Big Data

Sonya Rapoport finds inspiration in hard numbers and soft machines
NEW LANGUAGE: In 'Koch II,' on display at the San Jose Museum of Art, one can see the evolution of artist Sonya Rapoport's work.

It's fitting that "Sonya Rapoport: Biorhythm," a survey of work by the late Rapoport (d. 2015), is in a gallery adjacent to the "Almost Human" exhibit. As digital sounds and LED images and shadows flicker like firelight in the room next door, they amplify the stillness of Rapoport's paintings and collages.

"Biorhythm" displays Rapoport's work from the 1970s and '80s but you can see the through-line connecting her computer paper-printouts to the artificial intelligence indifferently clicking and swaying through the open archway.

Rapoport received an MA in painting from UC Berkeley in 1949. Assistant Curator Kathryn Wade, who organized this show, includes one painting from the artist's early forays into abstract expressionism. Pink and Gray (1958) is an almost-sculptural oil-on-canvas, the thick brushstrokes building up a hardened impasto crust. Depending on how you circle the gallery, it's either the first painting you'll engage with or the last. But it stands out as an example of an artist at the beginning of her career, experimenting with technique but in search of a subject.

When you stand in front of a later, more representative painting such as Koch II (1973-75), you can see that Rapoport has found what she wants to say and that she's invented a language to clearly communicate that message to her audience. With these spray-acrylic and graphite works, the artist embraces minimalism while exerting order and control. She replaces the chaotic swaths from Pink and Gray with colder, muted distillations of color and an intense precision. But that's not to say she eliminates a sense of play and spontaneity.

Orbs drift and collide with lines. Some of them open up, dissolve or overlap with grids. Color mutates like lava fields on distant planets. These paintings retain an abstract narrative but they also nod to architectural forms and organic shapes. They could be hieroglyphics sent directly to Rapoport's mind from a more advanced region of the universe.

What accounts for this press into minimalism? The rise of computers and technology. "Her interest in computers was sparked in the mid-1970s, when she discovered discarded computer printouts in the Math Department at UC Berkeley and began incorporating them in her work," a synopsis of this exhibition explains. The small SD video monitor at the far end of the exhibit offers a 1983 account of what eventually emerged from her explorations. Biorhythm: Sonya Rapoport, a short, 5-minute video, was shot at WORKS/San Jose on May 13, 1983. The subtitle reads, "An Audience Participation Performance."

What's missing from the hushed SJMA exhibit are the lively interactions taking place on the video. Rapoport herself makes an appearance with Jackie O-sized reading glasses and an asymmetrical haircut. She explains her methodology in the meditative voice that great teachers use to impart their wisdom and good therapists use to inspire calm.

"I start with soft material," she says. "Soft material deals with behavior patterns. Something that's not categorized.

"I analyze this soft material into a hard material. By hard, I mean they're categorized. They're numbered. All devices used in order to put them into a computer program."

The people who arrived at WORKS/San Jose back in 1983 were first asked to describe how they were feeling (soft material). Then they were asked to mime that feeling with their hands, which were photographed in front of a white bib draped across the chest. Rapoport also created Computer Says I Feel...... a "fictional computer program", to give the participants an assessment of their emotional state. And finally, a palmist would read their thumbs (not their palms for some reason).

The energy in the room that night was bubbling. There was a hopeful air of promise. New Age wisdom was about to be conveyed by new technologies—with Rapoport as a mischievous mistress of ceremonies. You can also hear the voices of these participants playing on an audio loop on the back wall, next to their bibbed photographs. They sound innocent, excited to be engaged with other people who are also talking about their feelings and identities. Whether or not the computer data correlated in any way to their actual states of mind was beside the point. This was a social media event that happened IRL.

Sonya Rapoport: Biorhythm
Thru July 5, 2020, $10
San Jose Museum of Art

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