Guest Opinion: Laguna Art Museum Is Having Some Serious Fun

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By Gary Stewart

Saturday night’s “sold out” Laguna Art Museum event kicked off three different but equally well-curated exhibits: traditional California art, a quirky, personal collection donated by local private philanthropists, and a global art phenomenon, complete with thumping bass and techno-rock.

First is a collection of never-before-seen art from the Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar (who knew?). California art collected by the garden’s founder, Moses Sherman, included works by Frank Cuprien and Anna Hills that rival the museum’s own collection. My two favorites are the masterful Rex Brandt watercolor that says so much with so little, next to an unusually bold William Wendt landscape sporting his iconic greens.

Secondly, the lower level displays intriguing contemporary works donated by serious, dedicated collectors Judy Vida-Spence and Stuart Spence. Over several decades, this psychiatrist and high-tech businessman (dozens of patents for 3D printing) focused on “low-brow” art that, for example, featured surfing and graffiti.

They collected cutting-edge works such as the Kim Abeles elongated pen drawing “A Mile A Minute (Los Angeles to Del Mar As Seen From A Moving Train).” Mostly works by artists lesser known to the general public, there are samples of the always-needling Baldessari, plus a Raymond Pettibone that is, shall we say, beyond impolite. And no, the pair of modified bean-bag chairs are not cupcakes. Executive director Julie Perlin Lee warmly thanked the Spences for their generous donation and kindly invited Ms. Vida-Spence to offer a few personal remarks.

Artist Shepard Fairey entertains Laguna Art Museum members with a special DJ set during their open house event on March 18. Photo/Clara Beard

The heart of the evening was the career-spanning exhibit of lithographs from Shepard Fairey. (The fourth new exhibit of works from Laguna College of Art and Design students was not yet installed.) Even if Fairey’s name is not familiar, his art is, including the HOPE image of Barack Obama, and the OBEY clothing line.

Fairey began as a street artist anonymously plastering stickers in public spaces of an imperious facial image of the wrestler André the Giant (of The Princess Bride fame), taken from a tabloid ad, later modified to OBEY GIANT. Fairey’s intrepid dedication to his art, despite multiple arrests, having type 1 diabetes, and other challenges, vaulted him from street art subversive to global muralist (Tunisia, Canada, Korea, Germany, etc.).

His hyper-dramatized colors and images reminiscent of 60s concert posters are instantly recognizable. He paints a societal vision he credits to the anti-authoritarian media critic and global public intellectual Noam Chomsky. One lithograph explicitly nods to Chomsky, portraying him as a cultural icon and stating, “I lived with the system and took no offense, until Chomsky lent me the necessary sense.”

His lithographs are consistently eye-catching and offer additional details upon close inspection, whether showing images of strong women or unwisely worshipped political leaders or highlighting the corrosive effect of normalized corruption and the need to recognize and resist illegitimate authority. A dedicated environmentalist, the lithograph he released this week calls out the disinformation campaign of the fossil fuel industry, putting profits over the environment.

The artist himself was in the house and offered some brief introductory remarks in which he fully acknowledged the irony that an “outside” street artist was being featured in a museum that, while not necessarily representing “the system,” was definitely “inside.” He humbly expressed his optimism that this line-crossing could serve to introduce to the “inside” his “outside” messaging while also suggesting to those outside that there can be value found inside if one looks carefully.

He returned to the stage later in his role as DJ and spun his personal choice of vinyl, dominated by heavily rhythmic dance music. Mostly newer music, I recognized kick-ass songs from Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and The Eurythmics. A hardy group of dancers, notably including director Perlin Lee, who has moves, took up the challenge, as the room literally heated up and the jackets started coming off.

As a fitting end to the evening, a young man in the museum gift shop commented that we should honor Fairey by buying all the stickers on sale and plastering them all over town. His mom was not appalled – she was totally on board. I suspect Mr. Fairey would be pleased to know that the generation has been bridged.

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