Artists Ponder Their Soupy Origins at SJICA

'Primordial Soup' explores the murky, mucky beginnings of organic life
Artists Tracey Adams and Virginia Folkestad ponder the earliest stages of life with their collaborative 'Primordial Soup.'

Walk through the black curtain behind the back gallery at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art and you'll get a taste of Tracey Adams and Virginia Folkestad's "Primordial Soup." They've created a prehistoric, pantry-sized diorama that depicts the beginning of life on Earth (or, at least, one postulation of it).

Tendrils hang down everywhere. Some float from above like chandeliers at an octopus' dinner party. Others jut straight out of the walls. Amoeba-shaped critters are fixed in place but the squiggles on their backs suggest a scurrying motion as if they had unfinished business to carry out. Electronic music, composed by Jennifer Trust Wilkerson, drifts in and pulses out, summoning up an underwater version of a Dead Can Dance instrumental that's washed up on the shoreline.

This forest of primeval seaweed is all Illuminated under a blacklight. To the human eye, the walls are a dull, sepulchral yellow. But lift your camera lens up to these aqueous limbs and their multifarious offshoots and suddenly everything fluoresces. The walls themselves turn a rich shade of magenta or a deep maritime blue. Adams lives near the ocean and says it's her muse, "Imagery from the ocean has always interested me but in the abstract way." For this exhibit, she was inspired by two distinct yet ocean-adjacent sources—a professor at UC Santa Cruz and the jellyfish swimming and fluorescing at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "I got some fluorescent paint, put it on my printing table, and I started dipping black paper into it, creating veiny, arterial shapes and lines and they were beautiful," she says.

The professor, Dr. Robert Linington, has since moved his lab to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. But before he left, Adams had a chance to visit him in Santa Cruz, where he and his colleagues study ocean specimens. The lab's ongoing research objectives are "the discovery of new compound classes for drug development against pathogenic bacteria, cancer and global health parasites." She toured the facility and, after returning for a second visit, photographed some of the microscopic imagery collected in stacks and stacks of Petri dishes. In a serendipitous convergence of art and science, Adams found that some of the shapes she discovered amongst the specimens were similar to ones she'd previously incorporated into her paintings. The artist didn't make this claim herself but the circumstantial evidence does seem to confirm the existence of the unconscious as its drawn inexplicably and repeatedly towards its own peculiar obsessions.

Adams considers herself to be a two dimensional artist, a painter who draws and does printmaking. She asked Folkestad, a sculptor, to participate when "Primordial Soup" was conceived of as an immersive, three-dimensional installation. For about a year, they exchanged ideas about what they hoped to accomplish. She explained that during their process they experimented with different materials and shapes asking themselves, "How do we get your work to integrate with mine? How do we merge them so it's cohesive?"

At first, Folkestad suggested that Adams work with an insulating foam that expands as you spray it. But she found it "grotesque" and hated it. "Virginia was encouraging me to let it dry and sculpt it. I was doing that and sanding it and it was all over everything. I said, 'We can't do this anymore. This is not who I am.'" After that, Adams got out those fluorescent cans of paint and began to figure out what worked for her practice.

Stepping inside "Primordial Soup," you find yourself in a contemplative space. Adams says she's an introvert who frequently meditates, and that's what she hoped the installation would be. She thought that if it was going to be successful, it would take "a little bit of steering through the music, the auditory senses and the visual senses, into the quiet and the darkness of the room, that people would go inward and find whatever it is that they would find." Like Dr. Linington in his work to find cures for diseases in the ocean, Adams and Folkestad's exhibit makes use of ocean imagery to soothe the soul. It makes sense, both logically and intuitively, to seek out a small temple filled with offerings to our original place, the primordial soup.

Primordial Soup
Thru Feb 3
San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

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