Their fans never knew it, but The Beach Boys weren’t just selling surf-inspired bubblegum harmonies: They were re-branding an entire cultural ideology straight out of their Hawthorne High History textbooks. They took John B. L. Soule’s infamous invocation, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country!” and translated it into countless sticky-sweet pop hits, including the group’s 1985 single “California Calling.” Cue the beach bonfire and finger-snapping, and sing it with me! “If everybody in the U.S.A. could come with us to Californ-i-a, we could take ’em to a place out West where the good sun shines everydayyyy : “
With the same name as the famed song, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s latest contemporary exhibit celebrates what Brian Wilson sang about – except with less surf wax and more globs of paint, glitter, and humor. Much of California Calling is absurd, plenty of it is pretty, but above all else, it’s fun – which is incredibly refreshing amidst a culture that values overly complex, abstract, and conceptual art.
California Calling is comprised of two distinct parts spanning multiple decades and divided across several galleries. (For a description of Part One, see Charles Donelan’s review.) Part Two, which opened on September 12 and closes December 20, showcases a cheeky collection of works of every sort of medium and method, from roughly 1968 through the present.
And when I say every, I mean every. As you walk into the Davidson Gallery, you might drift right past a messy entry table only to discover that Charles Long’s Sundae Scultping School (2000) and is actually part of the exhibit. It looks a bit like a melting scoop of chocolate ice cream on a bright-white plastic cone. Now go ahead – poke it. Sculpt, play, explore, create, so long as you preface your brilliance with some hand sanitizer. This may be the only time a security guard encourages you to break and mold a piece of art, and in doing so, hopefully challenges your definition of “art” and what deserves to be on display in a museum.
This seems to be a recurring theme within the exhibit. Californians are rebels. We create art that says “Hey, screw you, I’m art” and then laugh about it. Patrick Nickell’s neon green plywood-and-cardboard jungle gym perfectly exemplifies the innovative California spirit. The sculpture is called A New Beginning or a Bitter End (2008), and is aptly named because I can’t tell where it begins, or ends, or if it snakes around to form an antique key, a banjo, or maybe some actual snakes. From every angle I try to examine it, I feel lost, and am reminded of Los Angeles’s endless maze of traffic-stricken freeways.
Just when you’ve started to make some sense of this nonsense, you’ll realize you’re being watched by an oversized, overly quiet infant from across the room. Only it’s not a baby, it’s a giant egg in an equally giant raffia Baby Carriage (2008) courtesy of Liz Craft. This piece is completely hilarious and absurd, like much of Part Two.
In particular, I also enjoyed Tom Knechtel’s colorful and cartoon-like oil painting Baba Yaga Yuga (2006), Jack Goldstein’s acid trip via acrylic on canvas Untitled (1989), and Paul Sarkisian’s enormous acrylic mash-up of dynamic squares and bold colors, Untitled #4 (1982), which may make you want to wear acid wash and listen to Soft Cell (in a good way.)
In its name and in its works, California Calling smartly evokes romantic ideas of the ultimate American dream, reiterating the Golden State’s stereotype as a land of bright color, big dreams, diversity, absurdity, and pure aesthetic pleasure. The Beach Boys got it right: California calling, I’ll be there right away.