Contemporary Art Dialogue

Magical Space Forms - Lorser Feitelson

Lorser Feitelson, "Magical Space Forms," 1953. Oil on canvas. Collection Orange County Museum of Art.

Contemporary Art Dialogue addresses contemporary art movements, styles and philosophies, including assemblage, abstract, graffiti, photographic and postmodern. A number of pages are about the arts, artists and art places in SoCal where I live and work in art journalism; while several are adaptations from my previously published articles. The following story is a revised version of my November 2014 Art Ltd. feature, "Spotlight: Orange County."

Beyond its facade as a place defined by tract housing and Disneyland, the OC and its surroundings are home to a vital art community.

Orange County's contemporary arts legacy begins in 1965 when the newly formed UC Irvine art department attracted rebellious artists who taught there, staff who ran the place, and eager students who were inspired to create wildly conceptual and performance pieces. In that same decade, 13 visionary women opened the Balboa Pavilion Gallery in Newport Beach, exhibiting work by area pioneering artists. This venue soon became the Newport Harbor Art Museum, today the Orange County Museum of Art. The ongoing successes of UCI’s art department and OCMA have undoubtedly influenced the evolution of other art venues in this region.

OCMA has morphed over the years from its modest roots into a major museum, exhibiting giants of the local, national and international art worlds. The museum’s piéce de résistance is its 3,000-plus contemporary artwork collection, which includes art pieces by many prominent SoCal artists. A 2014 exhibition, “The Avant-Garde Collection,” culled from this treasure trove of works from the past 50 years, featured dozens of SoCal artists, including John Baldessari, Larry Bell, Chris Burden, Llyn Foulkes, George Herms, Craig Kauffman, Ed Kienholz and Ed Ruscha.

Laguna Beach

The Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, eight miles down Pacific Coast Highway, was founded in 1918 as the Laguna Beach Art Association. While LAM is proud of its early 20th-century California Impressionism, its emphasis today is on modern and contemporary art from the Golden State. Works exhibited include abstract art, surf-culture installations, and paintings and sculpture from the 1960’s Light and Space movement.

In Smog and Thunder: The Great Battle of Los Angeles - Sandow Birk

Sandow Birk, "In Smog and Thunder: The Great Battle of Los Angeles," 1998. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

In 2000, Laguna Art Museum exhibited "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias," comprised of more than 100 art pieces by Sandow Birk. His depiction of a fictional war between L.A. and San Francisco included the artist's large history paintings, propaganda posters, topographical maps, ship models and portraits of imaginary military figures.

Artists Village

Santa Ana, 10 miles to the north, is justifiably proud of its Artists Village, created in the mid-1990s from a decaying urban neighborhood. At its popular monthly Artwalk, where artists and art lovers mingle with the area’s largely Latino population, two venues stand out. Grand Central Art Center, a partnership between California State University Fullerton and the City, is comprised of live/studio spaces for graduate students and artists-in-residence, Grand Central Theater and a main gallery space. As the hub of the “Village” revival, exhibitions include allegorical, lowbrow, assemblage art, graffiti art, photographic art and multi-media work.

At the nearby Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, director Stephen Anderson explains, “I look at OCCCA as a giant sandbox, inspiring artists to experiment and take risks with their art. It also allows many other opportunities, from curating a show on a hot-topic theme, to creating a music event, to collaborating with other institutions.” Founded by five members in 1980, OCCCA moved to its current location in 1996, where it has since exhibited over 800 guest artists and held numerous solo, group and juried shows, showcasing more than 6,000 participants.

Long Beach

A Better Nectar: Manzanita Anthers - Jessica Rath

Jessica Rath, "A Better Nectar: Manzanita Anthers," 2014. Polyester resin, fiberglass sculpture, 96 x 63 x 22 inches. Photo: Mark Chamberlain, BC Space.

Three museums in Long Beach illustrate the history and diversity of this city, bordering Orange County. The University Art Museum at California State University Long Beach is in an urban campus with a 2,000-student School of Art, and exhibition galleries that meld visual arts with design, technology, music and contemporary culture. The museum's 2015 exhibition, "A Better Nectar," merged art with nature, while focusing on the daily activities of bees. It included several larger-than-life fiberglas sculptures that replicate the various objects of the bees' attentions. These pieces, along with a light sculpture and interpretive, "musical" sounds of foraging bees and of pollen being released, follow a multi-sensory journey. (Revised from my Artillery magazine review.)

With its magnificent vistas facing Long Beach Harbor and historic stone buildings, one might overlook the Long Beach Museum of Art’s vision, among them shows that relate personal stories about the artists, while displaying their work. Its 2014 “The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation,” included historical paintings, prints, photos and objects. These pieces, while alluding to the Hess family’s legacy, do so with artistic license, as most of the so-called “historical” pieces are actually creations of the artist.

From its humble origins in a refurbished rolling skating rink in 1996, The Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) has expanded notably, amassing a collection by artists Cruz-Diez, Los Carpinteros, Matta, Tamayo, Tunga and others. As the only museum in the United Stated exhibiting modern and contemporary Latin American art, its artworks include surrealism, social realism, abstraction, conceptualism and performance art.

University Galleries

Begovich Gallery, F. Scott Hess Exhibition Opening - Gallery Director Mike McGee & Artist Hess

Begovich Gallery, F. Scott Hess Exhibition Opening, 2014. Gallery Director Mike McGee & Artist Hess. Photo: Mark Chamberlain, BC Space.

Among many college and university galleries in the OC, five are worth special mention. Cal State Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery presents contemporary exhibitions focusing on Southern California artists, with occasional national and international work. Gallery director Mike McGee explains that the venue is a training facility, providing students with hands-on experience to prepare them to work in the field. Dozens of former students are working at art institutions all over the world.

The Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University, Orange, collaborates with other area institutions. Past shows include “Confronting Nature: Silenced Voices” with Cal State Fullerton, and “Art and Architecture” with 10 SoCal museums and galleries. Exhibitions include work by California artists such as Manuel Ocampo and Tim Hawkinson, while group shows address issues as death and dying, sex and humor, the Vietnam War, public art and religion.

Soka University’s 8,000-square-foot Aliso Viejo gallery features contemporary artwork, much of it from Southern California; a committee of staff and faculty (not all art professionals) select the exhibitions. Archibald E. Asawa, VP for finance and administration, explains that the gallery dovetails with the college’s mission, “to develop global citizens committed to living a contributive life as well as support our university principles, which include the fostering of leaders of culture in the community.”

Blue-Chip Artists

Coastline Community College's Newport Beach campus includes a 2,400-square-foot gallery. While the venue displays artists from across the globe, its special draw is work by blue-chip OC artists including Tony DeLap, Tom Dowling and John Eden. Its 2014 “Selections from the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts Permanent Collection,” featuring works by artists from the past, including Edgar Payne and Paul Outerbridge, was a departure for the gallery.

At the UC Irvine "University Art Galleries," directors Juli Carson and Robert Plogman explain that the gallery’s mission “is to keep an eye on our modernist past while promoting the most innovative aesthetic and political debates of our postmodern (art) present.” As UCI’s gallery directors add, the venue exemplifies this area’s 50-plus year commitment to “provoking intelligent debate on the subject of art in its most expansive poetic definition.”


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