Newport Beach

Adrià Julià

Orange County Museum of Art

Adrià Julià, a young Spanish artist who has been living in Los Angeles since 2001 (she graduated from CalArts in 2003) has already exhibited widely throughout Europe but remains underrecognized in the US. This should change soon. The work on view at the Orange County Museum of Art comprised just a handful of medium-scale, resoundingly Felliniesque photographs and a film (split into two separate projections), La Villa Basque, Vernon, California, 2004, all depicting aspects of the titular restaurant. As the first things one sees, the photographs distantly recall the sorts of images that remain on view outside movie theaters in Europe, lending the installation a vaguely antiquated ciné-club feel. But here they serve no supplementary or promotional purpose; rather, as emphatically staged, hence theatrical, products of the set, they assert their independence from the moving image.

The five photographs, which are actually stills from the film, show the restaurant’s various patrons and employees frozen like museological specimens within their “colorful” milieu. All are portrayed by trained actors that Julià has chosen not only because they resemble the figures they represent, but because they mediate between mundane lifelikeness and the fantastic (read: cinematic) realm of imaginary archetypes. The susceptibility of everyday experience to spectacular corruption is a recurring theme in his work, and it finds a suitably unstable framework in this odd restaurant that the artist discovered by chance. Los Angeles is full of such places, at once opulent and tawdry, which exude abject neediness—to be seen—while remaining seemingly indifferent to the profit motive. That on most days La Villa Basque is close to empty can be surmised from the petrified stance of the hostess, the glazed-over gaze of the barkeep. But one can also tell that this is a mythic, larger-than-life place.

Among these “character study” photographs, Julià has included an image of a page of handwritten text excerpted from the diary of the restaurant owner’s wife that narrates the voyage of his grandfather from the Basque Country to the “New Country” in the breathless prose of a Zane Grey Western, with the obligatory shoot-out included. A spoken-word account of the restaurant’s illustrious history, but this time in Spanish and Basque broken by the occasional passage of English, furnishes the sound track of one of the films. Literally “music to the ears” if you do not understand the language, the narraor’s voice (its owner never seen) reverberates off walls that a handheld camera submits to too-close scrutiny. Gliding unsteadily over microtopographies of stucco’d texture, inlaid mosaics, worn tabletops, and row upon row of dusty curios, unfathomable artifacts, and tchotchkes of every stripe, it gradually reveals that La Villa Basque is only nominally a dining establishment; more essentially it is a memory palace.

A second projection from the same film consists of a continuous, static shot of a waiter performing, without much practice, a traditional Basque dance. Steadily devolving toward ungainly hip-hop contortions, it is grotesque, hilarious, and heartbreaking in equal measure. In the play between the spoken and written word, as well as the still and moving image, Julià shows that it is not only artists who are interested in collapsing the borders between the real and its representations. The unchanging, time-warp ambience of La Villa Basque crystallizes the ways in which deracination, memory loss, and self-reinvention—the main components of the “immigrant story”—are relevant to us all.

Jan Tumlir