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The Arts
July 26-August 1, 2006

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'Sears I'

Pillar to Post: 'Sears I,' a pigment on rag paper by Katherine Westerhout

Tech and Textiles

San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles warms up for ZeroOne with two intriguing exhibits about paranoia and process

By Michael S. Gant

BY NOW, the ritual of security clearance at the airport has become second nature. The traveler passes through an electronic portal to the limbo of the departure lounge. In an edgy installation called Insecurity at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, Julie John Upshaw ups the anxiety level of that common experience.

Visitors enter the museum's central gallery through one of those ubiquitous metal-detectors, setting off overhead lights. But it is quickly apparent that no one is minding the machine. Metal conduit extends in long tracery patterns from a power outlet on the gate. The pipes snake across the floor and up the walls like jungle vines seeking sunlight. But ultimately, they trail off into nothingness; they don't lead to any central databanks where every visitor is profiled.

Even more troubling implications await. Five white medical gowns hang on a metal rack. The quarantined might be ordered to don garments like these. On the label of each, Upshaw has stitched in black thread a cryptic biomorphic form, perhaps corresponding to some disease: a pile of severed ears, a loop of intestines twisted into a noose, a tuber with pincher-claw ends.

Paranoia level rising, it's easy to imagine that these ideographs tell the alien nurses which of three examination rooms you belong in. The sheer curtains are embroidered with mummy-wrapped figures contorted into painful positions—portents of full-body cavity searches to come. But again, the menace is curiously muted. More conduit to nowhere trails from these cubicles. Someone has pulled the plug on this experiment and gone home, leaving the lab rats to fend for themselves.

Upshaw's most disturbing implication is the idea that the best spies are the ones who spy on themselves. Dick Cheney's wet dream: A no-cost NSA. And yet Insecurity is strangely pleasing. The use of articulated tubing as a structural element is an inspired combination of the rigid and the fluid.

Insecurity, with its technological echoes, makes a neat complement to the ZeroOne Festival of digital and interactive arts, coming Aug. 7-13. Most of the museums and galleries in downtown San Jose will be participating with related exhibits. Also at the quilt museum is Katherine Westerhout's "After/Image."

Westerhout uses specialized computer techniques to create astonishing images of abandoned industrial sites in the Bay Area. Westerhout has her photographs scanned from film and then inkjet-printed on rag paper. The same views are enlarged and then reproduced on canvas at a larger size. In a further evolution, she sends the digitized image files to Belgium where they are fed into a high-tech loom that converts them into wall-size tapestries.

In all three states, these vast unpeopled interiors astonish the eye in the same way that Edward Burtynsky's giant photographs of oil refineries and open-pit mines do. Westerhout positions her camera so that the wet floors of these empty buildings serve as polished surfaces reflecting the ceilings so perfectly that a great double-story depth seems to open up beneath your feet.

With a forest of rusting girders and long diagonals of roof beams and window sashes, these interiors recede to infinite vanishing points. Richmond II, all glass skylights, is suffused with brilliant light; Wards VI, full of unadorned, thick round concrete pillars receding through a doorway, looks every bit like an ancient Egyptian temple. As the images move from rag paper to canvas to woven cloth, the texture of the material begins to soften the contours. In the tapestries, the surface becomes 3-D, buckling and bubbling. Rigid lines dissolve. At a certain point, it is as if the resolution of the digitized image hovers in the balance with the scale of the weave. One molecule more, and the image might flicker away completely.

Insecurity by Julie John Upshaw and After/Image by Katherine Westerhout, along with Art About Art by Virginia Davis, run through Oct. 1 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, 520 S. First St., San Jose. (408.971.0323)

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