Oscene It?

The nice old lady kept asking the nice young man in the horn-rimmed glasses about his art—six tiny glass milk cartons, each with a little glass person cast into one of its sides—and when he finally told her it was inspired by the missing children ads on milk cartons, things got weird.

“Oh . . . on the sides of milk cartons,” she said, her ancient brow furrowing deeply. “We don't get those at Trader Joe's.” It was, finally, a laugh for those of us who'd been squeezing our way around past a few hundred old people at Laguna Art Museum's “OsCene 2006,” which opened Saturday—careful not to break them. They're old! And this, the milk cartons, was art—doing its job of making us think. It was some of the best work of this OsCene, the museum's annual Orange County art survey.

We'd never seen anything like it, which was good because not enough new happens in Orange County art. So much of what we saw here seemed either to be based on something else or to have inspired something we'd seen recently, whether it was the Von Dutch-like pinstriping of Doug Dorr, or the Mark Rydenesque paintings of Matthew Price. Thank goodness for originals like the milk carton man of Fullerton, Jason Chakravarty, who delivered his ghostly little containers, Homogenized, in bundles of six. They were lit from within by xenon, a white gas like neon.

“You can identify them,” Chakravarty said of his shadowy little figures—made from trophy toppers. “But then they all blend together.” But here, unlike all those missing kids, we singled them out—”employee of the month, employee of the month, prom queen,” said Chakravarty, rattling off their trophies of origin. His other work, Manwich, 2006, was a seven-foot-tall oil derrick structure he built from mild steel and crowned with a glass bottle he cast with a glass doll head on top. More white xenon flashed through it, like lightning in a bottle. It could only have looked better in my house.

The best works here were the most otherworldly. Costa Mesa artist Jeffrey Netzer served up two interplanetary life forms at the show's entry: Crania, made of fired clay. They looked like fluorescent durian fertilized with uranium so as to grow all huge, and then painted with that fuzzy aerosol paint they used to sell. They were awesome, especially in the same room as Aimee Sones' gray Infrastructure, 2005, a bronze and copper piece comprising long tubes of wire she'd woven together and then hung from the ceiling. They ended at the floor, or shortly above it, punctuating tiny metal bowls. And they looked like Slinkys. You'd either like it or hate it: no middle ground.

Except, perhaps, in the work of people like watercolorist Moira Hahn, who offered a series of vivid paintings of reimagined vintage Japanese works—of samurai, women in kimonos, dragons—substituting animals in their places. And so, in her Ukigo-e Remix II: Revenge of Tori, 2004, you had cute little parakeets doing their own little Japanese paintings when in roars a flame-breathing cat (as a dragon) about to set their canvases ablaze. Everyone could like that; you could spend minutes inspecting the details.

Across the room, photographer James Hill's metal photos (photos printed on thin sheets of metal) had a more sinister heat. Hill, who is from San Clemente, showed a series of what looked like film noir stills: a man in his Interrogation, 2006, made us remember the late Lee Marvin in Point Blank.We were almost sad, but there was too much else to see.

What else? Only about a hundred or so pieces—everything from Alvin Gregorio's assemblage of bricks, furry carpet, quilting and painting into what looked like a set from Where the Wild Things Are, to some Carrie Yury photos (of potatoes and snow cones—yum!), to The Legacy Project's grim photos of the former El Toro Marine Base. These were shot using one of the hangars as a giant camera and printed—a splotchy, blotted landscape of towers, metal buildings and trailers—onto a huge piece of vinyl. Legacy Project member Clayton Spade was there to soak up some well-earned praise for them. He deserved it; they looked nothing like the mythic Orange County we've all been raised on.

Ironically, above it all, the late, great Millard Sheets—watercolorist and one of the creators of the Southern California legend—looked on; his show, “Millard Sheets in Mexico 1932-1942,” runs concurrently on the second floor. What Sheets and his peers helped begin, the men and women of OsCene carry on.


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