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Name Tags and Video Visions

Another Fine Mesh: Columns of wire hang in front of a wall of copper name tags in Constance Harris' "Alternating Marks" installation.

The upside and big letdown of WORKS' two-woman show

By Ann Elliott Sherman

WHEN CONSTANCE Harris and Donna Leigh Schumacher got together to discuss their collaboration on Structural Phrasing, the current installation at WORKS/San Jose, they must have decided to take a yin-yang approach. Where Harris' contribution is built around continuing, active participation, Schumacher's video work is an extenuated exercise in watching others carry out their daily routines. Guess which one makes the viewer feel like a Prisoner of Art.

Harris' visually arresting Alternating Marks manages to be thought-provoking and uplifting but not ponderous. In fact, it's a lot of fun. Twin rows of loosely knitted tubes of copper wire are hung from the narrow skylighted gambrel that runs between the sloped sides of the warehouse gallery's roof. (Leave it to a part-time roofing estimator like Harris to send our gaze upward to this usually ignored seam of air and light.)

Visitors are invited to sit at one of the lovely lead stools placed at the beginning of each row of mesh columns and add on to the work-in-progress by taking up the circular knitting needles and spooled wire left there. An ingenious lead-weighted rope and pulley system allows knitters to raise and lower the work as needed.

Past the colonnade, the back wall is spangled with dozens of rectangular name tags snipped out of copper, hanging by wire jump rings like room keys at a concierge's desk. Stage right, a steel Parsons table bears a copper-mesh bag filled with pennies. On the left side, another of the Jeff Mack­designed stools is drawn up to a matching table that holds a hammer, a block of wood and a set of steel letter stamps. Knitters are requested to emboss their names on one of the tags with a small rectangular pendant attached; the rest of us get to use the unadorned version. Needless to say, this antediluvian tagging is a big hit with summer school groups.

While the kid in us all gets a kick out of pounding our name into burnished metal for public display, placing the tag back on the wall has a ritual aspect that serves as a reminder that we are just one of many. With her aisle of towering, gently elastic pillars simultaneously raising our vision heavenward and leading to an altar of personal offerings arranged as if in a transept, Harris has converted a corrugated metal shed into a kind of cathedral. The effect is an invitation to all comers to join the guild of craftsmen by fashioning a part of the whole with our own hands.

ALSO CALLING attention to ritual in the form of the "structural language of a known routine," Schumacher's video installation Homes of Another Direction occupies the four corners of the space.

Schumacher taped her own "daily life rituals" and that of her two sisters and a cousin to make a "nonjudgmental" record revealing a common language of habit. Although the videos are apparently edited--with sudden fade-outs to a blizzard of static or blackened screen--they cry out for someone willing to exercise enough judgment to illustrate the premise without submitting the audience to the video equivalent of water torture.

Despite the engulfing easy chair provided for watching the video, after enduring the tedium of morning ablutions, followed by meticulous dish washing and sink scouring, I yelled "uncle" halfway through the endless peeling and chopping of salad ingredients.

Granted, we do see some gestural parallels: a daughter unselfconsciously plays footsie with her mom while listening to a story; one of the artist's adult relatives absentmindedly strokes her partner's hand while they lie reading. Plants are tended, quilts are smoothed, salads are munched. Viewers are left to puzzle out who's a sibling, who's not. The video is just not intriguing enough to hook us into the sober-sided tautology that family members often exhibit similar behavior patterns.

Schumacher's videos chronicling the prosaic are sort of reminiscent of that Warhol film of a man getting a haircut, minus the unblinking manipulation of the audience's mounting tension and its lust for catharsis. Artlessly tracking the minutiae of housekeeping does not necessarily lend those unsung endeavors a deeper significance any more than every shopping list equals a Ted Berrigan sonnet. Perhaps an architect like Schumacher finds reassurance in just seeing her own framework of routine mirrored in that of her family, but for the rest of us, it's less a revelation of life's designs than an intimation of the origins of the phrase "mindless chore."

Structural Phrasing runs through July 27 at WORKS/San Jose, 260 Jackson St., San Jose. (408/295-8378)

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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