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    L.A. Confidential
by Michael Duncan
Gabriel Orozco
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, L.A.
Ed Ruscha
The End
at the L.A. County Museum
Ken Price
in "Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000"
at the L.A. County Museum
Adrian Saxe
in "Color and Fire"
Adam Ross
Untitled (The Illustrious Passage of Time, #1)
at California Center for the Arts, Escondido
Phillip Argent
Dream Car #2
at the California Center for the Arts
Sean Duffy's installation offered by the Spurgeon Experience in downtown Santa Ana
Jean Lowe
Desert Reclaimed
at MCA Downtown San Diego
Jean Lowe
Personal Care Products
at MCA Downtown
Kim McConnell
Selections from the Beach Collection
at MCA Downtown
Unlike Hamptons-mad New Yorkers and gadfly Euros, Angelino art-worlders whirl and sputter year-round. Even this summer's abnormal heat wave has not dampened interest in a sparkling new crop of museum shows. In terms of quality, predictably, the most hyped affairs have to yield to less publicized "sleeper" exhibitions by artists with texture, humor and chops.

The Museum of Contemporary Art offers the first institutional survey of international darling Gabriel Orozco. Including such well-known works as La DS (1993) -- a Citroen with its center section removed -- and Ping Pond Table (1998) -- a set of crosshatched ping-pong tables with a lily pond in its center -- the show is filled with over 100 of the artist's sculptures, collages and conceptual stunts.

Yet despite the amplitude, the show feels sparse of fresh ideas. The photographs are slacker happy-snaps, consisting of found, formalist whimsy and elliptical visual puns. The sculptures -- such as Horses Running Endlessly (1995), a chessboard with all knights -- seem fifth-generation Duchampian baubles. True to his reputation as a naughty student of Dada, Orozco places only four plastic yogurt caps on the four enormous walls of one gallery. It's another MOCA show for academic deadheads only (through Sept. 3).

At the L.A. County Museum, the survey of prints by Ed Ruscha showcases an artist who can be both cool and incredibly generous to viewers. His prints transform words into objects, embodying common language as comic forms, issued as multiples. To portray the variable moods and connotations of ordinary language, Ruscha plays with typeface and prints with everything from caviar to axle grease.

Organized by the Walker Art Center, the exhibition showcases over 200 prints as well as all of the artist's weirdly engrossing picture books, available in laminated versions. With tones ranging from lyrical to smart-ass, the exhibition offers a concise survey of 40 years of Ruscha's visual conundrums and multi-layered mysteries (through Aug. 27).

Also at the L.A. County Museum is "Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000," a survey of the museum's collection of contemporary ceramics. The show serves as a crash course in West Coast developments in clay with stellar pieces by Gertrude and Otto Natzler, John Mason, Peter Voulkos, Viola Frey, Beatrice Wood and Robert Arneson. One of Ken Price's luminescent new biomorphic sculptures and a gorgeous grouping of vessels by Adrian Saxe demonstrate the potential of the medium for fantasy, dazzling craft and good humor. Although the works are a bit cramped, the show fills in a crucial yet usually neglected aspect of California art history (through Sept. 17).

Fast-forwarding to the present, recent L.A. painting and sculpture are loosely surveyed in two exhibitions. In "The Next Wave" at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido (almost midway between L.A. and San Diego), independent curator Noriko Gamblin offers her pick of 20 Southern California painters. In "Mise en Scene" at the Santa Monica Museum, writer Bruce Hainley and curator Carole Ann Klonarides select a group of young sculptors, all but one a recent UCLA grad.

Although the Escondido painting show includes a fairly lively selection of recent talents -- Adam Ross, Salomon Huerta, Phillip Argent, Sharon Ellis, Linda Besamer, Jean Lowe, Dan Connally and Steven Criqui -- its haphazard installation and catch-all nature fail to define anything in particular. The inclusion of dubious daubers Scott Reeder, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Ingrid Calame and Laura Owens only confirms prejudices against gimmicky structures, inept drawing and bland surfaces (through Sept. 10).

The Santa Monica sculpture show is even more frustrating, with derivative work offered by an in-group of tyro schoolmates: Liz Craft, Jason Meadows, Torbjorn Vejvi, Evan Holloway, Jeff Ono and Paul Sietsema. Resembling a charity auction of studio rejects by Louise Bourgeois, Liz Larner, Anthony Caro, Robert Morris and Charles Ray, the show celebrates recycling. Craft's giant fiberglass spider wins Most Pointless. Sietsema's black-and-white film recording his handmade plants scores a close second.

Why is being derivative considered a good thing? Don't they teach art history at UCLA? (through Aug. 19)

A different, more democratic way of experiencing the latest L.A. art was offered by the "Spurgeon Experience," a two-weekend event in June organized by Orange County artist/entrepreneurs Max Presneill and Janice Ledgerwood. Over 110 artists installed their work in a four-story 1920s building located in downtown Santa Ana -- a former town hall. The event tapped into a number of local grassroots artscenes, mixing well-known figures such as Roland Reiss, Merion Estes, David McDonald, and Keith Sklar with new faces such as Marcia Binnendyk, Jeff Gillette and British import Peter Lamb. Highlights included Sean Duffy's room-sized sunset made out of fake fur, Nancy Evans' decorated venetian blinds and Brad Spence's day-glo headshot painting of Oprah Winfrey.

Finally, best of all, down at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art is a brilliant career survey of the poignantly funny paintings and sculptures of Jean Lowe. Subverting the arcadian ideals traditionally espoused in decorative patterning, she chronicles contemporary society's blithe ravagement of nature with mordant wit and high style.

Her 18th century settees, console tables, and urns -- all made from paper mache -- are ornamented with hand-drawn incubators, farm machinery, fastfood wrappers and dams. Lowe's four new huge paintings are startlingly monumental landscapes that take eco-satire into realms of the sublime. A gigantic tapestry-like landscape painting featuring a rolling hillside is gouged by a stripmine; a bucolic pasture is rilled with irrigation ditches.

Lowe's papier-mâché books and mock products -- familiar from her shows at Holly Solomon Gallery - skewer nearly every aspect of our therapeutic culture. A jar of "Willendorf" thigh cream promises to melt away the flab. Lowe is a new kind of realist, chronicling American consumerism's extremes and the twisted values of shopping-mall, dot-com culture.

In another gallery at the museum, Lowe's husband, the artist Kim McConnell, offers a group of his clown sculptures made from scraps of plastic found along local beaches. Piled on the floor mid-gallery is a new kind of socially concerned scatter art: a mesmerizing mound of scavenged trash whose primary colors and sand-worn patinas have a Pop beauty tinged with pathos (through Aug. 13).

MICHAEL DUNCAN writes on art from Los Angeles.