Artweek September, 1997

'Are We Touched? Identities From Outer Space' at the Huntington Beach Art Center

by George Tapley.

Will the aliens reproach us when they arrive? Will they care if we have misrepresented them? Big heads indeed! In fact, they resemble Greek gods, didn't you know? This may be the only point that curator Tyler Stallings has failed to consider in his large and unusual exhibition, Are We Touched? Identities From Outer Space. Touched? is, in fact, an exemplary examination of visual art, artifacts, and popular imagery related to UFOs and ETs imagery which Stallings believes has "touched" us all. Are we touched?, an appropriately ambiguous question, wisely remains unanswered in this exhibition which includes about forty different artists or organizations, some of whom are certifiable. Likewise the exhibition maintains a discreet silence on the big issue of extraterrestrial existence, preferring instead to offer testimony across the board from atheists, agnostics and true believers alike. While the progress from doubt to belief is never easy, differing degrees of faith are helpfully labeled: categories include Distance, Between, and Immersion. Distance is represented by such debunkers as earth-artist Rod Dickinson. His display of photos of his crop circles reclaim what some have seen as evidence of alien presence.

Between exhibitors include the team of Scott and Denise Davis who have built four UFO detection systems based on the electromanetic theories of four prominent UFOlogists. The catalog claims that these devices will be activated should a UFO cross into the Huntington Beach Art Center's Space. One of them, a video camera called "Fred," remains trained at the sky outside the front window. The sight of this camera and the unchanging image on its monitor may compel viewers to change their question from if to when.

The Immersion category holds the largest and most interesting pieces in the show. Here are the believers. David Huggins's paintings depict his alien sexual encounters and the resultant babies, who seem, inexplicably more alien than their mothers. Joni Johnston transforms ordinary vinyl rainwear into strange hoods and coverings that are worn by beings seen in her visions and dreams. Rene Meredith's marvelous Seuss-like drawings describe creatures from an alien world seen presumably before she was institutionalized. Al Thomas's 1973 vision Jesus resulted in Thomas building a flying saucer with which to distribute food, medicine and the Bible. A last section of the show labeled Artifacts includes a sampling of mass-produced items, exploring the half-century craze for space creatures and flying saucers. Included are old cereal box tops collected by Tick Tock Toys with such goofy faces as Marty the Man from Mars. throughout the show, no special distinction is made between trained artists and outsider or selftaught artists. Or. for that matter, between gallery art and gift shop art--since examples of gallery art are for sale in the gift shop. As a result, attention centers on ideas and individual perceptions as well as their common denominator in mass imagery. At the end of the millennium, as Curator Stallings sees it, aliens and UFOlogy are a unifying spiritual phenomenon for many Americans regardless of class or ethnicity. Stallings, whose lengthy catalog essay attempts to make sense of this psychologically and artistically with the help of Carl Jung, Robert Hughes and others, succeeds in making a good case for our fascination with this manifestation of "Otherness." At the same time, viewers of this exhibition, whether they follow Stallings's arguments or not, should be fascinated by the work on exhibit.

George Tapley is an artist and freelance writer who lives in Costa Mesa.