There's no one work that can stand as a metaphor for the art of the California Biennial, up now at the Orange County Museum of Art. At first I thought that Nina Waisman's Between Bodies/Tijuana (2008 - 2010) -- an entire room full of dangling electric cords equipped with movement sensors -- would suffice, but when I tried to apply it, the metaphor didn't fit. Waisman's work is just interesting enough visually to draw the viewer into the room, but the piece transcends visuality. Any engagement and enjoyment comes from the body's interaction with the cords. Each one produces a different street sound recorded in Tijuana. Walking through the piece can create chaos, or, if you're a different type of viewer and take a moment to stop and play, music.
Unfortunately, my experience with the Biennial was the opposite of my experience with Waisman's piece -- there is a lot of work that draws the eye, but I was never able to make music out of all the different components. This despite the fact that there are quite a few artists included whose work I respect and enjoy, as well as others whom I would like to see more of, like Alex Israel. Israel's Property (2010) consists of a room of individually-titled, rented cinema props placed on pedestals, including a bookend at entrance and exit. Another artist might rely on verbal cues to make the piece interesting, forcing on us the rental history of each piece, but Israel's work is simpler: he uses the pedestals as framing devices, relying on our tendency to assign cultural and financial value to whatever a pedestal supports. It's a Duchampian move, and because of it Property is not just a comment on Hollywood, but also a tongue-in-cheek exploration of "the thingness of things."
"Lady Cab Driver," 2005, Violet Hopkins
"Insomniac," 2010, Patrick Wilson
Untitled, Video Still, Nate Boyce
More favorites include Violet Hopkins's Sing Swan Song (2010) and Crown Gold (2008), vivid drawings of cloud plumes that are unsettling to an extreme, especially taking into account their 4" x 4" size. Patrick Wilson's and Nate Boyce's works provide fun examples of contemporary abstraction, highly influenced by collage and Photoshop. Boyce's pieces have an extra layer of movement, as he works specifically with video, creating geometric animations that unintentionally complement Wilson's large series of nested squares. Bay Area artists also come across well: I returned several times to John Zurier's subtle and emotive paintings exploring color and texture on linen, as well as to Luke Butler's painted studies of the agony of masculinity and homoerotic implications of Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek. Who would have imagined seeing Spock frozen in mid-beam could evoke such strong feelings?
"Landing Party II," 2009, Luke Butler
Overall, however, the power and intensity of focus is lacking. The California Biennial includes 45 artists, only 10 or so less than the Whitney Biennial, but whereas the Whitney coalesced disparate practices by foregrounding "the art of the tweak," OCMA's California Biennial feels like a checklist. Conceptually-based participatory art, check. Nouveau abstractionism, check. Identity politics, check. Re-appropriated primitivism, check. With a majority of artists represented being recent-MFA earners born in 1970 or sooner, perhaps what is missing is context -- where are representatives of generations past? Last time I looked, Alan Ruppersberg still makes great work.
The California Biennial is on view through March 13, 2011 at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, CA. For more information visit ocma.net.