It’s not surprising that an exhibition like “Whiteness, A Wayward Construction” — the first of its scale in the country to broach this still largely academic theme — should appear in California, a state where “whites not of Hispanic/Latino origin” are quickly on their way to becoming a minority. If it is the goal of such a project to dislodge white culture from presumptions of universality and re-situate it as one distinct category among many — “simply another Other,” in the words of critic Lucy Lippard — then California would certainly be a good place to start: We’re partway there already.

That said, there’s something perversely amusing about encountering the show in Laguna Beach, of all places. If whiteness has its privileges, here they are in all their splendor: wealth, leisure, safety, beachfront and sunshine, all tucked into a happily smog-free niche between a picturesque outcrop of mountains and the sea. As far as I can tell, this is just the sort of place where white Californians go to forget about the demands of diversity. But the Laguna Art Museum has proved itself willing to challenge its constituency in the past, and it does so again here in polite but notably direct terms. In the words of curator Tyler Stallings: “The privilege conferred by whiteness is to be considered human and normal, to be viewed as a multifaceted, complex and mutable individual, as opposed to being categorized, fixed and kept in place. If we want to live in a society where others enjoy the same privilege, it will be necessary for whites to acknowledge both their nature as racial beings (even if we accept that race is largely a social construct) and the way that whiteness has operated, often by stealth, to maintain social and economic hierarchies.”

As this articulate passage suggests, Whiteness is an unabashedly intelligent exhibition, of a caliber that frankly puts much of LACMA’s and MOCA’s safer, crowd-pleasing fare to shame. It tackles issues that many have seemed anxious to declare passé — identity, representation, politics — with a rigor that underscores their persisting significance. Its 28 mostly California-based, mostly midcareer artists are a mixed lot, racially and stylistically, and come to the topic at hand from a variety of different angles, some more direct than others. Surprisingly for a show of this size, however, the selection coheres and manages to avoid both redundancy and didacticism.

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first, “White Out,” explores issues underlying the cultural representation of whiteness: its vacillation between visibility and invisibility, its tendency to go unacknowledged as a mark of racial identity, and its relationship to power and dominant values. Several of the most evocative of the works in this section — Emilio Cueto’s haunting near-monochrome painting Gone (2002), for example; Clifford LeCuyer’s weirdly sensual fantasy landscapes; James Casebere’s austere but elegant photographs of architectural models — grapple with whiteness specifically as a color, analyzing its visual properties and obliging viewers to confront its connotations. Ernesto Pujol’s photographs of swastika-inscribed Nazi dinner plates — white objects (depicted here on a white shelf against a white wall) that signify one of the most horrific of chapters in white history — are especially chilling.

Other works are even more explicit in their critiques. Peter Edlund’s vibrantly colored landscape paintings, for example, appropriate the imagery of Ansel Adams and James Audubon to convey the invisible infiltration of whiteness into the topography of the West in the name of Manifest Destiny. Los Anthropolocos (Richard A. Lou and Robert J. Sanchez) playfully reverse this colonial configuration in A Sunday Afternoon Capturing “The Colorless Ones” on the Island of La Grande Jatte (2002), a wall-size banner depicting the invasion of Seurat’s famous scene by the artists and their ensnarement of two naked and miserable-looking white people. (“We need a bigger net!” the caption reads.) Mark Steven Greenfield also aims to recast the traditional terms of representation in his treatment of another white icon — the blackface performer — by overlaying images of these figures with idiosyncratic, eye chart–style captions like, across one Uncle Remus figure, “SOWHASSUPWITHTHISSHIT.”

The second section in the exhibition, “Mirror, Mirror . . .,” examines whiteness as it is outwardly perceived, in association with the entitlements it confers. A small selection here of portraits by Andres Serrano is reliably compelling, as is Daniel Joseph Martinez’s notorious and still strikingly astute I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White (1994) (originally conceived as museum tags for the 1993 Whitney Biennial but presented here in a larger special edition). Perhaps most stirring, however, are two groups of work that treat the embodiment of whiteness, the middle-aged, middle-class man, with some pathos: Richard Shelton’s strangely poignant paintings of frumpy corporate paper pushers, and Joseph Havel’s beautifully delicate sculptures made from scraps of men’s clothing (37 shirt collars hanging in a tall column like a bare spine in one work, and several hundred shirt labels — each printed with the word “lost” — sewn together to form a long, draping net in another).

“The Graying of Whiteness” looks at how race plays into the relationship between the public and the private self. Central to much of this work is an interest in hybridity and a sense of the ultimate instability of boundaries, racial and otherwise. Perhaps the most playful of these is Lezley Saar’s Mulatto Nation Gift Shop (2003), a tongue-in-cheek installation that offers a plethora of products celebrating biraciality, including an assortment of “Baby Halfsies” (nude black and white dolls whose heads are switched with one another), zebra-striped flags and toothbrush holders, and bumper stickers with phrases like “Make Mulattos Not War” and “Mulattos Are Always Half Right.” Similarly clever is Kyungmi Shin’s Blue Eyes (2001), a series of photographic portraits in which people of various races all appear with the same unnaturally intense shade of blue eyes. Kammy Roulner’s Colored People (2001) is a series of enlarged baseball cards that, when assembled in this context, underscore the arbitrary nature of color as a signifying system, presenting a Frank White, for example, who is black; a Bud Black who is white; and a David Green, a Vida Blue and a Chris Brown who are all black. Also notable here are Kim Dingle’s weirdly delightful Girl Boxing (White Girl Boxing With Her Shadow) (1992), in which that enduring icon of purity, a white-frocked, pale-skinned little girl, battles it out with an amorphous dark side, and Kara Walker’s Another Fine Mess (1998), in which the silhouettes of a slave and a Scarlett O’Hara–like mistress appear to be melting together into one big, gooey mess.

Because of its particular relationship to power, the issue of whiteness is an extraordinarily difficult one to examine plainly or fairly, and there are valid questions to be raised about the propriety of an exhibition like this at this particular time in history. Such questions hang self-consciously over each of the four essays in the show’s fine catalog. “Is all this discussion and display of difference,” Stallings himself asks, “really just titillating entertainment for whites, who know that they are still in charge? Is the cultural study of whiteness simply a way to re-center the white by appropriating the language of multiculturalism?”

The most that Stallings or the other essayists (David R. Roediger and Amelia Jones — both white, incidentally — and Ken Gonzales-Day) are really able to reply is that they hope not. In the end, of course, it will be up to individual viewers to decide, but as one who has also struggled to address racial issues in print without sounding either too ignorantly, too presumptuously or too anxiously white, I have to appreciate their earnest efforts to approach the subject at all. In establishing a safe but still rigorous space for the contemplation of these issues, the exhibition takes a decisive step toward dealing with them. As Jones, who argues compellingly in the catalog for a recognition of what she calls “the obscenity of whiteness,” points out: “[Viewed] as a performance, and one that is embodied, whiteness can be interrogated and disidentified with. We cannot change who our ancestors were, but we can change what it means to have lightly pigmented skin (or whatever else gives us access to whiteness) in today’s world.” How far these sentiments will transmit outside the museum walls, of course, remains to be seen.

WHITENESS, A WAYWARD CONSTRUCTION | At LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971 | Through July 6

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly