Serendipity: One of those hothouse words born in the second flowering of literary English in the 18th century. It means -- sort of -- a pleasure found by accident or an unsought good thing. While the word was intended to name something truly unexpected, it's best to say that the serendipitous comes to the prepared.
Frequent returns to the museums of Long Beach and north Orange County -- the ones with exhibitions almost never reported in the Los Angeles Times -- are a prerequisite for the "accidental" pleasures to be found at the Grand Central Art Center and the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Santa Ana and the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.
All three museums are free (although donations are welcome).
The Muckenthaler is currently showing (until December 31) a collection of more than 60 works by Frank Romero. He's best known for day-glo celebrations of east L.A. life in which mid-1950s cars, freeway overpasses, and the sights of Boyle Heights pulse and glitter and nearly squirm off the canvas. All of these are in the exhibition's prints, serigraphs, and paintings, along with a haze of melancholy in less characteristic works, including portraits of Gene Autry and Randolph Scott.
The unexpected pleasures of the exhibition are a trio of still lifes in which the everyday has been calmed into patterns and surfaces that remain recognizably in Romero's world of color and movement. In another room are even more unexpected nude studies, to my eye even livelier in line and color than Matisse's and more sinuous - and more serious - than Romero's iconic freeway interchanges.
Over at the Grand Central Art Center, Matthew Moore and Braden King have filled a gallery with their monumental take on the centennial of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (on view until January). What's unexpected is how well and satisfyingly Moore and King have imagined this worn historical topic.
Instead, look at the glowing planks of the great cylinder that angles through the darkened gallery. Projectors roll fractured images of sky and clouds, earth and workings on it, across the rectangular units of the long curve. The effect of "Cumulus" is pregnant and imposing, human, and inhuman.
The slow evolution of the projected images figure water, desert landscapes, and de-natured technology. It seems to me that Moore and King have got just the right measure of the heroism and indifference in every great work of engineering.
A block away from the Grand Central Art Center is the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. Serendipity failed there; volunteers and artists were taking down a show on the theme of identity when I walked in. It was just possible to get a sense of the works that had been shown: beautifully drawn pencil and charcoal portraits and wall-spanning canvases on darkly surreal themes. I wished I had seen more.
But that's what persistent serendipity delivers and takes away.
Muckenthaler Cultural Center
1201 Malvern Avenue, Fullerton, CA 92833
Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center
125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, CA 92701
Orange County Center for Contemporary Art
117 Sycamore Street, Santa Ana, CA 92701