Now that all the opening hoopla has settled down, I thought I’d take a closer look at the opening exhibitions at the new Orange County Museum of Art.

In case you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, the O.C. Museum of Art (OCMA) opened its new, $94.5 million home officially on Oct. 8 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. It’s a 53,000-square-foot, terra cotta covered, multilevel structure designed by Morphosis, the Studio City-based architecture firm founded and headed by Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne. Brandon Welling was the partner-in-charge for this project.  

All the opening exhibitions run into 2023, a couple through August 2023. So there is plenty of time to see them.

I recently took my two sons, ages 11 and 5, to OCMA, to get them out of the house and see what kind of experience they would have as well.

Here are some initial observations. The museum is extremely well built. The architecture is impressive, inspiring, even stunning at times. It looks like some of the smaller flaws have been patched up since the hectic opening day events. Also, additional seating has been provided inside the galleries, to address the complaints articulated by another area critic who shall remain unnamed.

The new OCMA is such an improvement over the previous, nondescript, one-story space tucked away on San Clemente Drive in Newport Center. You could easily pass by that location without even realizing OCMA was there. However, some of the PR and sales talk about the architecture and accessibility – particularly regarding the exterior staircase – ring a little hollow.

Yes, there is an expansive staircase leading up to (or down from) the upper terrace. But it’s not like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Rome’s famous Spanish Steps, where visitors or folks strolling by can naturally gather. The steps are steep and do NOT connect to the Argyros Plaza on the ground level, as one might be led to believe. There’s a barrier that prevents folks from the plaza to access the upper terrace outside.

Thus, a visitor really must enter through the museum’s ground floor doorway and ascend to its highest public level in order to get to the stairs. There’s a faux set of stairs on the ground level, but it seems superfluous and almost like a tempting sort of joke. The faux stairs imply connection to the upper staircase, but they don’t really serve a purpose except perhaps a decorative one.

Opening Exhibitions

Now, let’s talk about the art. The exhibitions on view are: “13 Women,” the “California Biennial 2022: Pacific Gold,” “Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back (the World)” and “Peter Walker: Minimalist Landscape.” An outdoor sculpture by L.A.-born, New York-based artist Sanford Biggers, “Of many waters…,” is also part of the inaugural exhibitions.

“13 Women” and the California Biennial are not extremely well-delineated from each other, but some of that is intentional. At least with the didactics up, the delineations seem a bit clearer now than during the pre-opening phases.

“13 Women” gets its name from the 13 women who helped found OCMA, originally the Balboa Pavilion Gallery, in 1962.  

For someone who has been attending OCMA regularly since early 2000, I’d say I’ve seen many of these works before. But OCMA does have an impressive permanent collection, with a focus on accomplished California artists. And some of the works on view have not been shown before, or haven’t been exhibited in decades.

Highlights from “13 Women” include Mary Heilman’s oil on canvas “Surfing on Acid” (2005), Agnes Pelton’s oil on canvas “The Guide” (1929), Vija Celmins’ wonderful and supersized acrylic on balsa wood “Eraser” (1967), Barbara Kruger’s Untitled gelatin silver print from 1989, and Lee Bul’s suspended white tentacle-y sculpture “Supernova” (2000).

There are a few men in “13 Women,” and OCMA is wise to exhibit its abstract treasure, “Ocean Park #36” (1970, oil and charcoal on canvas) by Richard Diebenkorn. Among the guys, there are also notable works by John Baldessari, Glenn Ligon and John Altoon – although I was never crazy about the latter’s mish-mashy, sloppy-looking work.

The “Ink Box” (1986) by Charles Ray is also alluring, as it consists of a steel cube filled to the brim with 200 gallons of printer’s ink. While you may be tempted, please do not touch this one, unless you literally want to get dark stains on your hands (and perhaps in the galleries as well).

The California Biennial, 2022 edition is intriguing, but not earth-shattering. The artists are notably diverse, which is good, and the group show seems to draw from the younger generations of artists, which has always been the biennial’s strength.

This iteration of the California Biennial was curated by Elizabeth Armstrong, onetime lead curator and deputy director of OCMA. She got curatorial help from Essence Harden, visual arts curator at the California African American Museum, and Gilbert Vicario, chief curator at the Phoenix Art Museum.   

Sharon Ellis of Yucca Valley (born 1955 in Great Lakes, Illinois) is an obvious standout. She is a wonderful, inspired painter, with seven alkyd on panel paintings on display. They are colorful, vibrant and beautiful, revealing the mysteries and power of the natural world.  

