Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Euphrat Museum of Art
De Anza College Campus, Cupertino, CA
February 17–May 5, 2009
by Robin Treen

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Agnes Pelton, Light Center, Courtesy of the Euphrat Museum

In February of 2009, the Euphrat Museum of Art celebrated the opening of its new facility on the De Anza College campus in Cupertino. The new exhibition space, along with a performance hall and an art history center, form the Visual and Performing Arts complex. The inaugural exhibition, Looking Back, Looking Ahead, was curated by the Museum’s long-time Executive Director Jan Rindfleisch, and sets an intriguing tone for the institution’s future. At first glance, Looking Back, Looking Ahead seems a bit disjointed, a In February of 2009, the Euphrat Museum of Art celebrated the opening of its new facility on the De Anza College campus in Cupertino. The new exhibition space, along with a performance hall and an art history center, form the Visual collection of disaparate parts that represent rather than reflect the immediate and obvious diversity of the local community. However, a closer look reveals a surprisingly strong subtext, rich with frequent areas of overlap among the various facets of the exhibition. Subtle and intuitive, Looking Back, Looking Ahead deftly touches on such compelling issues as migration and immigration, the preservation of culture and identity, the place for and value of traditions in a world constantly in transition, experience both personal and universal, and the elusive quality of memory. The legacy of this exhibition will be enduring.

Entrada
Just inside the entry to the museum’s new galleries the visitor is greeted with the work of Michael Arcega. Although Arcega’s work inhabits the visual realm, it is language-based, conceptual, multi-layered and quite funny. Puns along with visual plays on and with words form the basis of clever commentary that takes to task both the intent and content of messaging. Standing sentry on a raised platform we meet El Conquistadourke, a six-foot tall reproduction of a Spanish suit of armor made entirely from manila file folders. Perfect in every detail from pointy-toed foot coverings to the iconic curved helmet, El Conquistadourke is light and airy. Substantive with little actual substance, he can be seen on (or through) many levels. Perhaps Arcega is poking fun at institutions that engage in the formal presentation of precious objects, no matter how ridiculous. Or possibly he is drawing our attention to military strategy and the psychological advantage of a fearsome appearance. Seen in a different light, El Conquistadourke could very well be the physical manifestation of a paper tiger.

Who among us hasn’t been amused and bemused when considering the occasionally inappropriate suggestions made by spell checking software? In a non-narrative use of text, Loping Honoring is a modern-day, technologically enhanced take on the Tower of Babel. Arcega created Loping Honoring by running the lyrics of Lupang Hinirang, the national anthem of the Philippines, through a spell checker. The resulting non-sensical language was reset to the music of Lupang Hinirang, and sung in high operatic style for the multi-media video. Far-reaching interpretations are possible here, from the appropriate use of tools, disinformation and all that is lost in translation to the importance of context in defining identity. Loping Honoring is a fully formed citizen of the new technocracy.

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Above: Paul Pei-Jen Hau, The Mountains After Raining, color and ink on paper Below: Paul Pei-Jen Hau, The Humble Old Man, Color and ink on paper

Mountain Light Stone
Housed in the West Gallery, a small exhibition within an exhibition features the work of three artists: Paul Pei-Jen Hau, Agnes Pelton and Thai Bui. This intimate space is dominated, with quiet authority, by eight large-scale works by world-renowned painter Paul Pei-Jen Hau. Beautifully rendered and mounted, the tranquility of traditional aesthetics shares the stage with the sizzle of contemporary color and the pulsating vibrations of modern life. Hau’s mastery of his medium, ink and pigment applied using a technique called mo po or splashing ink, is evident in these master works. A banquet of sensory experiences, his paintings celebrate the beauty of the physical realm, and evoke the elements of nature: the life-affirming warmth of the sun, the silence of snow, the annual gifts of spring, the razor-sharp edge of cold winds, the wetness of rain, the volume of air.

Born ninety-two years ago in Liaoning Province, Hau has lived, worked and taught in the Bay Area since 1956. He is the honored artist for Looking Back, Looking Ahead, and his work is its visual and spiritual centerpiece.

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Thai Bui’s installation, Needed (detail)

In an adjacent piece of visual poetry, Thai Bui’s stone Haiku, Needed, invites the viewer to consider the state of connectedness that is defined by the pleasures of both giving and receiving support. In a spare minimalist installation, cool, smooth, perfect stones come to life as gendered pairs and small familial groupings. Suspended above a small patch of fine white sand, the stones are delicately balanced to support each other. The weight and fragility of love have bound them close, leaving the viewer to ponder the spaces in between. Tucked into a small niche, the piece suggests the limitlessness of infinity while addressing the complex issues of boundaries.

Juxtaposed on the wall opposite is Light Center by Agnes Pelton (1881–1961). This gem of a painting is from the Euphrat’s small, exquisitely focused collection of her work, acquired in the early 1980s while she was still relatively unknown. In landscapes often compared to those of her better-known contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelton tells the timeless tale of the evolution of shape and form. Dusted with light, her organic images speak to the mystery and vulnerability of the land, and our relationship to it.

Agnes Pelton was born in Stuttgard, Germany, and immigrated to California in 1931. Recent research into her life and times has renewed interest in her work, assuring her place in the pages of art history. Later this year, Light Center will be included in a traveling exhibition organized by the Orange County Museum of Art entitled Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin, and Florence Pierce,

Story Lines
The large entrance to the South Gallery has been entirely transformed by Rene Yung’s major installation …anges and disappearances. Soft light filters from above, settling on a peaceful scene: an old wooden platform enclosed on two sides by a low wall, a metal washbasin accompanied by a basket of laundry and a clothesline. A closer inspection reveals more details: the bricks in the low wall are actually bars of soap, the washtub is filled with water, and a small stool waits patiently. Viewers are beckoned to step into the scene, sit down with the ghosts of the past, let the tendrils of their presence trail almost imperceptively over the skin, share their space and sense of purpose, recreate their stance in life.

