When in 2002 the British Museum organized the exhibition dedicated to the legendary Queen of Sheba, there were more than 300 artifacts on display, most of them on loan from the National Museum in Yemen. Now, two years later, a much smaller version of this exhibition, containing only about 100 artifacts, arrived here at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. Judging by the catalogue of the original exhibition in London, there were some stunning artifacts among the 200 that, unfortunately, had to be returned to their home in Yemen, prior to the exhibition's arrival in Southern California.
The Queen of Sheba, the seductive and wise ruler of the southern Arabian Peninsula, is mentioned not only in the Bible, but also in ancient Judaic and Islamic texts. According to legend, she travels to Jerusalem bearing gifts of gold and spices for King Solomon, hoping to get first hand knowledge of his legendary wisdom and wealth. Legend has it that he impressed and satisfied her in more ways than one. However, there is a small, inconvenient discrepancy of 200 years between King Solomon's rule in 10th Century B.C. and the time of the Queen of Sheba, who, if she existed at all, probably lived at least two centuries later, when her kingdom became a prosperous center of trade in spices, incense and gold.
For the first time in the United States we can see the rare archeological treasures that were excavated in the territory of her kingdom, which is now contemporary Yemen. Among them is the alabaster Funerary Stela with an image of a bejeweled, sexy young woman, wearing a dress clinging to her body. Another stand-out is the striking bronze Head of a Man, reminiscent of Roman Empire portraits. This head is on loan from the collections of Queen Elizabeth II. There are also bronze and gold artifacts, as well as a number of stone tablets. The exhibition also includes a large selection of prints and drawings from the Renaissance to modern times, including even Hollywood movie posters, reflecting the enduring popularity of the myth of the Queen of Sheba.
To return to the present, I drove from Santa Ana to Newport to check out the promising new developments at the Orange County Museum of Art. My first impression of the museum space, after it's recent $1 million renovation, was that the money was well spent. To inaugurate the new space, the museum organized a large and ambitious exhibition of 27 up-and-coming California artists, calling it the "2004 California Biennial". Compared to the museum's earlier and more modest surveys of California art, this latest biennial is an impressive attempt to introduce us to the new talent from this region. I was taken by Malerie Marder's moody photographs of naked people, shown in what appear to be impersonal hotel rooms. I liked Kerry Tribe's video projected on a large, split screen with a luminescent red-haired young girl, sharing her touching, and at times slightly-awkward, intimate thoughts. It's difficult not to slow down in a room with the art works by Mark Dutcher, whose paintings, drawings and sculptures of flaming red roses have a distinctly surreal presence. Though I was impressed by the overall solid quality of the art works in the biennial, I wondered if the selection couldn't be more daring or adventurous. I missed the indomitable spirit of rebellious bad boys and girls of California--artists who are not afraid to misbehave. Without that, this exhibition comes across as a little bit too cautious, as if trying to avoid any possibility of scandal. But after all, it is Orange County.
"Queen of Sheba, Legend and Reality-Treasures from the British Museum"
October 17, 2004 - March 13, 2005
2002 North Main Street
"2004 California Biennial"
October 12, 2004 - January 9, 2005
Orange County Museum of Art
850 San Clemente Drive