County Fair

Newport Beach, CA

Left: Sonic Youth at the opening of the 2006 California Biennial. Right: Susan and Leonard Nimoy with OCMA director Dennis Szakacs. (Photos: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)

The drive down to the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) for the 2006 California Biennial revealed a landscape peculiar to this corner of the world: palm-tree-lined freeways choked with SUVs, a vast plateau devoid of landmarks except the spires and lights of giant malls, and the palpable feeling that everything not made of stucco was made of plastic. The OCMA seemed almost consumed by this vast sea of tract homes and office parks, and though few of the artists showing inside are from “the OC,” the culture inside the museum finds a way to deal with the California culture outside, a mélange of the sunstroked superficial and the ingeniously irreverent. Walking in from the parking lot, I ran into one of the biennial’s curators, Rita Gonzalez, standing near the velvet couches of Kianga Ford’s sound installation (which, with the noise of the crowds, I never managed to hear). Gonzalez, who works at LACMA, was invited to join the exhibition team after Irene Hoffman left midresearch. “Everyone’s coming in with road rage,” she observed, sipping from a martini glass filled with sickly sweet fruit liqueur.

The weekend-long celebration began with an invite-only dinner, where wealthy local donors rubbed elbows with the future art stars this exhibition hopes to launch. When I finally found my place card after a confused hunt, my tablemate, Steve Hansen of China Art Objects, grimly joked, “Even the seats are curated.” Each table was a delicate ecology of patrons, young artists, their dealers, and a smattering of invitees from other museums and events such as inSite, San Diego; and the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore (a frequent OCMA collaborator). Above the bar, a video by Mario Ybarra Jr. played a frantic montage of the many hand-painted (and often multilingual) signs that populate Southern California roadsides. Philanthropist, actor, and painter Leonard Nimoy, sitting at the head table, was particularly taken with the Chicano artist’s work and seemed quite receptive to Ybarra’s pitch over dinner to lead bus tours of the local barrios.

Left: Biennial artist Kate Pocrass. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Biennial artist Kianga Ford with biennial curator Rita Gonzalez. (Photo: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)

As if guided tours were requisite for any venture south of LA, the following day I found myself on a bus with San Francisco artist Kate Pocrass, whose “Mundane Journey” through Orange County attempted to find incidental beauty in the streets. Outside of Pocrass’s tour, the bus briefly stopped to see yet another hunk of Richard Serra steel at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, Orange County’s two-hundred-million-dollar attempt to prove that its corporate oligarchs can be philanthropists, too. I sat next to an elderly collector who wore the black pants suit and oversize Italian sunglasses representative of her breed. After bragging about her recent purchases of works by artists whose names I’d never heard before, she offered this insight when asked her thoughts on the biennial: “Let me put it this way, I haven’t seen anything I’d buy.”

Later that night, hundreds of local OC kids eagerly lined up outside the museum to see Sonic Youth perform at the official public opening. Before the doors opened, a private cocktail party thrown by Deutsche Bank was my excuse to spend some time alone in the galleries. To make sense of this large group show, the curators invented themes that dealt directly with some aspect of California art’s unique personality, such as “Fantasy Verité” and “Adaptive Identities.” Though sometimes derivative of their famous LA-art-school teachers, especially Mike Kelley and Charles Ray, the work of the thirty-one artists and collectives in the show displayed a multitude of imaginative solutions to the “problem” of California. For example, artists Marie Jager and Leslie Shows followed the strategies of science fiction and fantasy to their inevitably dire conclusions, capturing a California continually threatened by apocalypse. Jager’s work, a ten-minute video telling the story of a toxic purple cloud that kills everything in its path, complemented Shows’s collage paintings, which depict bleak landscapes whose textured ruins capture the sweeping beauty of spaces devoid of humans but not their influence.

As the opening chords of Sonic Youth’s set rang out, I headed back into the packed lobby. Bleached hair and nautical tattoos were the norm for the crowd, most of whom seemed to skip the art and shoot straight to the stage. Qualms among the artists about having a New York band at the California Biennial evaporated as the music gained steam. Near the end of the set, I caught up with the museum’s chief curator, Elizabeth Armstrong. “Orange County is brand-new, a suburban frontier,” she said. “And who knows, in a few years California may become so much a part of the international art world that this type of exhibition will become irrelevant. But right now, this place is really hopping.”

Left: OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash with biennial artist Shana Lutker. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Kira Perov and artist Bill Viola with biennial curator Elizabeth Armstrong. (Photo: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)

Left: Biennial artists Andy Alexander and Marie Jager. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Biennial artist Lordy Rodriguez, biennial curator Karen Moss, and biennial artist Ala Ebtekar. (Photo: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)

Left: Biennial artist Kambui Olujimi and biennial curator Elizabeth Armstrong. (Photo: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA) Right: My Barbarian's Malik Gaines and Alex Segade with biennial artist Pearl C. Hsiung. (Photo: Andrew Berardini)

Left: Artists Sidney Felsen and Joni Moisant Weyl. Right: Biennial sponsor Victoria LaVasseur with Rebecca McLarand and OCMA trustee Carl McLarand. (Photos: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)

Left: Rita Gonzalez with biennial artist Mario Ybarra Jr. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Biennial sponsors Twyla and Chuck Martin. (Photo: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)

Left: Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation director Billie Milam Weisman and Christie's Zach Miner. Right: Biennial sponsors Victor and Barbara Klein and OCMA's Dr. Eugene Spiritus. (Photos: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)