultural exchanges between California institutions and national or international partners, their first exhibitions may just as easily take place in Berlin or London as in San Francisco or Los Angeles."

The international composition of OCMA's biennial emerged in the 2004 edition, the first to occupy the entire museum and represent a large number of artists. The mix is about the same this year, but some of the artworks cross geographic borders more openly.

"Now that we are at this size with its really big critical mass of artists, it feels like the international part is inevitable," Armstrong says. "More to the point for me is that artists are coming from all over the world, in large part because of the incredible strength of the art schools."

Twenty-four, or two-thirds, of the artists -- including 12 from other states and five from other countries -- received graduate degrees in art from a dozen California universities and art schools. In one case, an international partnership emerged. Two video artists, Norwegian-born Synne Bull and Yugoslavian-born Dragan Miletic, met at the San Francisco Art Institute and joined forces as Bull.Miletic. Now they split their time between Oslo and San Francisco.

Another form of international consciousness appears in the work of Ala Ebtekar, who was born in Berkeley, schooled in the Bay Area and still lives there. The child of Iranians who left their country before the revolution, he has traveled to Iran repeatedly, finding inspiration in Persian miniatures and Iranian popular culture.

Artists who take full advantage of having dual or multiple identities view their lingual and cultural diversity as a positive thing, Armstrong says. At the same time, they work in an art world where any style, medium and subject is fair game.

"That's the fun of doing a biennial," she says. "We are just moving as fast as they are and trying to find artists who reflect all these changes in a really intelligent way. But it's going to take 10, 20, 30 years for it to shake out and for us to say, 'Wow, those three artists really understood and were visionary.' I love that. I'm OK without knowing the answers."


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