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Sober Pairs With Send-Ups in Biennial Exhibit

The much anticipated California Biennial exhibition by the Orange County Museum of Contemporary Art justified its build-up. The 150 works now on display are thought-provoking without being overwhelming. Instead, works that include painting, sculpture, photography, installation, installation hybrids and even video (for those with time), offer whimsy, humor and the inevitable doses of psychic self-examination.

OCMA’s curator Sarah Bancroft’s choices fit into the current social-problem-saturated zeitgeist, since audiences don’t encounter a depressing cacophony of social commentary (enough of that on the outside) or conceptualist installations that only a curator or moving crew could love.

Alex Israel’s room-sized installation “Property,” 2010 consists of 19 rented movie props, ranging from a statue of Egyptian goddess Osiris to a magician’s black top hat. It engages since it’s an homage to ordinary objects and mirrors as well as the power of illusion and the ease with which it can be sold to the masses.

Instead of Orange County-based artists, Bancroft included a local allusion via Drew Heitzler’s “There is Always Money in the Banana Stand,” 2010. It fills an entire gallery with images referencing the county’s history, from early orange groves to now-defunct sports teams, or that television show that most try to forget, represented by a mug shot of Mischa Barton.

A linear map of the county shreds the Orange Curtain, a pictorial showing how Los Angeles and Orange counties have always been intertwined.

Bancroft’s love for painting is reflected in several noteworthy selections, such as Patrick Wilson’s “Insomniac,” or for their implied humor, Andy Kolar’s “Six Deep.” Bancroft describes the Kolar series of paintings as humorous takes on abstraction.

Similarly, Tom Mueske’s “Untitled,” 2010, first repels and, on further examination, attracts for its colorful jumble of lines. At least his marks are to be taken in good fun, unlike Cy Twombly’s scribbles which are taken dead seriously and sold for sums to match.

Also noteworthy are Mari Eastman portraits of models such as “Carolina.” Using oil stick and glitter, she gives them a folk-arty appearance that contradicts the photo-shopped perfection we have come to expect.

Speaking about send-ups, Rebecca Goldfarb’s installation, “Traveling Through Darkness: Some Sense of the World Turned on When Faneur and Collector Meet for the Second Time,” 2010, seems to spoof Damien Hirst’s early medicine cabinets. Here, ordinary flashlights under go metamorphoses into sex aids and less overt objects remain themselves.

On a more serious note, commentary on Iran’s political and social repression is surfacing in paintings like Taravat Talepasand’s “The Censored Garden,” 2008, which addresses institutionalized paranoia about women’s sexuality. She also decorated an MB5 motorcycle with flowers and symbols (“Angel of Iran, Dirty 50cc,” 1982-2009) to illustrate the deleterious effect roving bands of religious police have on ordinary citizens.

Bancroft also exhibits an eye for photography by choosing un-gimmicky shots with intelligent content. Katy Grannan’s series “Anonymous, Los Angeles,” 2008, is poignant in its portrayal of two women and a man who, while no longer young, hang on to the appearance that stylistically denotes their youth and happier times.

Lastly, in the realm of sculpture, Sherin Guirguis’ “Bein El-Quasrein” is the embodiment of pure beauty. Modeled after a Bedouin woman’s earring, the piece is exquisitely carved and assembled from layers of wood and metal. Ninety-six inches tall, it alone is worth the price of admission.

California Biennial runs through March 13, 2011. Orange County Museum of Art is located at 850 San Clemente Drive in Newport Beach. For information, call 949-759-1122 or visit www.ocma.net.

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