City Windows Gallery Shows One of Silicon Valley’s Claim to Fame

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

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Stan Welsh offers a contemporary juxtaposition of formal visuals in the exhibition Earth•Bound

One of the outstanding branches of Silicon Valley’s clay artistry is ceramic sculpture. Most clay artists begin building traditional vessels. But figurative ceramic sculpture is equally important and significant in history, reflecting culture, values and lifestyle through centuries of production. Interpretation of every-day life, a depiction of the people and dignitaries sculpted with both reverent and satirical approaches in clay is a great tradition anthropologically. Even as there are many other media with which to observe and express impressions of our society today, artists still find the medium of clay a fundamental.

Earth‚Ä¢Bound, the exhibition currently on display at San Jose City Hall’s City Windows Gallery on South 4th Street, shows work by some of the foremost innovative clay sculptors of our area. They are the graduate students, independent artists and ceramics teachers that have helped establish a reputation of outstanding creative thinking in ceramics for Silicon Valley. The show includes works by SJSU Professors of Art, Stan Welsh and Monica Van Den Dool, SCU Professor of Art, Don Fritz, and Bellarmine Ceramics Program founder Diane Levinson. Many of the next generation have been their students and now are in graduate programs or teaching as well: Tessie Barrera-Scharaga, Kimberly Cook, Ted Fullwood, Gustavo Martinez, Max Rain, Shelby Smith, and Gabe Toci.

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Barrera-Scharaga’s installation references the hopes and sorrows of marriage and family.

Tessie Barrera-Scharaga’s installation is a monument that features an ornate bridal gown dowsed in clay slip on a headless, limbless, anonymous mannequin; a tragic and elegant work that speaks to all the hopes, history and inescapable disappointments that surround the marriage ritual. The “train” of the gown flows behind, and drags in a flood of the terra cotta earth, off the platform and onto the floor. A partial house, either under constructiion or being torn down, weighs on part of the train. Somewhere, the momentum of the bride’s joy and expectations are reversed, and on the wall behind, two hands are outlined to hold the flow of red fluid earth pouring, slipping, down onto the floor into the same puddle. The short-lived magic, the joy and wonder of love are sucked back into the reality of hard work, repetition of cyclical adjustments and perhaps poverty. One might guess the hands to be divine, and that the bride’s destiny is to repeat generations of life tied closely to the earth. A montage grid of family photos, cropped closely, suggests the speed at which the course of family life comes and goes. Scharaga’s installation is a real scene-stealer.

Max Rain’s realism is always an amazing viewing experience. Rain keeps us guessing with little glimpses into his mind in this show. The recumbent sow, tattooed with scenes of pork factory farming is blatantly political and very moving if you have any love for animals at all. His Giant Roach is scary, insidious. Taking What We Can Get is a crazy, 3-D, framed tableau where a man wrings milk from the family cat as if she were a wet towel; his wife laps it up directly from the bowl beneath, where it appears a snail soup is being prepared. Family pets and neighborhood wildlife all are trying to squeeze into the frame. Do they want a part of the meal or just to be part of the scene?

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Monica Van Den Dool joins other artists in a satirical portrayal of simians and humans.

After Ted Fullwood’s recent ventures into pipe cleaner sculpture (San Jose ICA), it is great to also view his recent figurative work in ceramics. His playful figures in clay often sport cartoon-like speech bubbles with funny, dopey statements in them. We imagine they are exaggerated caricatures of stuffy irritating people Fullwood meets or knows. Monica Van den Dool also makes a satirical observation on the human animal in her simian figures whose faces register a blank as they ride along on their donkeys and gather their bananas. A fossilized “ghost” who seems to reference an unchanging unevolved nature that remains static through eternity often accompanies her anthropomorphic characters. Kimberly Cook’s figures have a heavy, segmented body that also seem spiritually detached and frozen in time.

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Gabe Toci comments on Hawaiin socio-political struggle for identity in the context of its tourist industry.

Don Fritz, Gabe Toci and Gustavo Martinez all make time and place-specific social observations in clay. Fritz’s artifacts of the fifties – ceramic schoolbooks or dial up telephones – emblazoned with the memorable perfect Moms and innocent perfectly groomed schoolboys at the beginnings of consumer culture, are part of his personal reconciliation with a time he lived through but never felt a part of. Toci refers to a tourist industry in Hawaii that produces the dominant cultural artifacts, overshadowing and masking the genuine cultural heritage. Porcelain busts of native girls, by the thousands and puka shell necklaces fail to even break the surface of understanding of a region deep with traditions and mythology. Toci depicts them as distorted and ghost-like. Martinez’ busts portray the real mariachi musicians of Mexico who are still mostly poor itinerant performers who often play on handmade instruments. Their bobble heads nod in time to the music and humorously evoke the popular figures seen in the back windows of cars.

Diane Levinson is a versatile sculptor that can bend clay into infinite forms. In her Weapons of Mass Construction series, Levinson plays with our fears of serious dirty warfare and through clay creates comical weapons that mimic stone and organic elements, and incorporate found objects. They measure their potential to blow on a primitive pressure gague.

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Diane Levinson’s Weapon of Mass Construction

Shelby Smith and Stan Welsh create more abstract and formal sculptural forms in the works shown at City Windows. Smith’s Prop is a combination of a tall skinny steel easel and a segmented lariat curled like a ram’s horn. Leaning against the wall, it inevitably becomes one with the interesting variations of shadows it casts. Welsh’s three oval compositions have some of the qualities of fractured musical instruments, still life profiles and other miscellanea that overlap in cubist paintings by Georges Braque. They also remind me of some of the tongue-in cheek inserts that appear in a David Salle painting. In three dimensions, they seem a bit more serious, but I love the arbitrary relations and essentially nonsensical juxtaposition of a plate or a bowl with a model of the human brain, a necklace, a heron’s head draped over it all, and a man-purse hanging from an unidentifiable organic mass of lumpy material painted in two colors, cleanly divided horizontally. Very sophisticated!

The City Windows Gallery project is part of the City Hall Exhibits Program managed by the Office of Public Art. Earth•Bound was curated by Kathryn Funk, independent curator who recently produced After Life at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

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