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Wild Wild West: Young Art at the 2004 California Biennial

Young artists are undermining Hollywood's myths, the American middle class, and the commercialization of private life: the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach is currently presenting the "2004 California Biennial" with the support of Deutsche Bank - and shows how exciting and multi-faceted the American West Coast scene really is.

Mark Bradford: Untitled (Shoe), 2003
Courtesy Brent Sikkema, New York

With 28 artists and over 120 works, the newly renovated Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) in Newport Beach is showing a comprehensive view of current West Coast art, to this day unique in California: installations, sculptures, painting, works on paper, video, and photography. The museum has been putting on the biennial since 1984, which has gone on to become internationally renowned.

For two years, curators Elizabeth Armstrong and Irene Hofmann paid countless visits to studios, galleries, and institutions in order to give this year's exhibition its unmistakable profile. Each participant in the 2004 California Biennial was born between 1960 and 1970. All belong to a generation that was just as influenced by the debates over globalization, gender roles, and new technologies as it was by movies, music, computer games, TV, Grunge and skateboard culture. This fits in well with the curators' concept, which seeks to focus on the subversive energy the young Californian scene of the multi-cultural melting pot brings to bear in sending out its impulses to the international art world.

Brian Calvin: Noon, 2002
Ruth and Jacob Bloom Collection, Marina del Rey, California

"It smells like Teenage Spirit": the pale, androgynous figures on Brian Calvin's melancholic paintings could have been inspired by Nirvana's lead singer Kurt Cobain. Calvin not only portrays the existence of the "Twenty-somethings" as being pretty desolate, but also the act of painting itself.

With an attitude that is occasionally ironic and that never succumbs to pathos, the art of the California Biennial constitutes a thematic and conceptual contrast to the current painting boom in Europe. While the collector Charles Saatchi solemnly celebrates The Triumph of Painting in a large exhibition in London and the German newspapers have diagnosed a young painting generation's return to the beautiful, fantastic, and uncanny, the artists at OCMA are almost all oriented towards everyday reality, cool media images, and the commercialization of urban space. Thus, Mark Bradford appropriates the aesthetic of modernist abstraction and combines it in his assemblages with found objects from the area surrounding southern Los Angeles.

Mungo Thompson: The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), 2002
Video (installation view)
Collection of Orange County Museum of Art

At the OCMA, the trend clearly seems to be shifting from canvas to installation and video: Mungo Thomson's video work The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), made in 2002, is a homage to the legendary "Roadrunner" cartoons the animation artist Chuck Jones made for Warner Brother studios between 1949 and 1964. Yet Thomson removed all the comic figures from the film strips, leaving only the stylized view of a cultural historical legend: the vast empty landscapes of the American west. For the video loop Who's Afraid of Black, White and Grey (2003), the Japanese artist Kota Ezawa turned film excerpts from the marriage drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) into black and white cartoons. In their stark contrasts and clear contours, the digital images are reminiscent of Henri Matisse's cutouts or the paintings by the pop artist Alex Katz. Yet despite this, we're looking at thoroughly American tragedies here: divorce, alcoholism, all of life's self-deception. In using found material such as the TV images from the spectacular O.J. Simpson trial, Enzawa subverts the myth of the American family - a strategy that connects him to many other artists of the California Biennial.

The fact that a touch of utopia always enters the game despite the occasional dose of cynicism can be seen in the interdisciplinary concepts of groups such as VALDES (Los Angeles) that focus on aspects of urban growth in Orange County. When the artists' group implements a digitally reworked panorama of the San Fernando Valley showing streets extending endlessly through housing settlements lit up at night, a distorted pioneer spirit becomes palpable. The motif stems from Steven Spielberg's blockbuster film E.T. and the traveler viewing this unknown landscape for the first time is an alien.