Deipnophobia is the fear of dinner conversation. Deipnophoroi are women who prepared food and offered a sympathetic ear to young boys and girls during ancient Greek celebrations commemorating the ritual slaughter of young people by the Minotaur. Maya Gurantz’s Deipnophoroi has nothing to do with food preparation. Rather, it’s about food for thought, tackling subjects that most people would nix at the dinner table. A diptych video collaboration with several female storytellers and artists, all of them mothers, it offers advice on what to do when being raped, kidnapped or dismembered, the narration playing on one screen accompanied by child-like, chroma-keyed illustrations playing on the other.
From the Brothers Grimm to George Lucas, trauma is commonplace in the stories we tell our children, but paranoia and morality aren’t the agenda here—this is about self-preservation. While a mother’s advice to her children—female and male—under such extreme circumstances is worth being examined in an art piece, not only does the installation play into the idea of women being helpless and victimized, but there’s also the elephant in the living room that goes unaddressed: National Institute of Justice statistics are that men are more likely to be victims of violence than women.
Those issues aside, it’s also just not very good. The video installation offers very powerful advice about staying calm in chaotic circumstances, but what doesn’t work is its haphazard, piecemeal use of fairy tales, without any real insight; its moments of pretense; and the sloppiness of much of its production value. If Gurantz had placed a greater emphasis on curation, giving the stronger writing and performance more emphasis and eliminating the amateur hour aspects, cheap production value would have been a non-issue. The poorly framed and poorly lit photography, less an aesthetic choice than a lack of skill, works against many—but not all—of the discussions, undercutting their intensity and focus.
When the stories go for a more personal jugular, unhampered by distancing effects and gimmicks, just a woman facing the camera and sharing her admonishment, you can literally feel the hair rise on the back of your neck. Too bad those blunt-force moments are so few and far between.
Gurantz runs into similar quality issues with the accompanying single-channel video Non-Fiction, a series of short interviews with mothers about their personal experiences. A listing of the subjects involved—bullying, military trauma, childhood sexual abuse and poverty—is more interesting than the end result, with most of the interviews too brief or poorly edited to pack much of a punch.
The next gallery offers an admonition of another sort. Thick green stalks of Starbucks straws poke up from the impossibly lush artificial landscaping covering the floor of Rebecca Chernow: #superbloom, stiff and rigid like lawn darts. Atop the straws are rippled pieces of orange plastic bag, creating a room-size installation, a mini-mountain of plastic poppies in waves leading to a peak at the corner. The wall behind is painted in oranges, yellows and purples, a solitary “flower” looking as if it has been stepped on, crushed into the “grass” under the evocative “sunset.”
The flurry of images that come to mind while admiring it is no mean feat for such a small space. There’s the moment from The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy and two of her three compatriots drifting into a sleepy death, the third watching in helpless horror. There’s the cartoonish quality of the design, hearkening to the brief moments of childhood, when a handful of trash could create an imaginary world. There’s the irony of a long-lasting pollutant imitating the ephemeral natural life of something beautiful, as well as the short, temporary time the installation is scheduled at the gallery. Planned as a reminder of the brief, colorful life of the 2017 super-bloom in the Antelope Valley, post-drought, before a glut of tourists thoughtlessly trampled and trashed them in callous admiration, it’s impossible to put aside the flower’s history as an item mourning the brutalities of war.
While many of those references have dark implications, John Spiak’s curatorial notes indicate Chernow’s immersive art is aiming at something more positive, primarily a focus on environmental issues and renewability. For me, the historical link of flowers to femininity, as well as the poppy’s link to pain relief and healing, fits well within the context of the last year’s politics. As with the flowers that mysteriously appeared after a decade-long dry spell, the female-centered activist community, full of rage and beauty, has arisen. Spiak’s note to preserve the Grant Central Art Center’s installation by “staying on the path” seems a wink and a nod to the many “flowers” yet to bloom in 2018.
“Rebecca Chernow: #superbloom” and “Maya Gurantz: Deipnophoroi” at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Chernow’s installation closes Jan. 14; Gurantz’s closes Feb. 11. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.