The Bowers Museum; Orange County Museum of Art

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"Symbols of Power" at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art
"California Biennale" at the Orange County Museum of Art

When a few years ago an obscure Spanish city, Bilbao, muscled its way onto the international art scene, the whole world took notice. Small towns and small museums lingering in the shadow of bigger cities and larger museums jumped into the fray.

Until recently, I knew Santa Ana only as the name of an extremely hot weather condition, which brings hot desert air to Los Angeles. To discover a couple of years ago that Santa Ana is a tidy small city only 40 minutes away was a pleasant surprise. Seemingly out of nowhere came the news that the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana was hosting an ambitious exhibition of Chinese art from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Last year, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were brought to the Bowers from Israel and another fascinating exhibition of Etruscan art came from Italy.

Symbol of Power-Nanjing ExhibitionSince early June, the Bowers Museum is hosting yet another high profile exhibition, "Symbols of Power", masterpieces of Chinese art from the second largest museum in China in Nanjing. 5000 years of Chinese history are presented here through ancient bronzes, ceramic figurines, jade carvings, porcelain, lacquerware and painting. Not all of the 250 objects on display are masterpieces. Truth be told, many objects - especially those from the late 19th and early 20th century, and there are quite a few of them - are less than remarkable. For me, the most intriguing aspect of this show is its historical background. Symbol of Power-Nanjing ExhibitionMany of the objects came from treasures intially belonging to the imperial court. In the 1930s, during the Sino-Japanese War, thousands of crates packed with treasures, to ensure its safety, were sent from Beijing to Nanjing. Some of them later ended up in Taiwan, many returned to Beijing. But 2,200 crates were kept in Nanjing. Rumor has it that some of these crates have never been opened until this exhibition. Though this second Chinese art exhibition at the Bowers Museum shares the fate of most sequels by not living up to expectations, it's still worth the trouble of driving there, especially for those with knowledge of Chinese art and history.

The same Saturday afternoon, traveling a short distance west of Santa Ana to a much bigger and more prosperous Newport Beach, I visited the Orange County Museum of Art to check out its "California Biennale" exhibition, which brings together the "state's most promising artists." Such exhibitions have been held in Newport since 1984. This one, in spite of a few interesting art works, is the most lethargic affair I've encountered in any Southern California museum in a long time. Maybe it's just me, but in the last few years, this museum has struck me as sadly incapable of engaging the community. As on previous visits, the Museum looked and felt desolate, with probably two or three visitors in the galleries and not a soul in the large lobby, with its gift shop and caf-. On a positive note, I noticed a dramatic rearrangement of the installation of its permanent collections, mixing traditional early 20th century landscape paintings with much edgier late 20th century art. So, there is hope that the museum will find a way to end its years of obscurity and resume the important role it once played in the cultural life of Southern California.

For more information:

"Symbols of Power: Masterpieces from the Nanjing Museum"
June 9, 2002 - May 4, 2003
The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art
2002 North Main Street
Santa Ana, CA 92706
(714) 567-3600

"California Bennial"
May 26 - September 8, 2002
Orange County Museum of Art
850 San Clemente Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 759-1122