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Shadows in the Know at SJ's ICA

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Nose Job: Robert Eads makes a point in "Melvin, the Human Oddity."

Searching for our hidden selves at 'Shadow Play' and 'Floating Souls'

By Ann Elliott Sherman

WHEN THE Wolf Den of Cub Scout Pack 116 put on a Halloween shadow play of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, our motivations were fairly pragmatic: we could pull it off with only five Scouts, silhouette scenery cut out of boxes, a clothesline, a sheet and two automobile-repair lights. Plus, it was "scary."

Little did the Wolves know that we were participants in an art-world trend. Shadow Play, the current Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose show curated by the institute's former director, Marcia Tanner, presents a dozen artists who mine the metaphoric and actual dark side.

For all that, the show is far from saturnine. Rather than creating a gripping undertow pulling reluctant viewers into the deep, dark waters of the soul, much of the work is elegant or deucedly clever. Tanner's clean explications of each artist's work, while no doubt aiming for accessibility, instead function like Cliff's Notes, nearly obviating a personal encounter with the real thing. In short, despite all the Jungian lingo tossed about, the emphasis is on the second half of the exhibition title. Shadow Play is not so much a dangerous journey through the uncharted nether realms of the collective soul as an oh-so-civilized package tour of different artists skillfully toying with ideas about our bad selves.

The neck-up sensibility is perhaps best epitomized by Dean McNeil's theatrically back-lighted Cibachrome vignettes of violence staged with smoothly faceless, unpainted wooden puppets. Although we can identify who or what the puppets represent, there's no shock from recognizing ourselves in them, unlike the graphic (in both senses of the word) works by Goya, Disasters of War, that were their partial inspiration. The photographs remain safely inert and at arm's length, carefully posed in a vividly artificial setting.

Goya's work is disturbing not just because of the subject matter but also because of the nearly palpable enthrallment bespoken in its emotional detailing of the horrible permutations of homicide; these acts are not unimaginable deeds at all, and they pack much more of a sick/sickening thrill because of it. McNeil's scenes are just too damn tasteful to get under your skin.

Anthony Aziz, however, is onto something. Using found snapshots of men in the accepted gender-based roles--dad, husband, soldier, hunter--where the male figure is digitally excised, leaving a 3-D shadow in its place, the Man With ... series paradoxically underscores the psychological power of those roles. Without a nice face to put on it, these dominating presences cast shadows of their own, leaving us to fill in the blank through associations with the male influences in our lives. Now, that's scary.

Arch is the operative word for Kara Walker's large-scale black-paper silhouette of Eva in her make-pretty pose holding a Klansman dolly aloft like a prize.

Walker's scissorwork gets sharper, her message more expansive, in Cotton Ginny. A stereotyped "pickaninny" so bowed by the dragging weight of her cotton sack that she's forced to seek succor at her own teat, Ginny transcends the title's ironic pun. Where Eva skewers the society-page art form and cultural assumptions, Ginny allegorically conveys the warping legacy of slavery and the self-reliant resourcefulness of those who survived it, making the decorative genre something else entirely.

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LAST SATURDAY, the play with shadow and light was taken to the streets with the projection of Cassandra Lehman and Veronica Ramirez's collaborative video Floating Souls onto the facade of the old National store across from ICA on South First Street in downtown San Jose.

Shown in a narrow rectangular strip that fit on the right side of the building's pediment, the 15-minute loop, accompanied by Steve Durie's soundscape, was a non-narrative, black-and-white montage. Spectral negative silhouettes danced behind "frames" of superimposed black columns while computer-animated images of a figure or flexing hand skimmed the foreground. Floating text, stuttered and blurred digital abstracts, and rapid-fire letters varied the visual rhythms.

Those purposely attending the show treated the video like music at a party--background atmospherics that occasionally captured their attention. What would have been tedious if confined to a conventional screen ended up blending with palm-tree shadows, a passing flotilla of spit-polished low-riders, a mounted policeman looking up just in time to see the word "coincidences" snake above his head and indifferent passersby to become part and parcel of a low-key Saturday-night happening. For this public art without a pedestal, the context was as much the message as the medium.


Shadow Play runs through Aug. 17 at Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose, 451 S. First St., San Jose. (408/283-8155)

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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