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The Arts
September 6-12, 2006

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'American Seven'

Sinners' Blocks: Janet Fine uses illustrated blocks to depict the seven sins.

By the Numbers

'American Seven' at WORKS/San Jose updates the seven deadly sins; 'Waiting for ( )' at the ICA finds an eighth crime

By Michael S. Gant

PEOPLE DON'T take the seven deadly sins as seriously as, oh, say, Dante did. In the Middle Ages, gluttony required a lot of hard time in Purgatory; today, it's a way of life for two-thirds of Americans. Ditto avarice. Se7en used the deadly sins as a sick-humor gimmick to keep a serial killer supplied with victims, but the modern laissez-faire attitude was best captured in the original Bedazzled, with personified comic sins (most memorably Raquel Welch as lust) employed by Peter Cook's devil, who quips, "What terrible sins I have working for me. I suppose it's the wages."

"American Seven," a group show at WORKS/San Jose, wants to revive that sense of mortal consequence that once adhered to the numbered transgressions. The show updates moral shortcomings to be the crimes and oppressions of American society as a whole. Pride becomes nationalism, leading to war and torture, for instance. The equations aren't always so tidy; old-fashioned lust equals modern-day graft and fraud, sure, but it hardly seems fair to add something as innocent as "game-show competition" to the list. American Idol is more of a venial sin.

But the show doesn't promise literal expressions of contemporary flaws. Instead, it serves as big tent in which about 20 artists can evince some serious anger about the state of the nation, especially our reckless adventure in Iraq. Mark Nobriga's collages satirize Operation Enduring Stupidity. In Gift of Democracy (Fruitcake for Iraq), the giant candied offering hovers like a UFO over a map of the country that didn't ask for such a present. More didactic and less successful is Spreading Democracy, in which young Arab boys, urged on by a page from a primer on insurrection, hurl ineffective spears at American missiles.

In a more generalized critique of American militarism, Clare Cornell attached toy jet fighters to photographs of small children and gives the images heavily ironic titles. The best of these, We're Facing a Radical Ideology, shows a bewildered baby with a cowlick of red hair sitting on an overstuffed easy chair. Outside the picture, five orange toy planes soar past. The planes, although not part of the photo's subject, cast shadows over the hapless infant—intruders from above.

Jeff Faerber contributes three small, smart caricatures of the usual suspects: St. George (Bush), Kenny Boy (Lay) and Dark Lord Cheney. Faerber's Cheney, surveying all that he commands with a smirk verging on a leer, sprouts two oil derricks on his forehead like the horns on the devil.

John Landino's 9/11 provides an arresting sculpture for a post-9/11 world: out of a discarded gear housing, a twisted, rusty piece of rebar enfolds a charred copy of the 9/11 Commission's report. The investigation, Landino implies, is yet another victim lost in the rubble.

The effect is watered down by a piece that uses the same found-metal armature to clutch a burned copy of the Constitution. The catalog, which describes his work as "a shamanistic practice involving welding and ritual to return knowledge to participants robbed of their culture and humanity by the forces of arrogant pride exercising censorship in America," doesn't help.

Also referencing 9/11 is Sjon Welters' large painting Complacency (a variant of sloth). Dominating the right side of the mural-like work is a despondent woman slumped in a chair. On her head, she wears a crumpled paper crown; beside her is an end table covered with party leftovers. She looks like the victim of an all-night revel that wasn't supposed to end. Moving to the left, we see the cause of her discontent. Her feet float off into a cloud of destruction aimed at two black towers.

Janet Fine takes a more humorous approach, playing with the whole idea of sin. Her Seven & Seven consists of two wooden boxes, one labeled Deadlies, the other Sicklies, into which various wooden cubes with advertising and magazine images glued to them can be inserted by the user in a game of mix and match. Fine's witty Sickly sins are "Moral majority, white lie, road rage, identity theft, potty mouth, friendly fire and corporate homogenization."

Chris Clary gets completely personal about lust with a simple conceptual piece called A Saturday Night Portrait: a brown-paper bag supposedly containing copies of three hard-core magazines. I did not succumb to the lesser sin of curiosity and look inside to verify the contents. In her silk-screen and ink piece, Fanny Retsek identifies a sin that is too often overlooked: abuse of animals (a form of species pride). With a nod to Philip K. Dick's novel, Premarin Horses Dream of Summer Grass stretches a line of bisected horses beneath a dense grid of tiny boxes, each marked with flecks of red to represent the suffering that pregnant mares undergo in order to produce the drug.

The show's concept stretches so far that some works remain puzzling. Even after reading the catalog, I still don't understand what sin Johnny Peres Bruno was getting at with his painting It Was Just a Joke, Gut Bomb, which shows a large cartoony bomb spilling a load of entrails by the side of pool. Two abstracts by Janeth Berrettini ripple with dark menace, but the explanation that they have something to do with trench warfare only furthers the mystery.

Do Not Pass Godot

In a similar mode of political outrage, Waiting for ( ), Julia Page's mixed-media installation at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, pointedly and brilliantly exposes another modern sin: Ditherance.

The piece, part of the "NextNew2006" show, plays off of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, about two existential drifters stuck in place who can't make up their minds. On either side of a bare skeleton of a tree, two TV monitors play a complex mixtape of U.S. senators debating the decision to invade Iraq. Picking up on some key dialogue from Beckett, Page edits down the legislative rhetoric to a mantra of repetition, stringing together sentences from single words spoken by the senators. Over and over, Biden, Feinstein, Boxer, Lieberman, McCain, Durbin, Byrd et al. stutter through the phrases "Where can we go?" "Well, where shall we go?," "I don't know," "We didn't come" and "Let's go far away from here."

Page, who teaches at UC-Santa Cruz, perfectly captures the circular insanity of a an endless, meaningless debate that never grasped the real issues while the administration—led by St. George and Dark Lord Cheney—kept moving inexorably ahead toward the quagmire.

American Seven shows through Sept. 16 at WORKS/San Jose, 30 N. Third St., San Jose. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon-4pm, Thursday till 7pm. (408.295.8378)

NextNew2006: Art and Technol runs through Sept. 16 at San Jose ICA, 560 S. First St., San Jose. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday noon-5pm, Thursday till 8pm. (408.283.8155)

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