This year's California State Fair Art Show is like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it's good, it's very, very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid.
On the positive side, the best of show award went to Dave Lane's "Device for Creating Stars, Model A," a gigantic sculpture that sits at the center of the show and dominates everything around it. Resembling some kind of Jules Verne creation or a Victorian bathysphere, it looms up toward the ceiling, its interior glowing red like a fiery furnace.
As juror Chris Daubert noted in also giving the piece the top award in the three-dimensional artworks category, "there are poetic and visual elements that play beautifully off the meaning of the piece." It's inspiring, for example, to think of how the stars are being created and what role is played by the antique seed hoppers circling its top. And great forces are implied by the glowing interior spawning unseen novas and constellations.
As Lane explains it in his statement on the wall, "What you see here is essentially a bomb, but instead of 'blowing-up' it sort of 'blows-in,' compressing matter into a degenerate state where it ignites and makes a sun."
It's an ambitious and exciting piece that deservedly won the best of show award. Nothing else in the exhibit compares to it.
There are other strong sculptures on view, including Ianna Frisby's "Archeoacoustics," an installation of spinning vessels that make sounds, attended by a row of small black dogs; Rob Owens' vibrant "Mija," a giant sugar skull; and a small but spirited assemblage by Stanley Fureby titled "Veteran's Story."
There also is a delightful installation of several Rube Goldberg-type kinetic sculptures by Victor Chaney that reflect the fair's theme, "Big Fun That Moves You," and a selection of Gong Yuebin's ceramic Chinese warriors, which were shown at the Crocker earlier this year.
In contrast, the painting entries this year are a sad lot. You might subtitle this section of the show "The Death of Painting."
There always are some clunkers in the fair show, but this year they predominate in the two-dimensional artworks category. One can only sympathize with juror Lial Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum, who must have had a dismal field to choose from.
She gave the top award to a refreshingly small oil painting by Omar Arason, whose works have been standouts in previous fair shows. In this intimately scaled work, he includes a portrait of Sigmund Freud and an armless nude with smoke emanating from her belly. Titled "I Still Love You Freud (Though No One Else Does)," it's an intriguing image, as is another much larger work by Arason, "The Spectator Malevolent (Marxist Painting No. 1)."
Other works that stand out are Leslie Philpott's abstracted acrylic landscape "MP2;" Earl Boley's blunt oil painting of a steer against a vibrant green field, and John Stuart Berger's idiosyncratic acrylic painting of a ratlike creature surrounded by snaky forms.
Kelly Detweiler gave the juror's award for digital art to Tony Williams' "Yosemite Tunnel View by Winter Moonlight," an innovative 3-D photograph of a mysterious and magical landscape. It's certainly unusual but it comes off as a bit tricky and outré.
As has been the case often in recent fair shows, photography is a strong category. Juror Charman Goff gave the top award to a quartet of images by Roberta Neidigh that document the dividing lines between suburban dwellings which have been decorated in various ways, including a row of cactuses and a brick walkway.
Other strong photos include Alister Oliver's "Citroen," which mimics a high- fashion shoot; Carol Cohn's "A Little Night Music," which captures a saxophone player in an urban tunnel; Donald Satterlee's "Precipitation," which transforms a Sacramento street into something out of fin de siècle Paris; and Kelly Michael Cannon's evocative shot of a white pelican and night herons.
There were few entries in the Fine Craft category, but several strong pieces are on view. Jurors Nancy Selvin and Gary Knox Bennet gave the top prize to Robyn Slakey's teetering tower of cupcakes made of clay, a fun piece that stands out from the rest by virtue of its size. Other strong pieces include Libby Harmor's shredded and reassembled dollar bill and David Preston's luxurious sterling silver and yellow gold ring with three garnets.
In all, the jurors selected 180 works from 1,364 entries and awarded $16,500 in prize money. This year the fair will also include a contest for plein-air painting and art in action demonstrations, including ones on sugar skull making, sumi ink painting, jewelry making, photography and printmaking.
CALIFORNIA STATE FAIR FINE ARTS EXHIBIT
Where: Cal Expo, Expo Center Building 7
When: 11 am. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Sunday through July 29
Cost: $12 general admission; $10 seniors 62 and older; $8 children 5-12; free for children 4 and younger.
Information: (916) 263-3247, www.bigfun.org