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Photograph by Dixie Sheridan

Modern Girlhood: Artist Katherine Aoki has embarked on the creation of an ironically kitsch alternative universe.

Studio Studies

Three weeks of Silicon Valley Open Studios reveal the tense coexistence of art and technology

By Marianne Messina

HOLDING A LONG rod with a knob of orange molten glass at the far end, Monique Tse exhales into her end of the rod. "She's blowing a bubble," explains Susan Longini, executive director of the Bay Area Glass Institute, or BAGI. As the glass cools, Tse elongates the bubble with the help of assistant Mark Murai. If they don't shape it quickly, the glass will become brittle and break.

In addition to the technical expertise needed to create even this small glass chile pepper, Longini believes that, to create art, the glass blower must be free to conceptualize and to ask, "'What statement am I trying to make?' Because at that point you are trying to communicate."

BAGI will be one of the many galleries and individuals that will open their doors to the public during Silicon Valley Open Studios (May 1-2, 8-9 and 15-16. According to Longini, several glass blowers at BAGI (401 E. Taylor Ave., San Jose) are "on the cusp of doing serious art," artists like Bobby Bowes, Nadine Saylor, Treg Silkwood and Masako Onodera.

It's true that in terms of fine art, Silicon Valley is not New York, or even L.A., yet it has a singularly focused voice to offer. For here at the center of the global infatuation for high tech, we're starting to see stress cracks around the human need for organic interactions.

Werner Glinka's mixed-media works dance on this fault line. Neat rows and columns of metallic rivets may be topped with a found fragment of tree branch that emerges from the frame like a pumpkin stem. "I use materials that are purely random--dirt or whatever--and force these materials to conform to a strict geometry," Glinka explains.

Laid off from a high-tech job, Glinka suddenly had time for nature walks, and the wild nuance of an old fallen leaf brought his artistic side to life. "We do have this randomness in us," he says, "but we are suppressed by rules and regulations every day, and I think it's human nature that we want to break out of this." For Glinka, art is where "I get dirty. ... I release a child into a sandbox."

Photographer Pete Zivkov uses similar terms. "It's an adult form of play; adults need this time," Zivkov says, "to make you sane." Works by both Zivkov and Glinka will be on display at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto during Open Studios.

Zivkov calls his photographic work "moving images," because while shooting he moves the camera "in a purposeful way" to capture "iterations" that compress time. For Zivkov, the surprises of his camera process are what animate his work: "It's more improvisational; it's like discovery."

Few can be more improvisational than printmaker Donna Orme. Her improvisation begins when she brings her aluminum plates to the print shop: "You never know until you print it how much ink you've actually pulled off." Orme reports that time spent in "the creative part of your brain" has a different quality to it, and she can reach it through the simple act of sketching.

Zivkov agrees. "For me, [art] was a way to exercise the other half of my brain." With his wife's encouragement, he was able to leave his high-tech job and commit himself to art. Zivkov, Glinka (now a part-time consultant) and retired techie glass blower Mark Murai represent an exodus from the all-devouring world of high tech. And those who haven't dropped out are increasingly seeing the value of art made by those who have. Glinka's machine/nature confrontations obviously speak high techese. "I'm selling a lot of my pieces to people who work in high tech; when they look at my work there's something that's completely unexpected in it."

Still, art like Glinka's and Zivkov's is built around technological questions. What does it do? How does it make you feel? How do you do it? All questions of function. And it's becoming commonplace that questions of meaning and analysis intimidate the contemporary art enthusiast. When Glinka created some pointed works on the Iraq war, he learned something about mixing art with meaning. "People just looked at me. They loved the images but when they found out what it was, they didn't," he says.

An artist who doesn't mind talking about meanings in her work is Katherine Aoki. Perhaps she's more comfortable with meaningful art because she comes not from high tech but from academia. She works out of her studio at the San Jose Art Collective (1068 The Alameda) and teaches at Santa Clara University.

"The first gender work I did, when I was still in grad school, was [the series] 'Men's Housekeeping,' and then it was 'Women With Tools' as a phallic metaphor," she recalls. When Aoki found herself making "this image of the purple dump truck with the girl riding in it--the anime girl--and flowers on it," a universe was born. She calls it "The Construction of Modern Girlhood." So far, the universe exists in bits and pieces scattered over several media (prints, installations, sculptures, modified stuffed animals). It's a universe of hot pink and bright yellow, in which cutsie, round teddy bears ("happy the way they were made") get "harvested and processed" (lose their mouths and become anorexically thin) in a factory Aoki hasn't built yet. "I have a conveyor belt installation in mind," she muses.

Aoki will unabashedly tell you that the bears represent girls and that they've been forced (by the media) to build the monuments (towering lip gloss and mountainous platform sandals). The images are all so bright, cute and campily twisted that despite the didactic underlay, Aoki's universe grows on you by the second.

This deliberate pursuit of answers to questions like the one Longini suggested--"What statement am I trying to make?"--seems in marked contrast to Zivkov's celebration of how no two people will see the same thing in his work. And while artist glass blowers try to master the technology in order to get creative, high-tech exiles work in the opposite direction, looking to what they don't know in the technology to springboard their creativity. "The randomness within the process," Zivkov writes, "transforms ordinary scenes into abstract art."

Often, the tech-world exile has turned to art to address a certain failure of technology. "I was kind of frustrated in my high-tech career," Zivkov admits, "in the sense that I wasn't able to be as creative as I wanted to." Perhaps in a world overrun with the tyranny of predictable outcomes, we look to art as the one place where we don't have to have answers. What we end up with is an uneasy marriage: the success of Glinka's precarious blends; increasing sales of BAGI glass that Longini attributes to a high-tech appreciation for blowing technology. It's a curious dialectic, the pendulum swing between technology and randomness. And the art on display at the Silicon Valley Open Studios lies at the heart of the discussion.

Silicon Valley Open Studios runs May 1-2 in Campbell, Los Gatos, Morgan Hill, San Jose and Santa Clara; May 8-9 in Cupertino, Los Altos, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Saratoga, Stanford and Sunnyvale; May 15-16 in San Mateo County. (See www.svopenstudios.org for details on artists and studios.)

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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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