Putting it up (and tear­ing it down)

OCMA’s pos­si­ble move to new digs is the fo­cus of its rather bland Tri­en­nial.


The Or­ange County Mu­seum of Art has used its 2017 Cal­i­for­nia-Pa­cific Tri­en­nial ex­hi­bi­tion as an op­por­tu­nity to med­i­tate on the mu­seum’s po­ten­tial move to a new fa­cil­ity at the Segerstrom Cen­ter for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The planned re­lo­ca­tion from Fash­ion Is­land in New­port Beach was first an­nounced nearly nine years ago.

That’s a rather long time. If the project does fi­nally come to fruition, let’s hope the re­sult is bet­ter than this mostly bland Tri­en­nial.

Twenty-five artists and artists’ col­lec­tives from 11 coun­tries around the Pa­cific Rim have been as­sem­bled for a the­matic pre­sen­ta­tion re­lated to the long-aborn­ing move. Cu­ra­tor Cas­san­dra Coblentz set out to con­sider “what it means to si­mul­ta­ne­ously build up and tear down ar­chi­tec­tural struc­tures.”

The most sar­donic sug­ges­tion comes from South Korean artist Haegue Yang. Out on the mu­seum’s breezy back pa­tio, she’s mounted an air con­di­tion­ing unit and a cou­ple of tur­bine vents as nom­i­nal sculp­tures placed atop a makeshift pedestal of con­crete build­ing blocks.

As the Earth’s cli­mate con­tin­ues to heat up — a rise that is poised to make any, and all, of OCMA’s plans ul­ti­mately ir­rel­e­vant — the out­door air-cooling as­sem­blage gives grim po­etic heft to the sheer ab­sur­dity of our as-yet stum­bling ef­forts to reg­u­late global tem­per­a­ture. As her

wry sculp­ture pro­claims, we are poised to be over­whelmed.

Only four or five other works in the show, which con­tin­ues through Sept. 3, ap­proach a sim­i­lar level of en­gage­ment. One is a fullscale replica of a Crafts­manstyle front porch and fa­cade of a house in the north­east­ern San Fer­nando Val­ley.

The house was built around 1923 by Dan Mon­tene­gro, an Apache stone­ma­son. Its river rock pil­lars, tiled floor­ing and wooden shin­gles and front door are here ren­dered by L.A.-based Beatriz Cortez in welded steel and sheet metal. In­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als cre­ate con­cep­tual fric­tion with the orig­i­nal Crafts­man im­pulse, gen­er­ated in re­ac­tion to the Ma­chine Age as­sault on skilled crafts­man­ship.

Given the me­te­oric rise of the Dig­i­tal Age, the welded steel façade rep­re­sents a newly en­dan­gered form of skilled crafts­man­ship. Cortez’s “The Lakota Porch: A Time Trav­eler” is a blunt sculp­tural es­say in de­ter­mi­na­tion not to dis­ap­pear from mem­ory.

An­other dis­arm­ing work is Oak­land-based Cy­bele Lyle’s room-size in­stal­la­tion merg­ing col­or­ful, brightly painted wood strips and video pro­jec­tions. Skinny, ver­ti­cal wood planks, stacked end on end, rise from the floor and lean against the wall like over­size pickup sticks.

In this vi­brant if pre­car­i­ous space, rudi­men­tary sculp­tures at­tempt to stand up and el­e­men­tary paint­ings try not to fall. A sound­track of in­ter­mit­tent crash­ing noises echoes through the room. The din re­ver­ber­ates like a cau­tion­ary mem­ory of ear­lier failed at­tempts at con­struct­ing the un­sta­ble en­sem­ble.

Nearby, a frame-like rec­tan­gle of wood strips seems to have par­tially slid off the wall and onto the floor. Pro­jected through this col­laps­ing pic­ture frame is a big, off-kilter, flick­er­ing im­age of the moon. Lyle’s wob­bly ro­man­tic space houses the fragility of the heart, as well as the mind.

Speak­ing of the heart, L.A. artist Olga Koumoundouros presents glass ves­sels whose bul­bous shapes re­call in­ter­nal or­gans; they are held aloft on wrought­iron stands like vo­tive lights.

Framed let­ters hang on an ad­ja­cent wall. Koumoundouros, touched by the re­cent death of a much-ad­mired, long­time main­te­nance em­ployee on the mu­seum’s staff, reached out to his widow to ask per­mis­sion to make this vale­dic­tory piece.

Per­mis­sion granted, she then got down to brass tacks, pen­ning an­other let­ter to OCMA Direc­tor Todd D. Smith urg­ing fair and eq­ui­table la­bor prac­tices for em­ploy­ees through­out the mu­seum. (Two years ago, in con­tro­ver­sial preparation for its planned move, OCMA sliced five po­si­tions from its al­ready small staff.) Ac­knowl­edg­ing the es­sen­tial if un­sung work of be­hind-thescenes in­sti­tu­tional wageearn­ers, her let­ter fur­ther in­structs the mu­seum to per­ma­nently in­stall one glass ves­sel out­side the direc­tor’s of­fice, wher­ever the build­ing might be, as a per­pet­ual re­minder.

