Newport Beach

Brian Dick with Christen Sperry-Garcia, The Nationwide Museum Mascot Project presents: OCMAscot, 2010. Performance view. From the 2010 California Biennial.

Brian Dick with Christen Sperry-Garcia, The Nationwide Museum Mascot Project presents: OCMAscot, 2010. Performance view. From the 2010 California Biennial.

2010 California Biennial

Brian Dick with Christen Sperry-Garcia, The Nationwide Museum Mascot Project presents: OCMAscot, 2010. Performance view. From the 2010 California Biennial.

Let’s be realistic. Most biennials suffer from a case of glut over guts, failing to really thrill anyone. Whether international in scope or charmingly regional, they are, more often than not, drearily low-yield, baggy affairs. Unhappily, I find myself only reinforcing expectation here, as “uneven” barely begins to describe the eleventh edition of the California Biennial. Given the Golden State’s sprawling art scenes and atomized array of artistic strategies, and given noteworthy previous editions of the exhibition, there was reason to hope for more.

Curated by Sarah Bancroft, a recent transplant to the Orange County Museum of Art (having relocated from Europe, where she lived following a stint at the Guggenheim in New York), this year’s statewide survey brings together more than 150 works, spanning the standard gamut of installation to performance, by forty-five artists and art collectives, with over half based in greater Los Angeles and the remainder split between San Diego and the Bay Area. In her introduction to the catalogue, Bancroft articulates the closest thing this biennial has to a conceptual program when she tells of approaching the process “with no allegiances or acquired biases, relatively ignorant of the [region’s] many cliques and groups,” reasonably proposing unfamiliarity as a curatorial asset in generating a fresh, liberated perspective. But Bancroft’s unbiased take on the lay of the local land falls short of this promise—her perplexing selection of artists amounts to neither a cross-section representative of the region’s current intergenerational fecundity and breadth nor a coherent curatorial vision conveying personal conviction and analytic rigor. At least in part, the problem stems from an organizational strategy that groups otherwise disparate works by medium—one room for photography, another for works on paper, for painting, for ‘whimsical’ sculpture—thwarting cross-disciplinary discoveries, resonance across media, and suggestive exchanges between featured practices.

There is a conspicuous dearth of generational depth (nearly three-quarters of the artists are less than forty years old and none is over sixty) to this year’s biennial, which is heavily weighted toward emerging artists. And given the surfeit of quasi-pandering populist creations—from Andy Ralph’s extruded Gumby-like Reclining Lawn Chair (all works cited, 2010) and suite of upside-down trash cans with whirring wheels (Trash Clan) to Sherin Guirguis’s eight-foot-tall decorative Weeble/mutant Christmas ornament (Bein El-Qasrein) and Brian Dick and Christen Sperry-Garcia’s bright orange piñata figure, (OCMAscot)—there is a feeling that, more than being familycentric, this show is for the kids.

Still, there are attempts at direct political engagement. Artists such as Camilo Ontiveros, Nina Waisman, and Electronic Disturbance Theater/b.a.n.g. lab address border and immigration issues, while the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, Agitprop, and Finishing School collectives emblematize those current, local strains of relational aesthetics oriented toward the reclamation of public space, grassroots pedagogy, community outreach, and improvised social collaboration. But the best works tend to be those that locate their own private poetry—from David Wilson’s intimate landscape sketches evincing an anachronistic practice of plein-air silence to the blacked-out portraits and hand-wrapped books of Eve Fowler (taken from her own feminist-lesbian library), to Lisa Williamson’s exacting and restrained compositions, including her pop-minimal graphic take on the schematized flatbed picture plane (As a Beer Mat and Cutting Board), as well as her bizarrely thrilling miniature hybrid construction Shelf Painting/A Model Situation Has Five Parts. Given that the show as a whole leaves one with a lingering sense of diffuse bafflement, it is a testament to the strength of these works and others that they offer exceptional moments of elevated viewing amid all the hodgepodge.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer