Ultimately, In Smog and Thunderis a grand analysis of the symbologies (i.e., networks of pop culture) by which Californians define themselves. It examines who manufactures the symbols, how the symbols develop, how we read them, where we place them and why we need them. Every work in the show is strewn with emblems of present-day life: sports-team logos, laptop computers, the Thomas Guide, leaf blowers, skateboards, sport utility vehicles and, of course, plenty of corporate icons. The specificity of these emblems to particular ethnic, socioeconomic and geographical groups is clearly established, and the resulting cacophony is depicted as both the cause of California’s civil unrest and the key to its resolution. A propaganda poster on the San Francisco side, for example, personifies Los Angeles as a hulking monster with the head of Mickey Mouse, a cage labeled “La Migra” with a frightened Latino family inside for a torso, and limbs labeled “Hollywood,” “Major Labels,” “Adult Film Industry” and “Water Pipeline.” Los Angeles’ self-styled muse, on the other hand, is a pregnant Latina with an Oscar in one hand and a skateboard in the other, one white and one black cupid floating above her head, and a TV camera, a soccer ball and a can of spray paint at her feet.
In a recent interview, Birk described the exhibition as having originated from “the idea of San Francisco being invaded by Los Angeles, by everything they dread, like pornography, the water issue, the LAPD, the recording industry, Disneyland, cops and robbers, immigration.” This sort of high-minded dread is all too common among art institutions as well, particularly in regard to popular culture; the Laguna Art Museum should be commended for facing it so directly with these two lively exhibitions.
MARGARET KEANE AND KEANEABILIA; SANDOW BIRK’S IN SMOG AND THUNDER: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias | Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach | “Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia” through October 15, then November 5–December 31; “In Smog and Thunder” through October 15