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Coming Home to Roost: Bill Berry's 'Cackle of Chickens' amasses an army of inflatable worker drones.


Arts Ahead

A new show at WORKS samples the art of California MFA grads

By Michael S. Gant

GENERALLY, when artists go on the offensive against George W., they have to raise the bar pretty high. No one earns points just for hitting a target that big. However, there is something genuinely scary (especially after recent events in Iraq) about the video Michael Rich has contributed to WORKS/San Jose's current show, New California Masters. On a TV monitor, the president blankly stares into the camera just before beginning his speech announcing our pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Notice how his the blinking of his eyes starts to form a repeating cycle. The name of the piece--S.O.S.--explains the vague familiarity of the looped pattern: Bush is frantically signaling for help. He is in way over his head, and we are all paying the price.

For the exhibit, guest curator Kuniko Vroman has assembled pieces by nearly a score of recent MFA graduates from around California. The artists lean heavily toward photographic works and installations, with nary a painting in sight. The willingness to experiment is admirable, but I miss the tactile pleasures of the paint brush.

The other video offerings fall short of Rich's jolt of political despair. Jason Mortara's A Gentle Collapsing of Every Surface has some fun with the notion of turning tools on themselves--using a clamp to clamp a clamp; applying a can opener to a can opener--but runs on at 23 minutes. Alice Cattaneo's and Jackie Sumell's videos are exceedingly lightweight; they must have been more fun to make than they are to watch.

Vietnamese-born Binh Danh is represented by some of his exquisite "chorophyll prints," in which images are transferred to leaves by a photosynthetic process invented by the artist. The results are like living memories, with faint images of faces preserved in the vascular netting of organic matter. Tim Sullivan's large C-prints depict a scrawny geek in college wrestler's togs battling a plastic chair; it's a gag funny enough to conjure up Andy Kaufman's faux-wrestling performances on Saturday Night Live. Christine Nguyen's Clionessonic Temple, a wall-sized mosaic of abstract C-prints, looks simultaneously like a glimpse into the cosmic and the microscopic. Seemingly drawing with pulses of light, Nguyen reveals a world of biomorphic bacterialike entities twisting and floating through deep space.

Bill Berry's Cackle of Chickens takes up the back corner of the gallery with row upon row of vinyl punching dolls, each emblazoned with an identical image of a bespectacled businessman. Surviving in the workplace requires a masochistic level of resilience, Berry implies.

Not many casual visitors are likely to find the traveling exhibit called Cerdà: The Barcelona Extension, now on display upstairs at SJSU's Washington Square Hall, but anyone interested in city planning should make the trip. With maps, photos and some insightful text, the exhibit, sponsored by SJSU's Department of Urban and Regional Planning, explores the work of visionary 19th-century planner Ildefons Cerdà. Deeply troubled by the crowded conditions that oppressed the poor, Cerdà created a blueprint for Barcelona's growth that took into account residents' needs for privacy, the importance of integrated transportation lines and property values. Particularly impressive are the city blocks with chamfered corners that allowed for public spaces like sidewalk cafes and pedestrian islands. Just up the street at Fourth and Santa Clara, where the new library sits, you can see a busy, undistinguished intersection that could have been a great focal point for people as well as cars if only today's planners had half the vision of Cerdà.

New California Masters runs through April 17 at WORKS/San Jose, 30 N. Third St., San Jose (408.295.8378). Cerda: The Barcelona Extension Runs through April 18 on the second floor of Washington Square Hall, SJSU.

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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