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The Soul's Sanctum

Jennybird Alcantara's paintings explore the darker realms of human nature


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TWO QUOTES immediately come to mind when one steps into Jennybird Alcantara's solo exhibit at Anno Domini of surrealistic oil paintings, Flies in the Buttermilk. The first is that classic passage when Timothy Leary once described Salvador Dali as "the only person who can paint LSD without having taken LSD." And then, of course, one of Dali's favorite quotes is "I don't do drugs, because I am drugs." But that's only the surface analysis of Alcantara's paintings.

The opening reception drew more than 100 people to the downtown San Jose gallery, including legendary illustrator Barron Storey. One particular person walked up to me and said, "I don't know who the artist is, but she's obviously got access to much better drugs than I do." So I pointed him in Alcantara's direction and told him to go tell her that and see what she said.

Alcantara's paintings may look like euphoric drug-induced dreamscapes to some, but the artist says she doesn't do drugs at all. Like many shows at Anno Domini, Flies simply explores the darker side of human nature and exposes the brutality underlying even the simplest of things.

It's a yin-yang take on fairy lands, with broken hearts and severed arms accompanying childlike imagery. The paintings fill the gallery with huge eyeballs, broken hearts and amputated limbs. (You just can't go wrong with amputated limbs, by the way.)

Several of the works feature humans morphing into animals. "They can't be just human or animal," Alcantara said. "It has to be a cross between both." One hit at the reception was a small oil-on-wood piece featuring a girl's head morphing into a wolf's head. Alcantara calls it her "Little Red Riding Hood" piece.

Other pieces feature the female form with elephantine heads and trunks. They recall the famous W.C. Fields quote "Women are like elephants. They're nice to look at, but I wouldn't want to own one."

Huge extraterrestrial-like eyeballs also dominate most of the works. "The eyes started getting bigger when I started painting dolls," Alcantara said. And the exhibit also contains a few painted dolls that relate to the oil paintings.

In the gallery's retail space, one finds the Bleeding Heart Gang Dolls, a set of dolls fashioned from acrylic paint, cotton, felt and wool. Like the paintings, they explore the mosaic of characters within every human being. Many of the paintings likewise feature bleeding hearts and multiple personalities.

But getting back to amputated limbs, there appears to be a reason why many of these oil paintings feature disconnected arms and such. I hear that the artist has a hard time painting exactly what she sees in her head, so there's a disconnect of some sort. She also said she likes to let the paintings speak for themselves, rather than engage in some elaborate oration explaining what they mean.

The title of the exhibit comes from the old children's tune of the same name and if you go online and actually look up the song "Flies in the Buttermilk," there are instructions for teachers: "If students don't know what buttermilk is, then call it yellow milk. Explain that the milk is spoiled and that's why the flies are in it." That, in a nutshell, is Alcantara's exhibit. We're all spoiled milk. Flies are drowning inside every single one of us.

But with all this vivid imagery of the soul's divided inner sanctum, more than anything the paintings simply explore the opposing inner selves within the human creature. As Norman Mailer once said, "We're all divided souls; we've got two natures in us. You measure schizophrenia not by the fact that you're divided but how well the divisions speak to one another."

I just don't know if I can ever drink buttermilk again.

Flies in the Buttermilk, a solo show by Jennybird Alcantara, runs through March 18 at Anno Domini, 366 S. First St., San Jose. (408.271.5155)

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From the February 8-14, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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