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Bagged: Heidi Zumbrun's photo preserves the ruins of an elf doll.

Candy Caning

'Hard Candy' show at SJICA casts a jaundiced eye on sweet treats

By Michael S. Gant

JUST IN TIME for Valentine's Day, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art presents "Hard Candy," a group exhibit that lifts the lid on the proverbial box of chocolates and discovers a sticky collection of tainted memories about sex, childhood and all things "sweetness and light." Guest curator Karen Kienzle has assembled pieces by area artists who know that too much sugar can produce cavities--both dental and psychological.

Anne Peet's sculpted pile of oversized candy hearts takes the show's title literally--these hearts bear distinctly blunt, unsentimental messages like "Blow Me," "Sweet Meat" and "Tease." Most of the artists in the show, however, narrow their focus to explore childhood traumas that put the lie to pieties about sugar and spice and everything nice. Perhaps scarred by too many Jan Svankmajer nightmare movies of rotting stuffed animals come to life, several of the contributing artists reveal a queasy relationship with the supposedly comforting "loveys" of their youth.

Heidi Zumbrun photographs the disarticulated parts of an elf doll inside a plastic bag that looks like an evidence kit from C.S.I.--innocence not just lost, but murdered. In an equally striking C-print, Kim Brown reveals the muzzle of a ceramic rabbit as big as a Rottweiler looming out of a fuzzy field of pure white. Even scarier is Philip Knoll's extra-large graphite-and-oil rendering of a Rabbit with immense round eyes popping out of its head and anatomically correct female genitalia. James Albertson's exuberantly painterly The Doll Doctor depicts a somewhat maniacal child experimenting on a pile of severed doll heads, while her mother and sister, crowded in a corner of her room, look on. Daniel Winkler's baby-doll sculptures, with their ravening monster mouths, are technically impressive, if somewhat too obvious--they look like escapees from the special-effects department.

In a curious juxtaposition of textures, Lucy Puls has fashioned seven concrete blocks covered with random patches of soft fur in blue and white and pink--as if the hard building material had been fused with a menagerie of stuffed animals. A couple of works use wooden alphabet blocks for border designs, but Kimberly Austin goes a step further, converting the familiar shape into large metal-edged blocks. The screened images on the faces of the blocks range from the benign (a Schoenhut toy tiger, a thimble) to the troubling (a diagram of the human brain, a woman brandishing a carving knife) to the ironic (quoted passages from psychological texts on childhood sexuality).

After the traumas vividly foregrounded in "Hard Candy," the related "Sextablos" show looks positively healthy in its unabashed display of penile and vaginal shapes painted (and assembled) on tin in the manner of the traditional Mexican religious offerings known as retablos. Quite a few seem to be giving thanks to eros for good sex--homo-, hetero- and manual. One of the wittiest recalls the old admonition about masturbation in its depiction of a human hand, its palm sporting a lush growth of hair and the images of imagined women of desire on every fingertip.

Hard Candy runs through March 13 at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 451 S. First St., San Jose. Sextablos runs through April 3.

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From the February 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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