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Installation by Rene Yung, …anges and disappearances

In a work that is both heartbreaking and healing, Yung asks us to consider the ease with which history, memory, life, love and relationships can become fragile and dry, crumble and blow away without a trace. Firmly grounded in time and place, culture and identity, …anges and disappearances invites us to experience the tangibility of loss with successive washings of the towels that fade their imprinted text. As we wash, participating in hastening the loss of the narrative, we become aware that some stories are saved, cherished and retold while others are discarded, left to return to dust. It is a stark and tactile reminder that selection is rarely random, history is neither objective nor inclusive, and that memory, like everything else, fades with time.

Turning the corner, like a page in history, the viewer is confronted with a collection of stories that are not as much forgotten as carefully hidden from view. In a formal presentation that is the result of a collaboration between De-Bug Silicon Valley and photographer Charisse Domingo, the wall contains the portraits of six women, each entangled in the criminal justice system through family issues. The individual narratives, some lengthy, which accompany the photographs, capture in gut-wrenching detail the struggles and challenges the women face, their drawn-out battles against all but insurmountable odds, the compromises they have been forced to accept, and an occasional small victory. In a departure from the classic form, it is the images that are the true exposés. Sensitively photographed in the nuanced shades of grey that are the by-product of black and white film, the portraits reveal eyes hollow with grief, jaws set in grim determination, shoulders tense with fear, hands frozen in mid-gesture, wary and defensive.

Like any good artist, Domingo is as skilled with the use of negative space as she is with positive. Challenging and provocative though these stories may be, what’s left unsaid is equally powerful. For the majority population, with fair skins, an encounter with law enforcement is likely to be unpleasant and expensive. But for these six women, it begins with a presumption of guilt that is utterly unassailable, unyielding, and ends with the plundering of family ties. Compelling and unsettling, Domingo’s photographs provide a dark window into a reality that most of us only understand in the abstract.

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Angela Buenning Filo, Biotechnology Headquarters, photograph

On the opposing wall, six large color panels by Angela Buenning Filo present an interesting visual dichotomy. Known for her documentary-style photographs and unflinching eye, the photo array alludes to life and loss in a vastly different realm. Four of the images were taken in Silicon Valley and two in Bangalore, India. One of the local images is a beautifully cold shot of the exterior of the headquarters of a biotech company. The fortress-like façade is the very essence of secrecy, hostility and implied threat. Devoid of any hint of humanity, it is an estranging reality, echoing sterility and isolation broken only by a perfect line of flimsy leafless trees. A robotic-like server room, photographed in the cool light of objectivity is juxtaposed with the warm golden light washing over the interior of an abandoned high tech office. Despite its emptiness it conveys a sense of urgency. Heavy dark electrical cords dangle uselessly from the white walls and snake across the cheap linoleum floor. Harking back to photographs taken at the height of the depression, the image is rife with stories untold and sudden departures. Here one minute and gone the next, the former tenants have pulled up stakes and moved on, leaving no time for the dust to settle.

In stark contrast, the two photographs taken in India are teeming with life. In nearly lurid neon color, the images are infused with the pungent scent of exotic spices and the cacophony of a 24/7 lifestyle. Depicting rarified Silicon-Valley type worlds far removed from everyday life in much of India, the images touch on the same themes engaged in Yung’s installation: loss and grief, globalization and displacement, migrations, and the harsh consequences of macro economies.

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Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, Labor Days Flag, weaving

Two works from Consuelo Jimenez Underwood anchor the adjacent wall and underscore the point. In typical fashion, both works flaunt their overt political content and non-traditional materials. Underwood sees art as language, and often refers to the threads she uses in her textiles as her words. Repeated motifs have evolved into political symbols. With roots penetrating the past, her works carry the authority of tradition and history, the courage born of the sure knowledge that despair is the ultimate sin. Also deeply concerned with issues of migration and the militarization of borders, Underwood continues to chip away at boundaries in the art world, asserting her right to work in a medium of her own choosing. In Labor Days Flag, a Mexican American flag has been woven from silk and metallic fibers. The Libby Fruit Cocktail trademark imposed on its central field like a stain stands as a reminder of the imprint left by agri-business on this area as well as countless individual lives.

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Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, discusses the Triangle Flag

Front View
An installation by cousins Samuel and Matthew Rodriguez, also known as Shorty Fatz, is housed in Front View, a small window gallery that can be viewed from inside or outside the Museum. Well known for their custom and lowrider bicycles, as well as their cartoon-based art, Shorty Fatz’s vision for the future of art is grounded in individual expression and an expanded sense of identity. The Front View installation, LeSmoge Fatz, consists of a custom bicycle set against a graphic-style mural painted in shades of grey. Spare patches of hot orangey reds studded with slashes of gold and cool turquoise accent the signature cartoon characters floating just above the surface of the mural. Comfortably straddling the worlds of art, industry and design, Sam and Matt Rodriguez grew up along side a nascent video game industry, increasingly sophisticated animation techniques, and the new media art movements of the late 20th century. They have no memory of a time when television screens and video monitors were not ubiquitous in both public and privates realms. While their innovative style has a firm foundation in tradition and acquired skill, visual references to pop and urban culture abound in their work. With an eye for form and a commitment to function, they continue to invent their own vision for a sustainable future.

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Shorty Fatz (Samuel Rodriguez and Mathew Rodriguez), LeSmoge Fatz, installation

Lectures and mini artist-in-residence programs complement the exhibit and enhance the viewer experience. Participatory components and interactive projects serve both the public and student populations in the new Come On Down! project space.

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