Staying in Touch with the Earth

Two new SJMA exhibits ponder our relationship with the land
Victor Cartagena's paper mural, 'Burrocracia,' recalls 'Guernica' and Greek red-figure pottery.

Maurilio Maravilla's face is melting in an upstairs gallery at the San Jose Museum of Art. To be more precise, twelve molds of his face, all made from sugar, are in the process of decomposition. The faces, hanging in a row, are dyed a rich, earthen brown. As they react to the light, air and heat, dark purple splotches are breaking out like rashes.

They are oozing out a sticky liquid that catches on and stains the white stand beneath their chins. There's a Grand Guignol quality to a roomful of severed, "bleeding" heads adorning a long white wall. But Beta Space: Victor Cartagena isn't a Gothic expression of some artist's solipsism.

Beta Space is SJMA's "experimental laboratory" where new work is commissioned to "reflect the diversity and innovative spirit of Silicon Valley." In Victor Cartagena's case, he researched the history of farm workers in Salinas. The artist met Maravilla, a 100-year-old Mexican immigrant who had once harvested sugar beet crops alongside Cesar Chavez. Sugar Face, the disintegrating molds, is the resultant work acknowledging the contributions of immigrant labor and the hard-won fight for farmworker rights. Cartagena has created a compelling visual equivalent for the related hashtag #WeFeedYou.

Covering the entire opposing wall is Cartagena's arresting paper mural Burrocracia. The title is a play on words: the Spanish word for donkey is burro. The scene depicts a series of human and donkey figures colliding on a black background. In Cartagena's composition, his bureaucracy is run by human beasts, punishing and being punished, in a Boschian picture of hell. With his use of black, the artist also repurposes the ancient Greek technique of red-figure pottery. Like those Greeks, he's telling a story, but a large scale one whose narrative eschews order in favor of chaos.

In addition to Beta Space's attention to earth, another element is currently featured at SJMA—water. Collectively, The Water Projects ask us to consider art as a vital connection to the environmental movement. Fragile Waters: Photographs by Ansel Adams, Ernest H. Brooks II, and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly displays a plethora of black and white photographs that seem to bottle up history with each framed and pristine body of water. Upstairs, The Darkened Mirror: Global Perspectives is a more contemporary and urgent response to an endangered resource.

The international artists in this gallery employ film and video to focus on the (mis)use of water. At the entrance, Gerco de Ruijter's photograph Source (2012) leads directly to his 4-minute stop motion film Cropped (2012). He compiled over a thousand Google Earth images of agricultural fields. All of which operate on an irrigation system that, from above, imprints circular patterns on the land. Michel Banabila's electronic score lends an ominous overtone to the crop circles as they quickly flash by. The film doesn't answer, it only asks the question: does this scarring harm the planet?

Along with Vibha Galhotra's video of India's polluted Yamuna River, Manthan (2015), Jesper Just provides a less opaque response. Just's 7-minute film Llano is set in an abandoned commune in the Southern California desert. Llano del Rio failed in 1918 because the inhabitants there were denied permits to create a water infrastructure. Just films the ruins left behind and, ironically, creates an artificial water system. At first, you can hear water running in the background until the camera slowly zooms out to show a system of pipes and hoses. The water spills over the rubble and into the parched earth. In each one of these films, The Darkened Mirror offers an engaging way to contemplate our relationship with water, one that's as often as not wasteful and destructive.

Beta Space: Victor Cartagena
The Darkened Mirror: Global Perspectives
Thru Sept 4, 11am-5pm, $5+
San Jose Museum of Art

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