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After a year and a half when the persistent coronavirus pandemic shut down nearly every live event, the OC Fair is back — and so is visual art at the fair.

Visual Art at the OC Fair

Where: Los Alamitos building, OC Fair, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Noon-11 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Aug. 15

Tickets: $7-$14, included in fair admission; must be purchased in advance

Information: (714) 708-1624 or ocfair.com

The Visual Art Gallery is housed in the comfortable, air-conditioned Los Alamitos building on the southeast end of the Main Mall. It’s clean, quiet and contemplative, and can be a welcome respite from the heat, the crowds and the smoke emanating from various barbecues and grilling stands.

Incidentally, last year’s art exhibition did take place virtually and online. But it really is so much better to view art in person. You get more of a sense of the dimensions, colors and scale of the objects, rather than simply staring at a two-dimensional screen.

Note: Unvaccinated guests must wear masks when entering the Los Alamitos building (or any indoor space at the fair), and according to the latest CDC guidelines, even vaccinated folks should seriously consider wearing masks as well. No food or drinks are allowed. So, sorry, turkey leg enthusiasts and strolling beer drinkers.

As exhibits and education coordinator Stephen Anderson has pointed out in the past, all different types of people enter the fair’s art exhibition, and some have never set foot in a gallery. So the organizers try their best to present the works — by professionals, amateurs and young adults — in a pristine, professional, museum-like environment. 

This year’s visual art exhibition is smaller and more spaced out, due to COVID-19 precautions. The 2021 show features nearly 1,100 works, compared to more than 1,700 works in 2019 and more than 1,800 pieces in 2018.

This year, woodworking has been brought completely into the Los Alamitos building. In previous years, woodworking was based in the Anaheim building on the northeast end of the Main Mall, just north of the connecting Culinary Arts & Explorium area.

“It was simply a matter of one thing needed to move, which necessitated other moves,” said Leland Paxton, visual art coordinator for the OC Fair. “We are pleased that the wonderful woodworking on display has an opportunity to dialogue with the fine art and photography this summer.”

One genre that has seen a significant decrease is sculpture. It’s not entirely clear why there are fewer sculptures in the show this year, but it’s noticeable.

Also missing this year is the featured, or guest artist. In 2019, the featured artist was Narisso Martinez, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, who now lives in Long Beach. He created inventive installation pieces made of cardboard produce boxes, with portraits of farmworkers painted on them.

Since the guest artists were typically featured in the middle stretch of the gallery, I imagine that element was eliminated to allow for more space and social distancing in between artworks. Here’s hoping that the featured artist or artists will return next year.

Juror (or judge) contributions also seem to be missing, probably for the same reasons mentioned above. It is a nice touch, however, to see samples of talent and expression from the folks judging this whole affair.

The Breakdown

The show is divided into three sections: photography on the north side, woodworking and sculpture in the middle, and fine art (mostly painting) on the south side.

Anyone living in California can submit work, although the majority of artists reside in Orange County. About 20% of photography submissions were accepted by the jurors, and about 40% of fine art submissions were admitted, according to Paxton. The number of amateur paintings increased by double previous years’ numbers, Paxton said.

While there are many fine contributions in all categories, and a few duds, here are the best-in-show winners:

  • PHOTOGRAPHY: Todd Borowski, “Light and Stone,” El Capitan, Yosemite National Park
  • PROFESSIONAL FINE ARTS: Robert Moore, “Yellow Bottle,” yellow salt glaze over red stoneware
  • WOODWORKING: Dave Leasure, “C.e.r.t.,” ebony, maple, padauk with brass and aluminum, 568 pieces
  • AMATEUR FINE ARTS: Abigail Schweizer, “Self Portrait in My Closet”
  • YOUTH PHOTOGRAPHY: Peter Chen, “Dance,” studio lighting with black backdrop
  • YOUTH FINE ARTS: Jessica Kim, “Values of Grief,” two nurses hugging each other during COVID with the bars showing emotion

Judging is a highly subjective process, and visitors may not agree with the jurors’ choices. Some other standout works include:

  • “California Climate Change #8,” an abstract painting by Thom Wright
  • Two abstract, untitled, mixed media paintings by Nicole Birrer-Mesquit
  • “Perseverance,” a painting of trees and stars by Francisca Kim
  • “Cherbinos Aria,” an abstract musical painting by Terri Louise Durham
  • A wood-carved portrait of reggae legend Bob Marley by Henry Lim
  • “Trail of Stars,” a time-lapse photograph by Mark Jackson
  • “Molten Emotion,” a macro-photograph of a bubble by Kimberly Botwin
  • “Between Earth and Sea,” a color photograph by Dan Meylor
  • “More Human than Some Humans,” a color photograph of a monkey flossing by Michael Lawler
  • “Death Valley,” a color photograph of Zabriskie Point at sunrise by Gary Ihrig
  • “Flower Ball,” a color photograph by Susan Perez
  • “Justin Upton,” a color photo portrait of the Angels outfield star by Ricardo Zapata
  • “Sunset on Kirkjufell,” a color photograph of western Iceland by Eric Salcido
  • “Can you hear me?” a black-and-white photograph by Andrea Pawlak
  • “Quadruple the Fun,” a color photograph by Ruth Mui
  • “Pee Chee Dynamite,” a drawing of a Pee Chee folder reimagined by Brent Walske
  • “Emerge,” a mixed media painting by Jeanine Brown
  • “Wet Willy,” a sculpture made of recycled materials by Derek McDonald
  • “Basket Illusion,” a beaded maple platter by Richard Haagsma
  • “Holographic Circus,” a colored pencil and ink drawing by Rachel Harshbarger

A small awards ceremony for the best-of-show winners in all major categories will be held in the gallery at noon Sunday, Aug. 15.

A few closing notes: While checking out art (and other attractions) at the fair, you’re bound to get hungry. The best food deal at the fair is located just a few steps away from the Los Alamitos building, and it’s the shrimp ceviche for $4.25 (plus tax) at Pepe’s Mariscos stand, which offers fresh Mexican seafood.

Also: The Crafters Village at the fair features some original and hand-crafted works by visiting vendors. This year, it looks like the village is also smaller and more spaced out. And the reggae guy selling reggae-themed T-shirts, hoodies and caps is gone.

Finally, if you’re in the mood for some more art, check out “Private Charles J. Miller: WWII Paintings from the South Pacific” in Heroes Hall, located next to the Pacific Amphitheatre.

Through watercolor paintings and sketches, Miller shared his experiences as a soldier during World War II in the South Pacific. He used limited resources, such as large sheets of paper and the insides of cigarette cartons.

The exhibit is open during fair hours and continues 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays through Oct. 18.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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