THE BLOG
06/17/2010 02:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shacking Up

For a number of years now, the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, California, has been working to carve a special niche for itself with the kind of pop culture at which the high art world likes to turn up its nose. Beach art, automotive art, comic book art... these have all been fair game, and have resulted in big shows that challenge received ideas about what contemporary art should look like, and offer the viewer a wild, always entertaining, sometimes hilarious ride through art's underbelly.

The latest installment is "Art Shack," for which the curator Greg Escalante sought out artists who make, well, shacks; or images of shacks; or riffs on the idea of the shack.

The result is a lively, fun-packed maxi- (and mini-) installation show which includes -- to my personal liking -- an awful lot of artists I've never heard of (and probably should have: my ignorance!) along with a handful of those I've known for years and admired immensely -- artists like the venerable (sorry George!) George Herms, whose roots as an inventive creator of assemblage art go back to the Beat culture of the 1950s; Michael McMillien whose tiny shack, "Hideout" (1970-1971), you see below...

...or Kenny Scharf who contributes "Space Arrow" (1999-2001), an over the top exercise in outrageously decorative color and form...
...or Kim Abbeles with her provocative "Imperial Shoeshine" (1982).
The work in the show is sometimes amazing in scale or intricacy: Jeff Gillette--an artist who lived at one time in India--offers a whole miniature shanty city in "Slumscape," (2010)... ...
where the shacks are adorned, ironically, with the "For Sale" signs of familiar corporate realtors. Laurie Hassold's contribution is "Reading the Bones (Post Extinction Grotto)" (2010) an elegant, eerie structure created largely out of animal bones...

Shag includes a down-scaled, retro, fashionably mid-century architectural structure, "An Aesthetic Instruction in Conspicuous Consumption" (2007) with go-along furniture, where the visitor feels like a giant intruder in someone else's space and time...

The exhibition is installed in such a way that it's not so much a matter of seeing this show as carving a path through its crowded spaces -- an engaging adventure in itself. But I'm also interested in the fascinating multiplicity of social and cultural issues raised by our understanding of the shack. Some of these issues are uncomfortably timely in the light of the current real estate crisis, with average citizens who have always paid their bills now forced to sell homes and, some of them, relocate in makeshift housing like their cars. The "value" of owning a home, once gold standard in this country, is now thrown into question, along with all its attendant historical and sociological themes. Then there's the shack itself -- the lowest and humblest of human dwellings after, perhaps, the cave. It is an ephemeral structure, vulnerable alike to the inclemency of the weather and the whims of property developers. It is the globally shameful shelter of last resort for the poor, in an age where social compassion is in short supply and poverty abounds. It is seen -- as in Gillette's work -- as an urban blight, an embarrassing reminder to the fortunate that there are those less fortunate than themselves. Some of the artists in "Art Shack" are at pains to point this out. On the other hand, the shack can be a shrine, whether small and intimate or oversized, like Estaban Bojorquez's "Shelter Shock" (2010)...
Or alternatively, a private retreat, like Mike Shine's home in Bolinas, which he reproduces for the show...

It's an expression of personal freedom from the restrictions and codes that contemporary society imposes, a gesture of revolt against convention, a place where madness and idiosyncrasy can run free -- a space, in other words, in which the artist thrives. This, indeed, appears to be the main theme of the show, where the imagination is given free rein to explode in all kinds of exuberance and excess, whether extravagantly decorative or hauntingly obsessive.

Kudos to the Laguna Art Museum for its willingness to take a risk and have fun at one and the same time. There's one thing this show is definitely not, and that's what John Baldessari cautioned us (and himself!) about in that notorious 1972 painting...

This show, I can promise you, is not the least bit boring.

Photos courtesy of Laguna Art Museum