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Tethered: The workers in Hung Liu's 'Pullman' strain at an unseen task.

Three by Three

A trio of Bay Area art veterans outshine their choices for the next generation at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

By Michael S. Gant

YOUTH MUST be served, goes the old saying. But age has its privileges—and knows how to use them.

At "NextNew," the current show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, works by three Bay Area veterans are paired with their pick of three rising art stars. In all three cases, the pieces by the tested talents outshine and even overshadow the efforts of the next generation.

Working backward chronologically, Chinese-born (in 1948) painter Hung Liu is represented by four large stunning oil-on-canvas works. Liu, who teaches at Mills College, combines in bravura fashion representational figures (evoking her Soviet Realist training in China) with drips, circles and energetic swirls of paint.

Liu manages to make her subjects—often peasants or laborers—look both touchingly human and symbolically charged. They are individuals as well as exemplars filtered through layers of expectation and stereotype about traditional Chinese life.

In Xi Xang Western Wing (2003), multiple panels are assembled in a rectangle with flanges, creating a shape that resembles a robe or kimono. An image of a folding screen occupies the bulk of the space with familiar chinoiserie visual tropes—from palm fronds and fluttering birds to lotus blossoms and butterflies—overseen by two coy concubines. The safely encased historicism is shattered by the lower-right panel, which bristles with a cluster of loudspeakers, like the kind used to announce dictates to the masses.

The aggressively horizontal Pullman (2004) displays two straining men against an abstract background leaning hard to the right as they tug on two rough ropes attached to an invisible burden outside the frame at the left. The paint dribbles in streaky rivulets from their heads like sweat. Incongruously, behind them, is a small wooden panel mounted on the canvas with a delicate, colorful rendition of a porcelain vase.

Liu's choice for exhibit partner is Rosana Castrillo Diaz, who earned an MFA in 2003 from Mills. Castrillo Diaz's graphite drawings are exquisite exercises in excessive minimalism. Framed in white, her minute rendering of two staples in a notebook binding practically disappears into the paper. Two untitled white-on-white sheets pinned to the white gallery wall reveal upon very close examination to have pebbled or checkered surfaces. They appear to be utterly weightless by comparison to Liu's evocative statements.

Manuel Neri (born 1930) carries the Bay Area's strong interest in figurative expressionism into sculpture. For "NextNew," he shows a variety of bronze figures that are idealized in their quintessential shapes and particularized by the artist's handling of the surfaces, which range from the smooth perfection of marblelike finishes to the half-finished chunkiness of plaster studies.

Pecadores Series III (2001) is a sleek elongated torso, a blank exemplar of the body, like a piece excavated from ancient Greece. Bull Jumper III (1990) is a heavily textured female figure positioned like a crouching runner with one arm lifted in anticipation of her leap. This figure is as dynamic as the Pecadores torso is becalmed.

Matched with Neri's sculptures is Japanese photographer Mikio Matsuo's suite Unsui (1-24). Beginning in 2002, Matsuo began taking portraits of head-shaved monks at a Zen temple in Tokyo. Each monk is photographed three times: facing front with eyes open, facing back and facing left with eyes closed. In each case, the portraits are lighted from the left, so that the head is half in inky shadow.

The resulting three walls of portraits balance a spiritual continuity of pose and philosophical blankness (Matsuo asked the monks to "empty" their minds) with slowly emerging differences in profile, skin surface and even expression. It is an intriguing idea that might seem more effecting in smaller doses.

The grand old eminence of the show is Frank Lobdell, who at 83 still commands attention as one of the titans of the post-World War II era of abstract expressionism that grew up parallel to but not enthralled by the New York school of abstraction.

As a student at the California School of Fine Arts in the late-'40s, Lobdell responded to the powerful dark abstract paintings of Clyfford Still with attacks of broad vigorous brushstrokes. In the 1950s, Lobdell's oil paintings grew increasingly agonized as his repressed memories of wartime horrors during his military service began to haunt his creations, resulting in fierce, scary dramas in which fragments and body parts struggle to emerge from pits of darkness.

In the 1980s and '90s, Lobdell turned in a somewhat lighter direction, smoothing out his gestural brushstrokes, illuminating his palette with brighter, sunnier colors (with yellows and various pales greens and blues taking over from oceanic applications of black, gray and deep red). Lobdell also introduced the line as a significant player in his canvases. Often a hand-sketched red thread, the snaking, spiraling line is used to connect strange pictographic elements.

Signs are repeated from painting to painting. A schematized screaming face (two black dots for eyes and a cavelike mouth) in a halo of red rays recalls Lobdell's continuing fascination with the gaping maw of Saturn about to devour his son in Goya's "black" painting. Several aquatints in the show feature interlocking sets of three-pronged biomorphic gears that hover somewhere between bones and crescent wrenches.

Although hermetic in their symbolism, Lobdell's paintings continue to dazzle the eye with vibrating, otherworldly colors. Even in his black-and-white etchings, his quick scribbling lines are fully animated.

Lobdell's pick for fame, Norm Rosenberger, demonstrates a knack for playful color in his funky interiors and streetscapes. Wash Time (2003) puts a thickly outlined stick man in a flattened-perspective bathroom with two insouciant cats. Roller Skating Tam's Yard (2005) is topped off with a swooping freeway bridge of great dynamism. Still, Rosenberger's worldview looks constricted next to the universewide realms of Lobdell's paintings.

SJICA has been especially busy. In a separate show called "[email protected]," Clive McCarthy shows new-media pieces. Out of Order is a one-note joke: a computer screen, mounted in the middle of exposed techno innards like circuit boards and power chords, flashes the title phrase. Better are McCarthy's digitized photographs displayed on thin-screen TVs. What at first glance appears to be an illuminated still photograph turns out to have a life—or a software program—of its own, slowly changing in random patterns. The most hypnotic of these is a close-up of the bottom of a ripe tomato that creeps into greater and greater detail until the yellow streaks in the taut red surface begin to look like canyons on the surface of Mars.

NextNew and [email protected] show through Sept. 17 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 451 S. First St. San Jose. (408.283.8155).

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From the August 3-9, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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