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Willow: Audio tape billows in the breeze of Robert Ortbal's installation.

Robert Ortbal's coolly detached eco-art assigns equal weight to all materials

By Ann Elliott Sherman

THERE'S A COOL breeziness, both literal and otherwise, to the component parts of Robert Ortbal's new installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose, Between Red and Green. It's a kind of self-conscious playfulness that mixes postminimalist, postconceptualist notions of the gallery as "metaphorical canvas" with a turn-of-the-century inventory of the once-and-future world.

Echoing a favorite gimmick of postminimalist sculpture about 20 years ago, Ortbal has poured terra-cotta clay and water down the inside surface of the gallery's windows and glass door. Turn around once inside, and the panoramic effect of the clay edged against the sky outside suggests you've crossed a distant Navajo sandstone ridge to a parched painted desert formed by the dried clay puddles at your feet. Two dimensions have been bent to three in the foreground.

Fun though this may be, there's more on the wind than revisited novelty. Ortbal's is an intently aware approach that is casual only insofar as its materials are decidedly ordinary things--food, utilitarian objects--shuffled from their usual context. Rather than taking nothing seriously, Ortbal coolly gives everything equal weight. His touch with the materials is light, seeking not to transform them into something else but to put their essential qualities to effective use, so that each thing is recognizably itself and also part of something more.

The titles of the individual works in the installation betray Ortbal as something of a romantic, but his re-creations of natural phenomena inside an institutional space have more of a matter-of-fact detachment than we're accustomed to seeing in end-of-the-millennium eco-art. Rather than being directly nostalgic, elegiac or dystopian, Ortbal's installation pieces function like earnest attempts to capture an experience based on secondhand information--a grandmother's reminiscences or stories in a book.

In his work and between the lines of the art-school mumbo-jumbo about process and materials quoted on the back wall (itself a kind of received wisdom), the artist allows that our own experience of nature or culture is already too mediated to permit a purist's stance. This is the world we live in; it is already a blend of the artificial and organic, being altered daily. Enjoy what you can.

THE PIECE titled Between Red and Green features an electric fan flying a tiny flag made from a swatch of fabric printed with a green hummingbird sipping from a red flower against a dark blue background, just about the shade that's halfway between red and green on the color wheel.

Incandescence manages to be both obvious and surprising, a clear, hanging-bulb light fixture covered with yellow button chrysanthemums that glow from within when the bulb is turned on; clarity of detail is exchanged for a short burst of illuminated color in an instant lesson in optics.

In Bloom, flexing steel bars stand bunched together against the wall, coated halfway up with the same fluffy popped corn heaped at the bars' base and scattered across the gallery floor. The piece is Ortbal's lovely, vernally apocalyptic answer to the riddle "When is a tree not a tree?"

Not every piece translates as effectively from concept to execution. The idea of cutting tortillas into corn-and-flour papel picado snowflakes, piling them in drifts and calling the whole thing Manna is so slyly irreverent that it slays several sacred cows with one slash of the scissors. Unfortunately, it just looks like dumpster cullings. Despite Ortbal's stated concern with using the life-and-death cycle of materials to yield new forms, the mold starting to cover many of the tortillas is an unwelcome exaltation of the mundane.

Recycling its materials as well as the sensory fascination of its namesake, Willow fills the lofty floor-to-ceiling stairwell of the two-story gallery with a soft rustling and gracefully billowing movement. A rotating electric fan mounted upside down on a round plate hanging from the ceiling serves both as the wind source and as the hub of a ring tied with trailing lengths of audio tape.

As the fan turns, the sheeny ribbons of tape swish and ripple, shimmering from black to brown in a sensuously curving wave. This work stirs additional associations with everything from Crystal Gayle's trademark tresses to a hula skirt. Evidence of "common materials' shared unity as matter" or a late-'90s flypaper mind? Whatever.


Between Red and Green runs through May 18 at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose, 451 S. First St. (408/283-8155)

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro

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