The 'Tiki FREAKout' Art Show at the Light Gallery in Costa Mesa Proves Some Styles Never Truly Die

Where the Birds Sing Words and the Flowers Croon
It's the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room

After decades of being dismissed as pure kitsch, the tiki aesthetic has enjoyed a revival in the past 10 years or so, with cute little cartoon hula girls turning up all over while big, carved Jack Palance tiki-god heads sit scowling in the background. But here in OC, the tiki style never really went away. The historic Sam's Seafood restaurant debuted in Huntington Beach in 1960, and after closing in 2006, it's now open again under the name Kona, offering up its burbling fountains, plastic birds of paradise and gorgeously hideous murals to a new generation. The birds are still singing words and the flowers have never stopped crooning at Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room, a kind of animatronic, everlasting shrine to all things tiki. And of course there's home-grown artist Josh Agle (a.k.a. Shag), who made his name off the look. When everybody else was hiding their tiki mugs and grass skirts at the back of their closets, the hodads (and, er, homoms) of OC were still proudly letting their tiki freak flags fly.

So it's entirely appropriate that OC's own Light Gallery should play host to “Tiki FREAKout,” an exhibit that I'm just going to go ahead and call the largest showing of contemporary tiki-themed art ever. If it's not, it's surely all the tiki art you could ever want in one go. We're talking about several banana boats full of tiki goodness, enough to sink Easter Island.

If you take art seriously at all, this retro-lounge-culture business can be hard to defend. It is silly and kitschy, and it's pointless to pretend otherwise. This is art made by people with pseudonyms such as “Odd Rodney” and “Bamboo Ben,” after all. But if you're not looking for profundity—if you go into this show fully prepared for hula girls on black velvet—you'll be richly rewarded for your fortitude.

You expect “Tiki FREAKout” to be colorful and loud, but you don't expect it to be this varied, given the seeming narrowness of the theme. There are a few traditional-looking pieces, but the ones that jump out at you put their own weird spin on tiki tropes. The artist known as Babalu carves big and surprisingly fearsome tiki bunnies—well, why not? Tobunga (Eric October to the IRS) has done a series of classic movie-monster paintings in tiki form, so you get a Tikizilla, a Rodan Tiki, a Tiki From the Black Lagoon. Frankly, it's kind of a stupid idea, if you think about it. But if you don't think about it, they just look really neat. Godzilla! As a tiki!

Some of this art is brooding, like the enveloping black-velvet moodiness of Robb Hamel. Some of it is meth-head crazy, like the squiggly, cheery nightmare visions of Ken Ruzic. (His Night Journey is burned onto my retinas; I can still see the damn thing when I close my eyes to sleep.) But almost all of the art on display here is technically dazzling. These artists don't seem to be saying much about themselves or the human condition or any of that other stuff you kind of hope to find in fine art, but they make some exciting choices with color and shape, and their work absolutely crackles with dorky, wiseguy energy.

Of course, there's good dorky, and then there's just . . . dorky dorky. I have never quite grasped the appeal of hot-rod culture in general or the leering, sneering creations of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in particular, and both are treated with the usual lowbrow reverence here. Some of these pieces, while pleasant enough to gaze upon, look a little too much like backgrounds left over from the old Gilligan's Island Saturday-morning cartoon (David Lazeau's The Islander Spring Cleaning, I'm gazing meaningfully in your direction).

But that's just the part of the review where we critics have to drop in something a little bitchy to make it seem like we're not just fawning. And, really, I'm fawning. This show offers the tiki experience in multiple dimensions, with dozens of colorful paintings crawling across the walls and goodness only knows how many intricately carved pieces lurching out at you from all sides. Of course, no matter how lax your critical faculties are, that carved tiki version of Ultraman is maybe pushing it.

“Tiki FREAKout” group show at the Light Gallery, 440 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 515-2018; Call for hours. Through Aug. 16.

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