Sublime and Subliminal
By Andy Muonio

Currently the Palo Alto Art Center at 1313 Newell has two dramatically different solo shows on exhibition until December 21st. Each of these artists brings their sense of humanity and its relationship to the world.

In bold lettering, the entrance to the Art Center’s galleries introduces us to the first exhibition: In the Bigger Picture: Richard Misrach.

Richard Misrach‚Äôs photography is a sublime representation of the art form. It is filled with the remarkable texture and rich detail that comes from his use of the large format camera. They are unapologetically uncompromising in their form, having an intense casualness to them. They are so carefully composed but retain a sense of the travel snap-shot. Misrach did not crop his image in the production of the print but was meticulous with his composition through the lens of his camera. The breadth and scale of his landscapes comes across in each print but the viewer’s scale is not lost.

Stranded Rowboat, Salton Sea, 1983-1994, Richard Misrach (American, b 1949-) Coll. Museum of Contemporary Photography, Cilumbia College, Photo: Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In Untitled, Santa Barbara (people on a raft) {1984/printed 2006 chromatic print (ed. 17/25) courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco} the viewer is intimately drawn into the diminutive figures a fraction of the height of the composition. They are floating on a small raft in the ocean near the middle of the frame. Their tiny heads are touching a soft horizon. The raft is tethered with a long rope to the shore where we see a gentle wave breaking just in front of us. This photograph is typical of the careful compositions Misrach creates. It is divided much like a Renaissance Italian painting with a heaven above and the earth below. The figures’ heads occupy the liminal space on the horizon. It is not unlike the place humanity is situated in all of his work. Modernity and humans are small and transitional compared to the grandeur of nature. Misrach also includes a special twist here in a very subtle way. Very faintly can be seen the many oil rigs on the horizon, dwarfed by their surroundings.

Misrach creates work of great beauty with the sharp focus on small elements characteristic of his medium. They are impeccably crafted both technically and formally. His works shows the temporality of humanity in enduring nature. The road in the photograph: Western Utah, 1992, is just another crack in the salt flats, a minor crack. Windmill Farms, San Gorgonio Pass seems to document the windmills’ ultimate demise in as much as there construction looming in the San Bernardino Mountains perched above them. Even his photograph of the iconographic pyramids of Egypt shows their weathering and smallness. The single figure beside the great structure seems to contemplate their destruction.

Clever curatorial placement delights the viewer in this installation. It is fun to see White Man Contemplating Pyramids, Egypt next to the Swimmers, Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, Nevada. Its visual and symbolic reflection do not distract from the content of the work.

Chance Encounter in the Wasteland, 1996, a miniature scenario in metals, jewels and wood by Bruce Metcalf

In the large gallery at Palo Alto Art Center can be found: The Miniature Worlds of Bruce Metcalf. The viewer is first introduced to a display of miniature items from an Ant Farm to an iPod in the foyer of the gallery, which should not be confused with Metcalf’s work that follows. The wall drawings by Bruce Metcalf are wonderful alone and make the signage with the very large blow up of the sketchbook drawings look awkward.

The comic meets subliminal in Metcalf’s world. It is a world not untouched by popular culture. It seems to draw from the spectacle of modernity but twist it in an intimate way. It has a cable cartoon РFar Side РNightmare Before Christmas feel but is much more subtle and subliminal in both its unsettling nature and whimsy.

The black boxes beckon you to an intimate viewing of seedy gestural figures. One of these is Fan Club of One, 1996 (Sterling silver, mirrored Plexiglas, Delrin). An approximately one foot square black cube is hung so you must bend down to peer through the one inch diameter whole onto a small dimly lit sculpture hung inside of the blackness. It is a devil-horned figure, its bare bottom faces you as it holds a tiny windowpane that contains a mirror and you can just see the reflection of your eye in the circle looking into the box. The horns are on a strap of a helmet and the bare bottom bares goose pimples on its shiny metallic flesh. Like most of Metcalf‚Äôs figures, the head is enormous and the body is deformed in an exquisite manner. Works such as this, with their expression, character and freshness have a power that his works, the more proportionally correct, Dancer in Red, 2001 and Blindfold, 2001 seem to lack. With his sketchbooks on display we can see his translation from the 2-d drawing to the 3-d gesture. Each one of the many pieces in this exhibition show the artist’s hand and his attention to surface, texture, patina, form and color.

The addition of the HO scale model is a mystery to me. It is carefully executed but not sublime. Constructed of off-the-shelf parts and materials, I spent the most time looking at it trying to figure out its place among the other works. It speaks to a suburban pastime nearly an antithesis to his edgy figures. It can hardly be compared to such scale model work as those by England’s Jake and Dinos Chapman, with their bad-boy shocking use of the same type of off-the-shelf material. If this piece must be categorized in a contemporary genre, Metcalf is at his obsessive best here.

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