The California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art is a tradition dating back to 1984, when the venue was known as the Newport Harbor Art Museum and its chief curator was Paul Schimmel, now at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. The Orange County museum was renamed OCMA in the mid-'90s, and the venue's importance to the L.A. art scene has waxed and waned over the intervening decades, but the series of biennials in the new millennium — unrivaled except for L.A. Weekly's Annual Biennial — have afforded it a new centrality, at least for a few months every couple of years.

The art boom of the last decade was reflected in the increasing ambitions of the Cali Bi, culminating in 2008's extravaganza, which featured more than 50 artists and multiple venues including outposts in Tijuana and Northern California, guest-curated by LAXART founder and director Lauri Firstenberg. Well, the boom's gone bust and Firstenberg is scheming with Annie Philbin at the Hammer Museum to steal OCMA's thunder with the Hammer's recently announced 2012 Los Angeles Biennial.

In the meantime, OCMA has scaled back its Biennial (I'm really starting to hate that word) to a more manageable 45 artists selected by in-house curator Sarah Bancroft. The show returns the focus to lesser-known up-and-comers, while retaining the expansive regionalism that allows for substantial contributions from Bay Area and San Diego art communities. As with any of these omnibus extravaganzas, the work on view is a hit-and-miss grab-bag, and the surprise quotient is crucial.

Thus the most impressive paintings in the show — one-half of Alexandra Grant's expansive, seething six-part “Portal” series of her trademark backward word clusters on enormous sheets of paper — lose considerable punch for having been exhibited at her L.A. gallery two years ago. In contrast, John Zurier — a Berkeley-based midcareer monochromatic abstract painter — materializes out of left field with a series of luminous pale-blue oils on linen that quietly steal the show. Violet Hopkins' sumptuous new Rorschach inkblots on black paper are just enough removed from both Bruce Conner's inkblot works and her own meticulously controlled illusionism to claim originality.

Some of the better-known locals surprise with uncharacteristic new work. Mari Eastman's Moonscape With Fo-Dog (2010) is the first painting I've seen of hers that seems to emphasize her strengths as a painter, which curiously enough results in a near-monochromatic near-abstraction. Carlee Fernandez, whose modified taxidermy sculptures never seemed to own up to their Ilsa Koch connotations, has produced a substantial new performance/installation work that finally and literally addresses the biological equivalency of the artist and her subjects/materials.

Other standouts include Andy Ralph's mutant lawn chair and kinetic trash-can sculptures and David Adey's poignantly hilarious Pump (2007-2010, a sort-of St. Sebastian football on life support); both artists emerged from San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University, whatever that signifies.

The central conceit of recent USC grad Alex Israel's installation is that it's assembled entirely from rented movie props, giving it an off-the-shelf regional specificity and clever appropriationist hook that — in tandem with Israel's attempt to pass off his line of designer sunglasses as an art project — would normally leave me cold. Instead, I found Property (2010) surprisingly engaging both on a formal visual level (particularly the central tableau of Osiris seated between two facing mirrors above a pedestal-mounted oceanscape quilt) and for the loose, collagey narrative that emerges from the not-quite-deliberate arrangement of not-quite-random artifacts.

The recent institutional enthusiasm for relational aesthetics, collectivism, political engagement, etc., is given the nod with the inclusion of L.A. Urban Rangers' democratizing Malibu Public Beaches (2007-2010) information kiosk, Brian Dick & Christen Sperry-Garcia's ravey DayGlo custom mascots (fabricated by the artisans at Piñata World in El Monte) and Glowfitti Room, and a cluster of works collected into a coherent curatorial aside in a small supplemental gallery: David (not of the Museum of Jurassic Technology) Wilson's walking and drawing guided tourism, Electronic Disturbance Theater/b.a.n.g. lab's mobile GPS phones hacked to locate water resources for thirsty border-crossers, Finishing School's inexplicably funny interactive-cinema exploration of Biennialism titled 54 (2010-2011), and Juan Capistrano's autobiography-laced DIY house-party kit.