There’s a gallery dedicated to Latin and Native American-themed work that includes “Naufragios” (2022), an oil on linen painting by San Diego’s Raúl Guerrero of a Spanish colonial figure washed ashore, while Native American heads as icons loom in the background. It’s definitely worth a moment or two’s contemplation.

I appreciated the Indigenous installation paying tribute to the Akimel O’otham tribe and the Acjachemen Nation, but it was difficult to figure out who the artist was/is. Now I know it is Laurie Steelink, after some inquiry, and the title of the work is “Gathering Power (Indian Market Booth),” 2002.  

Mexican American artist Narsiso Martinez has a few fine contributions in this gallery, including “Banana Man” (2021) and “Pacific Gold” (2021), an installation of russet potato and apple boxes, with peacocks and laborers painted on them. I presume this work is where the secondary title of the biennial comes from.   

Martinez’s work has developed nicely, and some of us remember when he was a featured artist at the Orange County Fair, back when they had featured artists. You’ve come a long way, Narsiso.

A Light and Space Revelation

On the mezzanine level, a smattering of architectural models by Peter Walker are complemented by lithographs on paper by Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt, plus a gelatin silver sprint by LeWitt. While I appreciate the local context of the work, it does seem a little self-serving and referential/reverential to the Segerstroms, the generous donors who helped make OCMA possible. Plus, the models are a bit bland and underwhelming.  

Fred Eversley, on the other hand, is a revelation. He’s an African American California Light and Space sculptor who somehow has gotten omitted or forgotten in that discussion. His colorful sculptures made of cast polyester are beautiful and meditative. They fit perfectly in OCMA’s new narrow mezzanine gallery.

Installation view of “Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back (the World)” (Oct. 8 – Jan. 15, 2023) at the Orange County Museum of Art. Credit: Image courtesy of OCMA/ofstudio

Many of Eversley’s oval sculptures are transparent to translucent, making them perfect for see-through pictures and the smartphone-obsessed, selfie generation(s).

Finally, I know many will disagree with this, but the sculpture by Sanford Biggers on the upper terrace, “Of many waters…” (2022), is kind of a letdown, in my estimation. I understand all the cultural and art historical references, but I just don’t adore it. It’s OK not to like something, isn’t it? That’s part of the art experience, as CEO and director Heidi Zuckerman might attest. After all, her very own “Suggested guide for your art experience,” posted at the main galleries’ entrance, posits the questions: “How do I feel and how would I describe that feeling to someone else?” and “Do I care?”

My answer to the latter question: No, not really.    

Installation view of Sanford Biggers’ “Of many waters…” (on view through Aug. 13, 2023) at the Orange County Museum of Art. Credit: Image courtesy of OCMA/ofstudio

The 24-foot-wide, 16-foot-tall, multimedia sculpture looks kind of cheap, like a movie prop, especially from the back. The metallic sequin on the front of the figure does not make it look more precious or glamorous. You know the old saying: “You can put lipstick on a pig …”

As for my sons’ experiences, my older boy appreciated just about all of the art and the architecture he saw.

My younger son was fascinated with some of the sculptures in “13 Women” and the California Biennial, especially the “Ink Box” and Simphiwe Ndzube’s mysterious and weird “Ndlovukazi” (2022).

Installation view of “California Biennial 2022: Pacific Gold” (Oct. 8 – Feb. 26, 2023) at the Orange County Museum of Art. Credit: Image courtesy of OCMA/Yubo Dong

He was really curious about the small black figure riding on the back of the larger three-legged alien/animal-like creature. To most viewers, it looks a bit bizarre, but for him, it was kind of cool. I guess he’s accustomed to playing with small and big figures simultaneously.

One question the 5-year-old had was: “Where’s the Godzilla art?”

There was something black and Cubist in the new gift shop, Mind, that vaguely resembled a Godzilla. I’m sure I could not afford it, however.

Overall, if you haven’t gone to the new OCMA yet, you must go. You won’t love everything in there, but there’s enough to keep you engaged, perhaps even wanting or coming back for more.

And there’s no excuse not to go – thanks to a generous donor, OCMA is free for the next 10 years.

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

Opening Exhibitions at the OC Museum of Art

Where: 3333 Avenue of the Arts, Costa Mesa

Hours:  10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closed Mondays

Opening Exhibitions

California Biennial 2022 runs through Feb. 26, 2023

“13 Women” runs through Aug. 20, 2023

“Of many waters…” runs through Aug. 13, 2023

“Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back (the World)” runs through Jan. 15, 2023

“Peter Walker: Minimalist Landscape” runs through Jan. 15, 2023   

Cost: Free

Information: 714-780-2130 or ocma.art


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