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Photo Finishes

Midnight Snack: One of Betty O'Hare's huge papier-mâché sculptures is part of the South Bay Art Collective show at Kismet Gallery.

Kismet and ICA showcase local prints and conceptual art

By Ann Elliott Sherman

DESPITE THE South Bay Art Collective's goal of paving "a new path of conceptual-art intelligence," the group's show at San Jose's Kismet Gallery actually covers a lot of familiar territory, often using pieces that have previously appeared elsewhere.

Some look great here, like Betty O'Hare's huge papier-mâché "off the wall" sculptures--arias of compulsive obsession with taboo food that evince the artist's experience as a set designer. Others have been so carelessly placed or poorly lighted that it's puzzling why the works were included in the first place.

The angled center wall might be a witty architectural touch, but unless the pieces displayed in the narrow wedge of space in the back were meant to be seen at close range, it's the curatorial equivalent of seating someone near a swinging kitchen door.

Nancie Crowley's figurative explorations of vividly contrasting colors, unfortunately, demand a bit of distance. They should change places with Geoffrey Nelson's tinted, "aged" photos of partially nude or leather-bodiced "angels"--soft-focus clichés that might have been shot by fashion photographer Helmut Newton's "good" twin. These intimately scaled works are hung in the most spacious gallery up front.

Tori Egherman's Natural History series warrants a visit to Kismet for something besides coffee. Black-and-white photographs taken at New York City's Museum of Natural History are layered in box-mounted prints to create surreal dioramas.

The dreamlike approach is especially effective in Swimming Man. An exterior view from a basement courtyard that includes a glimpse of shark models hung inside from the museum ceiling is combined with a close-up of a coral reef and a strangely angled shot of a man floating prone.

Odd concurrences--between the man's curly hair and brain coral, his awkward suspension and that of the sharks--ricochet within the angled enclosure of the building's railed, street-level walkways. Egherman's adept use of perspective and the composition of the layers submerges the viewer inside a confined world.

La Loteria Cosmologica: Luis Delgado Qualtrough turns photos of street scenes into a new kind of Tarot deck at the Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose.

EGHERMAN has good company just down the block, in San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art's Compound Images show of other Bay Area photographers who combine multiple images.

Variations on loteria images are familiar motifs for contemporary Latino artists, but Luis Delgado Qualtrough gives La Loteria Cosmologica an interesting conceptual spin. He has mounted small silver-gelatin prints on cards rubber-stamped with titles that translate into Tarot-like signifiers. The cards can be randomly examined, or the viewer can shuffle them and pick five for a reading of his/her obstacles, doubts, aspirations, desires and path.

Intended not as a tool of divination but as a springboard for reflection, the piece would just be a clever idea if it wasn't for the attuned perception Qualtrough brings to bear in arresting images culled from life in and around the streets. Architectural details, statues, store displays, ads on walls and the like are the stuff of his "found art."

Telling details are given renewed--sometimes wry, often poetic--meaning as stand-ins for the foibles, hopes and dreams of the unseen humans who made them. In pictures like The Desires, Qualtrough does for the barrio what Walker Evans did for the small-town South.

Chris Sullivan's Resemblances series is sort of a smart-ass hybrid of Cindy Sherman's anti­self portraits appropriating Old Master stereotypes and Christian Boltanski's serial found photography. Paired with the photogravures of historical events that give each work its title are photo-booth strips of Sullivan. These snapshots subtly mimic the poses of each figure in the engraving or provide ironic commentary, as when Sullivan appears with a Hostess cupcake smeared in his face in Marie Antoinette Condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal.

But Sherman's work is formally considered and aesthetically serious even when playing around with cultural mainstays; she constantly pushes comfort levels to probe the uneasy truth beneath. Sullivan, in contrast, deflates the whole notion of photographic aesthetics with his dime-store machine pictures and seems content to go for the easy joke.

The Sequences series, which is composed of juxtaposed comparisons of the artist under the influence of Full Bladder/Empty or Marijuana/Whiskey, may have the higher-minded intention of spoofing the self as subject but edges toward shtick.

Cay Long's photojournal with text, Photographing God, occasionally invites an unintentional cynicism. Strips of Ektacolor prints rise and fall along the wall. They chart Long's moods while being loosely arranged for a "work-in-progress" feel. The earlier segments strain after the meaning of events like being pulled over for speeding ("Is God coming to me?"). With the death of her father, however, Long's close-focus explorations benefit from a connection to something beyond herself.

The South Bay Art Collective runs through Aug. 14 at Kismet Gallery, 434 S. First St., San Jose. (408/292-4226)

Compound Images runs through Aug. 9 at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 451 S. First St., San Jose. (408/283-8155)

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro.

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