OC Collects: Healthy Tensions and Aesthetic Face Offs at the Orange County Museum of Art

OC Collects -- the first exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art since 1971 to be drawn from local collections -- is vibrant, cosmopolitan, and full of surprises. It is also an international show which includes works from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Co-curated by OCMA's Director Dennis Szakacs and its new Chief Curator, Dan Cameron, the exhibition showcases works by LA area artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s in concert with selections of contemporary photography, sculpture and installation art.

Along with revealing the breadth and adventurous nature of Orange County's growing collections of modern and contemporary art, the exhibition displays a healthy tension between objects and approaches. This spirit of counterpoise is symbolized by one of the show's delights: Richard Jackson's "Complementary Colors Face-to-Face." Jackson's orange and blue alpha dogs, who raise their hind legs to challenge each other in a spray paint pissing match, suggest aesthetic challenge tempered by humor.

Richard Jackson, Complementary Colors Face-to-Face (Blue/Orange), 2011
Steel, wood, aluminum, paint, 86 x 56 x 56 inches
Edition 3/3, 2 AP ©Richard Jackson
Collection of Moira and Fred Kamgar
Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery
Another aesthetic "face off" I noted is the aesthetic dialogue between an abstractly pornographic 1962 John Altoon canvas that seems to simultaneously nod to and sneer at a serene 1952 Diebenkorn New Mexico landscape hung nearby. Yet another conversation seems to occur between a portentious photographic group portrait by Iranian American Shirin Neshat -- "The Last Word" -- that radiates a very different masculine gravity than that of its neighbor -- "Elvis My Love" -- a glossy color print by Pierre et Gilles.

On opening night I spoke with a longtime museum supporter who told me that OCMA seemed to be regaining the energy and momentum that he recalled OCMA having had when Paul Schimmel was the institution's Chief Curator. Schimmel, as those who care about curatorial excellence know, has been in the news after recently losing a face off with an art world alpha dog: MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch.

That said, the Orange County Museum is brimming with fresh curatorial talent. If OC Collects is any indication, Dan Cameron has brought a decisive sensibility -- and a willingness to collaborate with his director -- that bodes well for OCMA's future exhibition schedule. OC Collects is a terrific potpourri, and an auspicious curatorial debut for Dan Cameron.

 Q and A with Dan Cameron

JS: Richard Jackson's "Complementary Colors" is very striking and funny. Can you tell me a bit about Jackson, and what you think this work might have to say?  

DC: Jackson's work is about a carer-long effort to reconcile the heroic struggles of artists like Pollock and de Kooning with the more spectacle-driven culture of our time. By building and activating large machine-like contraptions to 'perform' the act of painting for him, Jackson leaves an important part of the outcome to chance, while simultaneously underscoring a meditation about nature's role in providing the model for art-making.

Dan Cameron speaking with artist Chaz Bojorquez and his wife Christina
JS: Although Orange County has a reputation as being politically conservative, the works on view in "OC Collects" hint at a wide variety of tastes and an enthusiasm for new work. Were you surprised at what you found as you assembled the show?  

DC: If the question is whether more conservative vs. progressive communities produce better or more risk-taking art collections, it seems to me that it makes no difference whatsoever. In fact, I believe that an inclination toward art connoisseurship is something that transcends most other social boundaries, such as class, ethnicity or religious/political persuasion. When people of dynamic intelligence and appropriate resources turn their efforts to seriously collecting modern or contemporary art, of course the possibility exists that the end result could be too predictable, or too esoteric, or just not very developed. But there's an equally good possibility that the lure of the more scholarly world of art history and critical theory will propel collectors into championing new tendencies because they've become emboldened by backing up their passions with ideas. That can't be a bad thing.  

JS: OC Collects is strong on photography: would you care to comment?  

DC: I think we've arrived at the point as a visual culture in which photography is recognized as being of equivalent value with painting and sculpture, despite the fact that it is not produced or priced the same way as the more traditional media. Because there can also be a lag time between when the field accepts something as given and when the market responds, it's been possible during the last ten years for individual collectors to acquire important photography-based works for a fraction of what works by a painter or sculptor of the same caliber would cost. Naturally, this possibility appeals to, say, the kind of couple who like to start all over every decade or so.  

JS: You mentioned at the opening that you were clear with collectors that you and Dennis had to make the choices, and that you weren't going to do any favors. Did I get that right? Tell me more if you like...

 DC: I'm glad you're clarifying this point. What I meant to say is that we tacitly agreed with collectors that we didn't want to feel beholden by their preferences about what we ended up selecting and what we didn't. Sometimes there's a work the collector thinks is incredible but you don't, or sometimes you spot a hidden jewel amidst less successful pieces. These are moments when, if you can't be candid in your assessment, you're not doing anybody -- not the collector, nor the museum -- any favors.

OC Collects
Oct 7, 2012 - Dec 30, 2012
The Orange County Museum of Art
850 San Clemente Drive
Newport Beach, California 92660