Opinion: Culture Comes to Laguna

Billy Fried

Wait, did Hauser and Wirth or Larry Gagosian just set up shop here? Because it sure felt that way at last Friday’s marvelous Hospitality Night when, upon walking through a side door off a nondescript building on a nondescript section of Broadway, you were swept into an alternate universe – a cavernous, 4,200 square foot, state-of-the-art gallery space with the ultimate in sophisticated exhibition technology.  

The one-time post office was converted to a private gallery by previous owner, the late art collector Gerald Buck. But now Mo Honarkar has acquired it and debuted his Honarkar Foundation for Arts & Culture (HFAC). Say what you want about the controversial Mo, but his ability to brush himself off and bounce back – by opening this exquisite space to the public – demonstrates his commitment to doing good in our community. He enlisted gallery owner Peter Blake to assist him with the opening, who in turn brought in his past director Genevieve Williams to helm the space.  

And what was on the walls was even more exceptional – the long overdue retrospective of local artist Jorg Dubin’s prodigious figurative work of the 2000s. To see it all in one place is to grasp the enormity of Jorg’s talent. Big, stunning, lush canvasses of predominantly female nudes that could be mistaken for Rubens, except for the contemporary political commentary cleverly embedded in them. His craft is exceptional – thick brushstrokes reminiscent of the 20th century’s greatest portrait artist, Lucien Freud, with a mastery of light and shadow that can only be described as hauntingly beautiful.  

Yet, there is purpose and meaning in each of the canvasses that require closer inspection. He calls out hypocrisy in provocative, conceptual pieces that begin with the beautiful female form, but reveal something askew: an expression of women’s rights being stripped away, or the constitution being trampled. His work is anything but exploitative or even decorative, but rather meditations on social, racial, and gender justice. Because, in the end, isn’t it the obligation of those seers and feelers known as artists to reflect back to us the world in ways that penetrate our consciousness and challenge our notions of reality?  

You’ve seen Dubin’s versatile work in public art installations around town – a boat sculpted of metal, the transit bus stop canopy, the swirly metal entry gate at Pyne Castle, the entry planter at The Ranch, and his seminal piece, the 9/11 memorial “Semper Memento” (“Never forget”) in Heisler Park. This emotionally charged, yet somber installation composed of girders from the World Trade Center reminds us that we are all part of the building collapse and share in its impact. He’s as patriotic as they come and uses his talent to illuminate the state of our democracy, our freedom, and yes, his pain in seeing it threatened. 

You feel it the moment you enter the main room. Here hang some of Jorg’s most provocative works: a forlorn portrait of Abraham Lincoln with his MAGA pin upside down. A woman holding a clothes hanger after the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. And perhaps Jorg’s most compelling political piece, a six by eight foot canvas called “The Orange Stand,” depicting a menacing white police officer with a billy club towering over a cowering Black girl amid the Black Lives Matter protests. She looks utterly defenseless as she is surrounded by armored tanks, tear gas and troops. It is truly a war zone, our contemporary Guernica. And if it doesn’t make you feel your extreme white privilege amidst the toil of being born Black in this country, nothing will.  

I hope Jorg one day gets the international recognition he so richly deserves. Until then, he’s all ours, and our community is better for it. So perhaps you should consider commissioning a Jorg Dubin portrait while you can still afford it. 

I also hope the Honarkar Foundation will continue to mount challenging shows that are beyond the grasp of our staid Laguna Museum of Art (where Jorg was twice rejected for consideration of this show because it was too risqué). Things look promising with the experienced Williams aboard, who just announced the next show will be a survey of Tony DeLap’s extensive abstract sculptures (and other works) from the 1960s – 2000. And if the city is willing to grant Mo a conditional use permit to use the space for events (even though, like most buildings downtown, there’s no parking), it will be a huge plus for our community. Just as Rick Conkey’s wonderful Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center has become a cultural touchstone and we have the promise of the Rivian showroom, too. Then we will have a triumvirate of creative spaces to uplevel our cultural life in Laguna. And for all your Mo haters out there who will cynically believe this is a PR stunt aimed at rehabilitating his image, I challenge you to do something as philanthropic and valuable for our community. He certainly did not have to do this and open himself up for more scrutiny. But this time, he really has given us a gift.

Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an outdoor adventure company, and the host of “Laguna Talks” on KXFM radio – Thursdays at 8 p.m. Email: [email protected] 

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  1. Billy, well written and great for art and architecture, but the city government welcomed back Honarkar, who with city knowledge on May 2, 2023 attempted to take possession of property owned by someone else by force putting our lives at risk.

    And you and others appear to be painting a picture elevating Peter Blake. The very same Blake that bullied, publicly shamed and abused so many Laguna residents for four years while totally turning his back on his voters from North Laguna to 3Arch, he finished 2nd to last in our council election in 22. Sadly these regressive proof points and their vibe were and are now back again in this city.

    One must ask, whats in it for Bob Whalen and Sue Kempf whom enabled both Honarkar and Blake for 4 years?

    Great for art and architecture. Toxic, dangerous and negative for Laguna Beach and every resident. One step forward, 2 steps back. How concerning.

  2. Anthony, please explain how the city could have stopped Mo from acquiring the building and re-opening it within its permitted use? And did I mention anything about Peter’s past, or did I instead focus on his talent as a longtime gallery owner, returning to doing what he does best? How is it useful to re-litigate the past?

    I agree, it’s great for art and architecture fans. And for those who are triggered by the efforts of Mo and Peter to do something really good for the community, the solution is simple: vote with your feet and don’t go. At the opening there were 2,000 people who said yes, and they were enriched by the experience.

  3. Anthony, thanks for putting the obvious reputation cleansing/rebranding efforts underway into perspective.

    Re: Former City Council Member Peter Blake. When ones past includes a highly-publicized political legacy of abusing city residents, civic discourse, division of city leaders/staff/ constituents and a pro-developer/anti-resident agenda requiring the majority of LB voters to literally join forces to get rid you; the informed and aware locals won’t buy the “caring so much about the community” messaging no matter who they find to pitch it.

    Good question you ask about CC Members Whalen and Kempf’s supportive involvement. I personally believe it’s a dark stain on their city governing legacies too. Vote for a leadership change in 2024 and 2026.

  4. Billy, Kempf’s new mayor term may assure that the worst of the past 5 years will re enter politics, The collusive development relationships with the city government and senior staff getting support on cancerous projects like Sweetwater will be the standard. Is this the set up for Blake to run for council again? His PR re spin by you?

    You question how it is useful to re-litigate the past? Frankly you are apologizing for it and corrupt city behavior. Next year we can all vote and let our voices be heard. Residents need to look at what has occurred here since 2018 and decide If ethical behavior and performance is critical to them and the legacy of Laguna Beach. If not expect beautiful art galleries will be surrounded by ADU’s and coyotes in your neighborhood from over development and destruction of our preserved greenbelt. Meantime Whalen will look to refer bond deals and seek possible paydays. The baton pass back to Kempf is pure monopolistic manipulation. Alex is run by Sue, perfect choice.

  5. Billy, agreed “Vote With Your Feet and Don’t Go,” (to an Art Exhibit) What the citizens of Laguna Beach need to remember is this… When the time comes to elect our new City Council Representatives in “2024.” “Vote with Your Principles, and save Laguna.”

    Reflect and remember, LBCC with Blake, not a pleasant image for, well, a lot of voters! No amount of ART-WASHING can clean up the blemish(es) that Blake and Honaker have inflicted on our community.

    Mo Hanaker, as it has already been established was permitted (no pun intended) by our Council to violate multiple City Building Codes, catered to by our Council, and received preferential treatment from our “former Council Majority” of Whalen, Kempf, and Blake, all with the full support and approval of the “Paid Off” former City Manager.

    With the insertion of Mayor Pro-Tem Rounaghi (Political Wunderkind * Pun intended) we can be assured of an agenda of Pro-Development * Pro-Tourist (at residents expense) Pro-Parking Structure * Pro-Retail in Laguna Beaches future. (As Kempf goes so goes Alex)

    So Billy, an art exhibit of works by “Planning Commission Member/Chair Jorg Dubin. Sponsored by Developer Mo Hanaker, Developer, with the assistance of “former” Pro-Development “one” term CC member Peter Blake? Really? No matter how You “spin it” these bedfellows seem highly suspect in this citizens view.


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