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Subversive Energies in Orange County
Deutsche Bank presents the 2006 California Biennial

"New American Art" is the name of a trend that’s been making itself felt on the art market for some time now. Once again, art from the United States is creating an international uproar. This already became apparent at the last Art Basel; now, the British mega-collector Charles Saatchi is laying his bet on the young American scene: starting on October 6, over 80 new acquisitions by 30 American artists from the collection will be on show at London’s Royal Academy in USA TODAY. The fact that the exhibition is nearly concurrent with the London Frieze Art Fair is something that enhances the media effect, of course, making it a magnet for international collectors.

Brian Fahlstrom, A Blossoming / Distant Impassionedness, 2005;
Collection of the Saatchi Gallery, London;
courtesy Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Foto: Robert Wedemeyer

Particularly the American West Coast is considered to be a creative laboratory for fresh talent. And a good opportunity for discovering new artists and positions can be found right here – at the California Biennial, sponsored once again by Deutsche Bank. The show was established in 1984; since that time, it has developed into one of the most renowned art exhibitions internationally. It takes place at two locations: the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach and the Orange Lounge in Costa Mesa, which has been presenting artists working in the new media of computer, video, and internet since 2004. From October 1 to December 31, the comprehensive show will be presenting California’s most interesting young artists.

Shannon Ebner, USA, 2003,
from the series "Dead Democracy Letters", 2002-06;
courtesy of the artist and Wallspace Gallery, New York

For the past two years, the three curators Elizabeth Armstrong, Karen Moss, and Rita Gonzalez have been visiting the studios of promising artists. Their selection – more than 150 works by 31 artists and artists’ groups – concentrates on works reflecting current trends on the West Coast scene. The spectrum of the 2006 California Biennial ranges from installation, wall drawing, and paper works to performance and film. Some of the main themes are an investigation into the current political and social situation, pop culture, urban topography, and questions of cultural and personal identity.

The photographer Hank Willis Thomas, for instance, investigates the connections between slavery, the identity of African American men, and the corporate branding of global firms. His series Branded features logos that are not worn on T-shirts or baseball caps, but are burned into the skin.

Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Head, 2003;
David Alan Grier Collection, Los Angeles

In Branded Head, the Nike logo appears like a self-chosen stigma on the shaven head of an African American man. The brandings evoke a return of the symbols burned into the skin of slaves to identify them as the property of their owners.

Pearl C. Hsiung, Tidal Wretch,
courtesy the artist und Max Wigram Gallery, London

Some of the works at the Biennial testify to a rekindled interest in absurd humor or surreal stagings, such as the metallic paintings of the Taiwanese-American artist Pearl C. Hsiung, which arrange together body parts, fire-spewing volcanoes, cacti, and huge crystals to form psychedelic tableaus. Brian Fahlstrom, whose work can also be seen at USA TODAY, lures the visitor into dark, almost abstract landscapes that seem like a cross between fairy-tale land and nightmare. But performance groups such as My Barbarian, whose campy mix of rock, cabaret, absurd costumes, and trashy choreographies in galleries like Peres Projects have delighted visitors, can also be seen at the 2006 California Biennial.

My Barbarian, The Hiker, the Watery Princess and
the Demon in Dragon Canyon, Utah (2006),
from Silver Minds, Photo by My Barbarian

Like the other artists in the show, she belongs to a generation that has been just as influenced by the debates over gender roles and new technology as it has by the mass-media imagery of films, TV, computer games, and advertising. And this is more than welcome to the makers of the Biennial, because it is precisely the subversive energy of the young scene in the multicultural melting pot of California – together with the impulses it lends to international artmaking activity – that is supposed to be the show’s focus. And for Charles Saatchi, there will certainly be a number of interesting things to discover at the 2006 California Biennial.

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