When a mu­seum comes knock­ing, it’s es­pe­cially note­wor­thy if an artist does more than merely go along for the ride — and Koumoundouros neatly un­der­cuts the Tri­en­nial’s ar­chi­tec­turally fo­cused premise. For­get bricks and mor­tar; the clear im­pli­ca­tion of her mea­sured in­stal­la­tion is that peo­ple are the institution.

Chilean artist Pilar Quin­teros is on a re­lated path in her idio­syn­cratic per­for­mance video, “China House Great Jour­ney.” The racial pol­i­tics of im­mi­gra­tion is its top­i­cal en­gine.

Quin­teros built a model of a Chi­nese-style house that once stood by the beach in Corona del Mar, just a mile or so from the mu­seum. Start­ing at the old Santa Ana City Hall, built in an elab­o­rate Art Deco style as a civic em­ploy­ment project dur­ing the De­pres­sion, she dragged the model on the ground all the way to the ocean like some leatherback sea tur­tle for­ag­ing for sur­vival along the West Coast.

Santa Ana was the site of a no­to­ri­ous episode — the 1906 burn­ing of its small Chi­na­town, mo­ti­vated by racial an­i­mus. (“It was like a big pic­nic, or a Fourth of July,” an eye­wit­ness later re­called of the heinous act, or­ches­trated by city of­fi­cials.) Bit by bit, Quin­teros’ model busts apart on her jour­ney; she keeps stop­ping to tie the bro­ken frag­ments to­gether into a bun­dle.

Ar­riv­ing at the beach, near the site of the orig­i­nal Chi­nese-style house (ex­cept for a frag­ment, it was de­mol­ished in the 1980s), Quin­teros re­assem­bles its model as a ram­shackle pile of shards — a ruin brought about by time, cruel so­cial his­tory and the fraught pol­i­tics of im­mi­gra­tion. With a swift kick, she erases all that, much the way the nearby China House was it­self de­mol­ished. The model’s di­sheveled rem­nants are dis­played on a gallery pedestal.

The per­for­mance video is one of the show’s few works to specif­i­cally jog thoughts of OCMA’s end­less build­ing saga. The cur­rent fa­cil­ity, erected in 1977 for a mod­est sum (around $3 mil­lion in to­day’s cur­rency), smartly pri­or­i­tized art over a fancy build­ing for its dis­play. De­signed by Ernest Wil­son of Lang­don and Wil­son, ar­chi­tects of the orig­i­nal Getty Villa, it em­ployed tilt-up con­crete-wall con­struc­tion meth­ods more com­mon to erect­ing gro­cery stores than art mu­se­ums.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, de­sire for ex­pan­sion emerged among some am­bi­tious trustees.

They’ve per­sisted ever since, wax­ing and wan­ing with the econ­omy, the re­gion’s growth and in­sti­tu­tional staffing; along the way, a fat file of elab­o­rate plans and dashed hopes has grown. Forty years on, it’s doubt­ful that con­sid­er­ing “what it means to si­mul­ta­ne­ously build up and tear down ar­chi­tec­tural struc­tures” is a press­ing philo­soph­i­cal no­tion.

Many of the artists none­the­less charged with con­sid­er­ing it were com­mis­sioned to make new works. Few seemed to get far beyond the re­search stage. A lot of the art isn’t much more than lack­lus­ter show-and-tell re­portage of their sel­dom sur­pris­ing find­ings.

OCMA plans to sell its Fash­ion Is­land home to a de­vel­oper to fund the move. Lead Pen­cil Stu­dio — Seat­tle ar­chi­tects An­nie Han and Daniel Mi­ha­lyo — pro­duced crys­tal bricks photo-etched with im­ages of bar­ren park­ing lots. Shown in gleam­ing, up­lighted dis­play cases, they’re more like 1960s Ed Ruscha pho­to­graphs trans­formed into 2017 pa­per­weights for the lux­ury mar­ket than some sort of ex­posé of the re­tail value of empty land near the beach.

Does that re­ally need ex­plain­ing?

Far more com­pelling are Lead Pen­cil’s ear­lier mon­u­men­tal draw­ings of col­laps­ing night­time land­scapes il­lu­mi­nated by ar­ti­fi­cial light. Pop­u­lated by sig­nage — bill­boards, street signs — that is uni­formly blank, th­ese are places bereft of use­ful com­mu­nal guid­ance, whether pub­lic or com­mer­cial, and well on their way to ruin.

The draw­ings, beau­ti­ful and grim in equal mea­sure, open up an emo­tional chasm of im­mi­nent and ir­re­triev­able loss.

Pho­to­graphs by OCMA

BEATRIZ CORTEZ’S “Lakota Porch: A Time Trav­eler” rep­re­sents en­dan­gered form of crafts­man­ship.

HAEGUE YANG’S out­door in­stal­la­tion “An Opaque Wind — Hum­bled Gray No. 2” is part of Or­ange County Mu­seum of Art’s Cal­i­for­nia-Pa­cific Tri­en­nial ex­hibit.

CY­BELE LYLE’S “Pas­sage: I. A trou­bled mind, II. Things do fall, III. Lover’s Spell, IV. I’ll be look­ing at the moon, but I’ll be see­ing you,” is a mix of me­dia.

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