by Mario Cutajar

Artist unknown, Untitled (1),
oil on canvas board, no date.

Artist unknown, Untitled (2),
oil on canvas board, no date.

"Artist unknown, Untitled (3),
oil on canvas board, no date.

Artist unknown, Untitled (4),
oil on canvas board, no date.

(Orange County Center for Contemporary Art [OCCCA], Orange County) It's easy enough to look down upon the nostalgic kitsch that constitutes the range of content of the 52 paint-by-numbers paintings from the collection of Stacey and Jeffrey Mann in this show. Goofy and Donald Duck would fit right in these landscapes and exotic locales. And it's not only the content that's Disney-esque: Inevitably, thanks to a technique that relies on interlocking patterns of flat areas of color, paint-by-numbers paintings closely resemble animation cells. The same technique that made possible the assembly-line-like production of Disney's wildly popular cartoon features also brought painting, or at least a parody of it, within the hobbyist's domain, degrading it, demystifying it, and democratizing it, all at the same time. The premixed colors are guaranteed to harmonize and the subjects barns, clowns, cowboys, horses in sunny pastures, marinescapes with lighthouses, Japanese gardens, views of Venice will please all but the most hardened of malcontents. This is how Western painting ends as a hobby.

The regressive appeal of these images derives from their seemingly effortless and clear coherence. No sophisticate will admit to being susceptible to the peculiar serenity they exude, but it's there nonetheless, the residue of all the countless hours of mindless relaxation these paintings afforded their dedicated makers. The decorum of political correctness may require that you look at them in the same way you look at pornography, as laughable fantasies that you are too grown up and too intellectually developed to entertain. Your adherence to the imperatives of social progress may stop you from abandoning yourself to their nostalgia for a mythical, Rockwellian past. Terrified of revealing yourself to be a sentimental reactionary you may want to affect the standard ironic stance. That's one option. Another, probably more fruitful, is to yield to the charm of these paintings and then try to sort out the hidden longings they connect with.

Irrespective of whether you are inclined to dismiss these images as regressive fantasies or discover in them timeless archetypes, one thing you will have to acknowledge is the odd prescience of the paint-by-numbers technique. The advent of digital image manipulation means that most of the images you encounter today everything from fly-by shots of Jupiter's moons to the images published in this magazine and stored as image files on the web site are quite literally painted and repainted by numbers. (The images are broken up into tiny areas of uniform color called pixels, each of which is defined by a set of numbers that code for hue, value, saturation and the place of each pixel within the grid that constitutes the image.)

Of course, you don't have to stretch things that far to appreciate the paradox that underlies the paint-by-numbers phenomenon, the same paradox that underlies all mass-produced, mass-marketed kitsch, namely, the use of industrial technology to satisfy a yearning for the trappings of a pre-industrial culture. As co-curator Lloyd Rogers notes: "Even the term 'paint-by-numbers' evokes a fabulous post-modern mantra of the mass production of the 'beautiful.'" The thought did not escape Andy Warhol whose own paint-by-numbers series was an acerbic response to the existentialist claims of AbEx painting.

Patrick Merrill, the show's other co-curator, thinks that this is probably the first gallery show in Southern California devoted to unearthed paint-by-numbers paintings. It may in fact be the first such show on the West Coast. Following upon a number of shows devoted to thrift store art, it adds yet another category of "outsider" art, and another gap in the already porous boundary separating art from non-art.