The Laguna Art Museum’s two current exhibitions — Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia and Sandow Birk’s In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias — carve a memorable trail through that ambiguous terrain between high art and popular culture. Of course, it’s not a particularly sparse landscape these days; art-world professionals everywhere are scrambling to catch up both with their artists, who’ve been mining the pop-culture fields for decades, and with their higher-paid counterparts in the popular industries. While most seem to focus on making art cool and entertaining, however, Laguna Art Museum curator Tyler Stallings and director Bolton Colburn seem to understand what a museum is actually good for. Rather than simply imitating pop culture, they explore it. The results are two wonderfully thoughtful and complex exhibitions, one that examines the substance of pop culture directly and another that showcases a contemporary artist’s use of pop culture in a lavish work of satire.

The former focuses on the life work of Margaret Keane, whose portraits of wide-eyed women and children helped to define the pop-culture vernacular in the 1960s and ’70s. Aggressively marketed by her then-husband Walter, who claimed them as his own work, her early waif paintings met with enormous popular success. (Only after a 14-year legal battle was Margaret able to reclaim authorship from Walter.) A slew of Keane products and scores of imitators emerged, making the Keane “Big Eyes” a veritable staple of late-20th-century kitsch. The exhibition does not focus solely on the original work but covers the spectrum of the phenomenon, with roughly one-third devoted to Keane’s original paintings, another third to “Keaneabilia” (products and imitations derived from her work) and another third to contemporary artists influenced by Keane.

The extent to which Keane’s original work should be considered on its own merits is unclear. The essays in the catalog (which includes one by the Weekly’s Doug Harvey) vacillate rather uncomfortably between a celebration of the work as kitsch and a categorical approval of the work as art; both approaches are somewhat problematic. Certainly the work does not stand up — or even appeal — to a traditional museum standard: Its formal qualities are inconsistent, it is decidedly unintellectual, and it relies almost entirely on the sentimental nature of its subject matter (which can be, admittedly, quite convincing). That said, the work is far from dull. Although it does not adhere to any identifiable art movement, the most interesting of the paintings are those that lean toward American folk traditions, with their flat planes, bright colors and bold figures. Notable among these is Sympathy on San Antonio (1997), in which a young girl with eyes so big and skin so pale that she resembles an alien stands on the front lawn of a California-style house with cats scattered about her feet. Though most of Keane’s later paintings — those made after she became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1975 — are excessively sentimental, this one does embody the eerie intensity of gaze that distinguishes the best of her work.

The remaining two-thirds of the exhibition presents a rare view into the development of an artist’s work after it moves into the real world, outside the artist’s control. The results are fascinating: a collection of ceramic cats with grotesque, drooping plastic eyes; a rather frightening Hasbro doll called Little Miss No Name, who is dressed as a beggar with a plastic tear affixed to one of her saucer eyes; and a wide array of imitation waifs (shoeshine boys, young clowns, barefoot street children in the rain) by artists with hip single names like Igor, Gig and Eve. There are books devoted to Keane, clippings demonstrating Keane’s influence in advertising, and photographs of Keane’s work in the homes of various celebrities.

The aspects of the original work that dominate its pop-culture manifestations are invariably the darker ones — desolation, fragility, loneliness, poverty, helplessness — and the comparison of the two illuminates the mechanisms by which pop culture processes original sentiment into marketable pathos. Similarly, the inclusion of contemporary artwork alluding to Keane imagery illustrates the manner in which today’s artists process dated sentiment — now nostalgia, really — into topical expression. Among the better works, from artists such as Dave Burke, Megan Besmirched, Dani Tull and Lisa Petrucci, Mark Ryden’s Their Sympathetic Majesty’s Request (1997), which incorporates a wide enough spectrum of kitsch references (including a version of the young girl in Sympathy on San Antonio) to comprise its own exhibition, is itself well worth the price of admission.

Sandow Birk emerges from the same just-left-of-the-mainstream school that bred the latter-day Keane artists and he offers a further testament to the insight, intelligence and wit with which the post–baby boomer generation is utilizing its pop-culture saturation. In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias is a mock-historical multimedia installation depicting an imaginary war between northern and southern California. It is, like Ryden’s Keane piece, a delightful romp of appropriation fortified by a remarkable quantity of artistic skill. With battle scenes, military portraits, allegorical tableaux, naval dioramas and propaganda posters in the style of Delacroix, Goya, Jacques-Louis David and others, as well as extensive explanatory texts and an audio-guide CD (both conducted in a nearly flawless documentary voice), it is a massive, exhaustively intricate and thoroughly consistent construction. Like Stallings and Colburn, Birk clearly understands the limits and the possibilities of a museum setting and, indeed, of contemporary art in general. He plays up the authoritarian qualities of the museum environment rather than ignoring them; capitalizes on painting’s much-bemoaned historical trappings rather than trying to avoid them; and utilizes the typical viewer’s zombielike submission to the museum audio tour rather than decrying it.

Ultimately, In Smog and Thunder is 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

LA Weekly