By Sally Sumida

On the last Friday in May, the main gallery of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art was abuzz with excitement from a supportive crowd of art enthusiasts. The occasion was the opening reception for Lift Off 2010, the sixth annual exhibition celebrating MFA graduates from San Jose State University. Seventeen artists created a wide range of artwork highlighting diverse techniques, styles, concepts and media. Curator Susan O’Malley placed them creatively, underscoring their underlying commonalities and interconnections.

Near the entrance to the exhibition, a viewer posed for an unauthorized snapshot inside a shimmering, metal mesh head, artist Hongbiao Wang’s gigantic self-portrait bust. To the right, Pernilla Andersson and Paula Pereira’s large-scale vinyl wall hanging threatens to pull viewers onto an escalator transporting them visually toward an unknown destination. But Kirk Amyx’s visually arresting photo prints of the patterns created by 10,000 overlapping dice rolls in cyan, magenta and yellow, and Wendy Crockett’s evocative gelatin silver photos of an Icelandic teen captured on the brink between childhood and adulthood, served as compelling distractions.

Like paths through the exhibition, themes began to emerge connecting the seemingly disparate pieces. To the left of the entrance, was a poem printed on a scrim suspended from a bamboo pole, a pair of hand-colored photo portraits and a bronze figurine, pieces from Hedwig Heerschop’s corner installation inspired by her father’s World War II experience as a young Dutch soldier in Sumatra. Along the same wall were Barbara Horiuchi’s seven-foot scroll-like hangings, splattered with trails of Japanese black sumi ink and iron filings on white handmade paper. Both Heerschop’s and Horiuchi’s works illuminate familial, historical, and cultural influences in their art.

Johnny Hanna’s Curiosity Cabinet

The ongoing process of imposing order and constructing meaning in an increasingly complex and overwhelming world was a refrain that echoed throughout the exhibition.

Tracy Burk’s exploration of insects, roots and branches becomes “uncanny” and surreal

Susan Suriyapa’s minimal black-and-white drawings based on forms from nature, examine the tension between expansive gestures and attention to minute details. They make manifest the dynamic process in which pictorial elements cohere into an aesthetic image only to dissolve again into marks on paper. Across the room, photographer John Pickelle also calls our attention to the point at which an abstract design becomes a coherent image. As the viewer moves away from his pixilated grids, naked human figures come into focus. Tracy Burk’s bronze insects and uprooted garden plants transform the quotidian into the uncanny. They serve as relics in a personal belief system that is linked to a universal history of rituals related to the natural world. Elizabeth Ribera’s myth- inspired Lilith also weds the personal to cross-cultural icons spanning millennia. Evoking the colors of earth and water, it is a serpent made of cast bronze impressions of the artist’s upper torso and glass culled from beaches from Ribera’s childhood. Subverting scale, Trevor Koch’s five-foot high mountain, dotted with tiny landscape elements, rests on gigantic clawed forearms. It recalls elements of fairy tales and myth realized in intriguing juxtapositions of incongruous materials.

Seen at rear, John Pickelle’s pixelated grids of the figure.  Foreground is shiloh burton’s Gender Universe

In adjacent corners of the gallery, Johnny Hanna and Jim Edgeworth’s works compete for attention. Hanna’s expansive shelves are packed with rows of knick-knacks and tchotchkes, both found originals and replicas created by the artist that comprise just a small fraction of his complete collection. Edgeworth stitched together hundreds of discarded stuffed animals creating colorful branches that extend beyond the corner and onto the ceiling rafters. In the center of this construction, the artist cleared a protected space, a safe haven from the sensory bombardment of urban life engendering spiritual balance, imagination, and wonder. Danielle Siembieda’s BURG (Building User Response Gizmo) brings into focus a different kind of relationship between artwork and the building that houses it. Her malleable model of a heart and lungs hangs on the wall and vibrates in response to the electricity powering the electronic devises to which it is attached. Her work makes energy usage visible and analogous to the workings of the human body.

Foreground: Elizabeth Ribera’s Lilith and rear: Jim Edgeworth’s shelter built of stuffed animals

shiloh burton, Yunan Cao and Beverly Rayner address problems of existing communities, political systems and global technologies. burton’s Gender Intelligence Agency (GIA) turns art viewers into active participants and operatives in a mission to scrutinize traditional categories of identity, such as sex, race, and gender. She welcomes us to an open and all-encompassing Gender Universe. Yunan Cao’s playful Ping Pong Diplomacy invites  viewers to represent opposing teams in a game of table tennis, symbolizing the last 30 years of strained relations between the U.S. and China. And finally, Beverly Rayner’s Power ends the show with a view of the earth from the moon. Outlines of the continents, sprinkled in gold on a painted deep blue screen, depict global population density as clusters of light, like constellations of stars against a night sky.

This unique exhibition is simultaneously humorous and irreverent, contemplative and expansive, and ultimately thought provoking and inspirational. It is on view until June 19, 2010. Don’t miss it!

Sally Sumida’s ongoing obsession is the completion of her master’s thesis on contemporary artist Willie Cole. She’s been a Bay Area museum docent and supporter of the arts for the past two decades and has written for the 2008 and 2009 editions of Lift Off.

Comments are closed.