Overall, though, the 2010 California Biennial has a something-for-everybody feel that kind of pisses me off. And diminishes its sense of currency — a problem compounded by work that is overly familiar if not patently derivative: Andy Kolar's pointlessly handsome homages to Monique Prieto's mid-'90s revival of '60s color-field painting tropes; Lisa Williamson's (USC MFA '08) suspiciously Amanda Ross-Ho–esque (USC MFA '06) array of black-and-white diagrammatic reductivisms; Luke Butler's fetishized, isolated scenes of Captain Kirk in emotionally charged scenes from the original Star Trek.

If OCMA wants to maintain its lead in the coming biennial wars, it needs to get more cranky, opinionated and idiosyncratic before it mounts its next, delayed iteration in 2013.

The redundancy of Butler's Captain Kirk paintings probably isn't an obvious thing to most. In fact, it's a freakish enough coincidence that the artist himself probably isn't aware of it, but L.A. artist Sean Duffy — whose ambitious solo project Searcher is currently on view just down the Pacific Coast Highway from OCMA at the Laguna Art Museum — began his career in the mid-'90s with re-creations of scenes from the original Star Trek, utilizing materials such as collaged fun-fur under clear upholstery vinyl, with Captain Kirk as the central, iconic figure.

Although retaining a foot at all times in the pop-cultural swamp, Duffy's work has steadily grown more formally and conceptually challenging since then, while simultaneously becoming more autobiographical and tinged with social commentary. Searcher extends and amplifies the artist's recent multivalent explorations of automotive culture, pop ephemera and domestic furnishing design while collecting several important earlier pieces that haven't been seen locally before.

Most prominent among these prodigal artifacts is Car 23 (2008-2010), Duffy's re-creation of his father's customized, zebra-striped 1964 Toyota Land Cruiser, which sits incongruously abandoned in the LAM lobby. Two of a 2008 series of silk-screened “paintings” on stained drop cloths — their lower thirds cluttered with a landscape of superimposed automotive logos — team with a new pair of his better-known modular grids of silk-screened plywood units (these ones depicting variations of contemporary outdoor sport magazines instead of vintage LP covers) that reiterate Duffy's almost incidental position as one of the most interesting and challenging painters currently working in L.A.

Two of the gargantuan chop-shop surrealist music boxes from Duffy's COLA installation at Barnsdall Park are included, as well as examples from an even stranger series in which he de-collages bits from multiple copies of Artforum and other art mags until the remaining image elements constitute enlarged text fragments — in this case the word “Sun” from the masthead of archetypal California lifestyle magazine Sunset and the word “Hot” from the masthead of archetypal California lifestyle magazine Hot Rod.

There are several other equally intriguing works, including some gorgeous gas-can and zip-tie coral-reef light fixtures, but my personal favorite is probably the simplest piece in the show. The latest in Duffy's ongoing series of altered turntable sound sculptures, Almost in Love (2010) consists of two decks conjoined in such a way that the spindle of one drives the outside edge of the other, reducing its RPM to just about 1. Which results in the titular LP — a 1970 of contemporaneous Elvis singles (including, pointedly, A Little Less Conversation) — being transformed from a toe-tapping 20 minutes to a rumbling, explosive eight-hour drone-fest. It isn't always clear what Duffy's searching for with his Frankenstein mash-ups, but let's hope, for the sake of the L.A. art scene, that he doesn't find it for a while.

Speaking of the surprise quotient, another show currently up at LAM completely slipped under my radar, and took me by delighted surprise. John Paul Jones was one of the leading figures in the American printmaking revival of the 1950s and '60s, and an important teacher at UCLA and UC Irvine. “John Paul Jones,” curated by Mike McGee, includes several stunning examples of his printmaking, but spends at least as much attention on his exquisitely subtle figurative paintings and his spare, droll and ultimately spiritual geometric sculptures.

I'd go on, but since you'll be making the drive for the Cali Bi and Duffy anyway, kindly check it out for yourself. Kirk out.

THE 2010 CALIFORNIA BIENNIAL | Orange County Museum of Art | 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach | Through March 13

SEAN DUFFY: SEARCHER & JOHN PAUL JONES | Laguna Art Museum | 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach | Both through Jan. 23


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