Report: Orange County Museum of Art

“the story of my early life/4/the mills 6,” 2017, Anothermountainman, Digital photograph, dimensions variable
Photo: courtesy of the artist

“Building As Ever,” the 2017 edition of the Orange County Museum of Art’s California-Pacific Triennial, is aptly named. For many years now, the museum has been engaged in a Sisyphean attempt to leave its Newport Beach campus behind for more glamorous digs. A patch of land in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa was donated to the museum back in 2008, and recently, the sale of their current property at last seemed imminent.

A few months ago, the museum was even counting on the eventual demolition of their property by an interested developer, leading Triennial curator Cassandra Coblentz to tell her artists that the sky was the limit in terms of what they could envision for their projects. Sculptural installations and architectural interventions could be as extreme and invasive as they wanted to be, since they were to be exhibited in a building that would soon be destroyed. Alas, those plans hit a snag when the developer encountered trouble securing a necessary permit. Deciding to err on the side of caution, the museum withdrew its free-for-all approach, and some artists were forced to turn to plan B. Building as ever, indeed.

Luckily, the curatorial framework that Coblentz has laid out lends itself to endless reinvention and readjustment. The central theme of the show is the temporality of architecture and the built environment. Coblentz expands upon it as follows: “Moving away from the idea of traditionally constrained forms, flexible and permeable notions of structures are played out in the exhibition through the form and concept of the constituent works, along with the activities and roles of those who created them.”

Formerly known as the California Biennial, OCMA’s signature survey of contemporary art was retooled in 2013 by then-chief curator Dan Cameron, who turned it into a triennial and expanded its purview to include the countries and regions of the Pacific Rim—spanning from Asia to South America—in addition to the state of California. Coblentz’s iteration recognizes the “rapid growth and accelerated construction around the Pacific Rim,” which necessitates that we no longer think of architecture as permanent.

At a recent preview event of this year’s survey (on view May 6 – September 3, 2017) several of the exhibition’s LA–based artists were on hand to discuss their projects, and what they revealed was a provocative array of creative strategies for engaging with the exhibition’s theme. These strategies often intersected with hot-button socio-economic and political issues in unexpected ways. The projects also involved in-depth research into the histories of various sites around the world, not just within the Pacific Rim, and there were surprising thematic overlaps among them.

Artist and writer Ken Ehrlich has found a fascinating way to explore the history of relations between the United States and Iran: through the study of one Donald Wilber, an architectural historian and independent scholar who was also a covert operative for the CIA. Wilbur played a role in the 1953 coup that removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq from power. Ehrlich’s project will visually present some of the cultural works that Wilber was studying in a way that forces consideration of his concurrent political activities.

Nancy Popp is a performance artist whose recent works have confronted gentrification in Los Angeles and in other cities around the world. During a recent stay in Rio de Janeiro, she discovered a grassroots intervention called the Museum of the Removed, which was a permanent, sited archive of displaced communities and demolished buildings, recreated in facsimile. Popp found it a beautiful and effective strategy for resisting displacement and also noted the parallels between that project and the work she has been doing as a member of both the LA Tenants Union and BHAAAD (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement). Her contribution to the triennial will be to bring video and other documentation of the Museum of the Removed into OCMA, and to engage and support a variety of LA-based and Orange County community groups through public programming.

Patricia Fernández has spent a great deal of time in archives; her recent projects have been painterly meditations on her own family’s history as it manifests in the mysterious items she uncovers in family chests and attics. For the triennial, she is focusing her attention on the erstwhile site of Éditions Ruedo Ibérico, a vanished printing press in Paris that produced political texts for Spanish exiles living there in the 1960s and 70s. Fernandez, who is originally from Spain herself, discovered this site when she lived in it during a residency. She returned to Paris last year to conduct research, during a time of unprecedented political tension in that city. The history of Éditions Ruedo Ibérico, along with its many personal resonances for the artist and her family, is complex, and Fernandez will attempt to evoke some of it through a sculptural recreation of remembered elements from the site.

Carmen Argote and Olga Koumoundouros have both achieved renown in the last few years for gutsy material interventions into actual houses in Los Angeles. For the triennial, both of these artists are engaging directly with OCMA’s facilities. Koumoundouros, with the help of several other sculptors, will be creating a series of forms that consider the psychic reverberations of a story she heard about an OCMA employee who died of a heart attack in the museum’s parking lot back in the 1990s. Argote will be working with the pavilion space, an open-air patio at the museum that was once the site of a sculpture garden. In a work that will evolve throughout the course of the exhibition, a series of large hanging cloths that pay tribute to the absent sculptures will be transformed, with the help of the artist’s mother, into articles of clothing that will play with the retail element of the nearby OCMA store.

A total of 25 artists will be exhibiting work in “Building As Ever;” of those, 10 are based in Los Angeles, while the rest hail from such disparate locations as Hong Kong, China, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, Australia, South Korea, Oakland, and Seattle. How ideas and projects from all of these locations coalesce and diverge should be a fascinating thing to see.