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Two New on First Street

Ralph Durham

Working Space: 'M' Gallery provides artists (including Mattison FitzGerald, pictured) with room to show and create.

Kismet the Gallery and 'M' Gallery enliven the South First Street art scene

By Ann Elliott Sherman

SMACK-DAB between the billowing red awnings of South First Billiards and the armored windows of the defunct National store, metal letters in high relief against a gabled maize stucco facade announce, "Kismet the Gallery." It's the latest in a burgeoning crop of art galleries in San Jose's downtown SoFA district.

A few unusually crafted iron tables and chairs flank imposing 12-foot-high doors of brushed and studded steel that could have been designed by Lane Smith for an animated remake of Metropolis. Once inside the gallery/cafe, however, the heavy metal incongruously gives way to light blond Windsor chairs of the sort typically encountered at a franchise fresh-salad buffet.

Although there are a few works hung in the coffeehouse at the front of the space, most are displayed in the gallery that extends the length of the rectangular warehouse. San Francisco architect Steve Malesardi spliced the exhibition space down the middle with a free-standing gray wall punctuated by occasional oblong cutouts, creating a long, central promenade that maximizes display space while providing enticing peeks at the works hung on the building's original brick walls. Needed improvements for the dim lighting are scheduled.

Kismet has a decidedly European flavor, with Ukrainian artist Valentin Popov performing curatorial duties and French native Michelle Charpentier-Rohr managing the gallery for owners Donna Fritz and Mike Walden. "We have tried to create a different space, a relaxed atmosphere where people can have coffee and browse, and learn about contemporary art," Charpentier-Rohr explains.

The artist roster reflects Popov's strong ties with fellow Russian and Eastern European émigrés, as well as local artists. Kismet has chosen to focus on established, mature artists with easily accessible work, such as E. Dale Erickson, who paints photorealist scenes of San Francisco, still lifes and interiors with window views that combine the two.

Other styles represented vary from figurative narratives with art-history references to geometric abstracts--tasteful, well-executed, tending toward the academic, much like the supper-club jazz played slightly above background volume. Obviously, Fritz and Walden are hoping to draw a more upscale, urbane crowd than some of their SoFA neighbors.

To celebrate their debut, Kismet will hold a gala opening May 31 for invited guests, followed by a weekend offering of wine and hors d'oeuvres for the general public during gallery hours. A six-week show of winning works in the Savoir Faire Artists' Competition sponsored by French art paper manufacturers Lana Paper is slated to open Aug. 2.

JUST A HOP, skip and a jump away and yet light years in terms of attitude, a brick warehouse tucked in the back of Martinous Carpet Cleaners' parking lot on South First Street houses Mattison FitzGerald's 'M' Gallery.

Here, the sign is the handiwork of San Jose graffiti god Nexus, and the entry steps are a free-form mosaic of antique marbles, solar chips, fragments of handblown glass, tile and broken mirror set in black concrete by FitzGerald and Dan Malley, who met through the latter's online query seeking someone who might want the castoff glass.

To hear FitzGerald tell it, such synchronicity is her standard operating procedure, just one of an ongoing chain of positive developments that began while she was recovering from the physically debilitating effects of two car wrecks that occurred six months to the day from one another. Therapeutic deep-tissue bodywork released such energy that FitzGerald "felt my whole soul pull out of my body. ... I got to this place that was amazing there was all this dimension, it was funny and full of love."

Her art underwent a radical change from garden landscapes to energetically swirling abstract expressionist canvases, guided by an internal "knowing" that if she painted a "message of healing and goodness," the rest would take care of itself.

Need a studio/gallery? Found one in an hour. Need money to attend Art LA? A past-due payment from a landscape-design client came in. Tickets to get in? You guessed it--an unknown angel walked up and handed them to FitzGerald right outside the venue. And on it goes. It's almost enough to make a skeptic consider ICU a viable alternative to an MFA.

The gallery is a live/work space where FitzGerald paints (using paints recovered from Santa Clara County's hazardous-materials department), runs her landscape-design business, and shows the work of a collective of emerging artists who make "art that feels good. ... and want to redefine a positive vision for our future."

Most paint some form of abstracts in clear colors, though the gallery does show photography and social surrealists with a message aimed at fostering change.

Such lofty goals, however, don't keep FitzGerald from aggressively marketing her stable's work through rentals to corporations and area merchants such as South First Billiards, a practice that she claims has given her gallery greater sales in the past year than many long-established outfits. While she paradoxically derides the elitism of the academia-based art world yet touts her own credentials without prompting, FitzGerald undeniably deserves credit for making good on her philosophy of bringing art to the people through the places they frequent, doing it for her gallery mates and herself, rather than expecting them to come and seek out the work.

FitzGerald is a veritable roman candle, sending out a charge of motion and energy that attracts some and repels others. A one-woman PR firm, she landed the cover of Ganymede Press' promotional issue of Topia magazine and full-color coverage in a premier Japanese art journal within the space of a year, while nurturing the career ambitions of local teen graffiti artists and housemothering a 17-year-old homeless girl.

An outspoken promoter of art as an underappreciated public resource, FitzGerald frequently faxes public officials and business organizations statistics and information to support her view that public art would generate more tourism, revenues and prestige than the Arena ever could. (She'd like to see the concrete freeway supports on South First Street turned into glittering, rainbow-hued mosaics--and who wouldn't?)

As a founding board member of the Art and Technology Society International, FitzGerald is drumming up support for the Millennium Vision Art Project, an international art exchange program to foster arts education and integration of art in our daily lives. Phew. The "M" might just stand for mind-boggling.

Kismet the Gallery/Cafe, 434 S. First St., San Jose (408/292-4226)
'M' Gallery, 31 Union St., San Jose (408/947-7878) or [email protected].

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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