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The Disaffected 

"Baja to Vancouver"'s disillusionment feels familiar, if not inspiring

Wednesday, Nov 24 2004
For centuries, young dreamers have been lured westward, abandoning their cozy colonial homes to seek fortune and adventure on the shores of the Pacific. They imagine the west as a land of inexhaustible abundance and wide-open possibilities, a reservoir for the desires that elsewhere seem ridiculous. Despite indignant natives, arid soil, and high rents, these pioneers have held fast to their vision, eventually building the west into the economic and entertainment powerhouse it is today -- where dreams now come conveniently packaged and priced. If the roundup of work in "Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art" at CCA's Wattis Institute is any indication, though, today's youth aren't buying it.

"B2V," as the show is nicknamed, opens with a vacuous video titled Pastorale by Delia Brown, Los Angeles' chronicler of the fabulous. As a soul diva croons about getting closer to her dreams, the camera sweeps through a well-appointed Hollywood bungalow and encounters a series of moping men and women, restlessly bored with their beauty and success. Could it be there's more to life? Nearby, Evan Holloway has recast the Möbius strip -- that effortlessly elegant infinite loop -- in bulky plaster and put it to work as an incense burner. The sculpture is a neat conflation of modernist ideals and New Age spirituality, in which both come off looking foolish.

I visited the exhibition shortly after Election Day and saw my own numb disillusionment mirrored back at me from almost every wall. Which is gratifying, in its way, but not especially inspiring. Shannon Oksanen and Scott Livingstone's melancholy video Vanishing Point hit me hard: Its protagonist, a slick cherry-red surfboard that seems to promise sunshine and good times, is instead relentlessly and helplessly tossed by the steely gray surf of Vancouver's shore. A flimsy premise, perhaps -- but when you're down, the darndest things can seem deeply symbolic.

Though Kota Ezawa's animated version of the O.J. Simpson verdict now feels dated, his more sophisticated Who's Afraid of Black, White and Gray? is a piercing study of suburban discontent, a chilling re-creation of scenes from Mike Nichols' 1966 adaptation of the Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The story is told in gray-scale animation on adjacent screens, in the artist's adroitly distilled style. Both monitors present glimpses of a family on the edge, dominated by a shrieking harridan who ridicules her sad-sack husband until he finally and dramatically snaps.

Brian Calvin's flattened, deliberately awkward portraits borrow from Alex Katz's vocabulary of urban ennui. In California Freeform, a monumental painting set on a sylvan lake, a young man searches the middle distance with furrowed brow. He clutches a book titled Telepathy, as though desperate for communication or connection -- completely ignoring the lovely girl submerged to her knees nearby, gazing intently at him over her can of Modelo.

"Baja to Vancouver" has a chill to it, a pervasive loneliness. Thomas Eggerer's canvases skillfully conjure the faceless masses that gather at baseball games or on ferryboats, while Stan Douglas delivers Every Building on 100 West Hastings, a cinematic color photograph whose neglected storefronts and boarded windows are eerily devoid of life. The most present figures in the show, in fact, are Larry Sultan's blithe porn stars, lounging about between takes in middlebrow suburban homes.

Of course, there's still room for dreamers. Russell Crotty finds solace in the stars, crafting delicate paper globes that conjure the night sky with a skein of ballpoint pen strokes. The stylish Tijuana-based collective Torolab shows off its prototype backpack for young revolutionaries, which includes a roll-up banner that can be attached like a parasite to conventional billboards. And a highly entertaining mockumentary by Matt McCormick reimagines draconian graffiti removal policies as a "layered and complex art form," an intricate collaboration between taggers and city employees that leaves surfaces covered in graceful rectangles of badly matched paint.

The blissfully irony-free Harrell Fletcher, meanwhile, envisions the artist as a creative facilitator. In partnership with Miranda July, he's fashioned an online project called Learning to Love You More, where the pair post assignments (for example, "#30: Take a picture of strangers holding hands") and encourage visitors to complete them and send in reports. The crop showcased here includes a series of photographs of the sun and a poignant broadsheet describing one woman's careening path from birth to salvation in six dense pages ("#14: Write your life story in less than a day"). To help house the fruit of this enterprise, Chris Johanson cobbled together a ramshackle grotto from discarded lumber -- an inviting yellow hideaway amid CCA's warren of art studios.

If the East Coast is an aging heiress, set in her ways but too tired to put up much of a fight, the West Coast has recently passed through its fitful adolescence -- marked by the dramatic social upheaval of the 1960s and '70s and the self-obsession of the '80s and '90s -- and into a troubled early adulthood. It is disaffected, disenchanted, sick of undelivered promises and patronizing leaders. The artists in this show represent a populace beginning to learn the painful lesson that even in the land of plenty, life often isn't fair. Luckily, some still dream of changing that.

About The Author

Adrienne Gagnon


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