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From Germany With Art

Jerry Bauer

Dance in the Box: The Zhou brothers combine traditional and contemporary forms in their works.

The de Saisset showcases the disparate visions of four artists with foreign roots

By Ann Elliott Sherman

'FOUR ARTISTS From the Walter Bischoff Galerie, Stuttgart, Germany" might seem like an odd bit of name-placement by the de Saisset Museum, but there actually is a local angle. In addition to his main gallery in Stuttgart and a smaller one in Berlin, Bischoff has a studio and workshop here in San Jose. Each summer, in hopes of stimulating new work, he selects one of his artists to come to San Jose for a residency. Two of the four artists in the current exhibition took such a working vacation: Michael Danner in 1988 and Rainer Görß this past summer.

In Germany, artists often occupy the role of outré jokester/metaphysician, and Görß (rhymes with "purse") represents this tendency with his penchant for mixing puckish puns with conceptual ponderings about museums as "collected heaps of misunderstandings from one time about another, from one continent about the other."

His installation, The Silicon Valley Collection, riffs on high-tech culture and the gunmetal-colored element that made it possible. It is part of a series of collections the artist started in 1992 in conjunction with the Environmental Conference in Brazil and the quincentennial of Columbus' "discovery of America as a misunderstanding."

Görß's visit here coincided with the de Saisset's summer inventory efforts, and that, along with California cuisine and earthquake-proof architecture, supplies contextual material for the artist's pseudoanthropological displays. Paradigm Shift: Early and Late Messages consists of catalogue cards recording the museum's Native American basketry collaged with the colorful weave of insulated wires in flat cable. The piece parallels two era's cultural dislocations from useful object to artifact.

Internet Pizza Before the Paradigm Shift makes a similar point via a painted newspaper "pizza" topped with silicon chips, served with crossed red chopsticks. Inside an acrylic bento box­cum­display case, the pizzas are sandwiched between shelves displaying Shell With Cultural Inlay, a multiple-level pun featuring silicon chips embedded like cultured pearls inside mussel and clam shells. Nearby is the Hegelian version, Culture With Shell Inlay, one snapshot of hand-painted, nacreous shells paired with another of shells arranged atop a handmade quilt.

Görß tosses off a lot of these brainstormed inversions, approaching words and ideas from a multitude of skewed angles, as well as whatever else catches his eye: a Car Painting (a photo of sideswipe marks left on a cement freeway divider), a Music Tree (audio tape tangled in a roadside tree), foam electronic packaging turned into an architectural model titled Pink Tiger Center: Windows '96.

With more than 60 pieces in the collection, there's a tourist's sense of trying to fit in as much as possible in a limited amount of time. The artist even took his film to a drugstore photo counter for quick prints. The result is an offhand, unedited playfulness laced with an outsider's unjaundiced eye for the absurd that gives the installation the feel of a dada travel diary.

DANNER, on the other hand, is interested in exploring tension between subjective, inner reality and the objective, physical world; between work created during his past residency and more recent pieces. His installation accomplishes this goal both quite literally and with a certain Zen elegance.

Paintings from each phase hang at opposite ends of the gallery. A busily expressionist diptych done eight years ago, Changing Time, bristles with abrupt, contrapuntal gestures. The bifurcated canvas segues from black on white to mostly gray, as if juxtaposing notions of separation and merger. It's rather dramatically contrasted with Changed Time, a calligraphic reduction of duality to a brushed circle and a line executed in black acrylic and Chinese ink on a single, white canvas.

In between, Danner has created three arches from bunched steel cables anchored in boulders. Two of these rest horizontally, serving almost as trail markers leading the viewer around the room. The third arcs a minimalist rainbow in the center, simultaneously producing an almost-instinctive emotional uplift and an increased awareness of the mechanical physics at work.

THE OTHER HALF of the Bischoff gang of four are the Zhou brothers, Shan Zuo and Da Huang, who collaborate on their paintings and sculptures the way each half of a longstanding couple reflexively finishes the other's thought in conversation.

They are an anomaly among contemporary Chinese artists, having been given a five-city national touring exhibition sponsored by the National Museum of Art in Beijing in 1985. A year later, about the time that the student democracy movement began to stage public demonstrations, the Zhous moved to Chicago.

The brothers' work is a neoprimitive kind of figurative expressionism. The intersection of ancient Eastern and contemporary Western painting touted by their admirers is evidenced in flat-planed, abstracted figures of humans and animals on scumbled backgrounds. A palette of ash and earth tones is punctuated with the occasional red spiral poetically used to connote sound. Their tight pictorial dynamics use both the overt diagonal lines of Western perspective and those implicit in traditional Eastern woodcuts, with biomorphic shapes used to put the picture in balance. It's as if Dubuffet and Matisse had bred a colorblind Miro.

In works like A Poet, the symbolic narrative of a human leaning forward to speak is juxtaposed with a process-conscious buildup of gray pigment into a center seam or spine and the introduction of other media like burlap for texture. In their wood carvings, the Zhous use unpainted, rough-hewn areas alternately as positive space--the horse rider in Fluffy City--and negative space, as in the back of the box framing the leaping figure in Dance in the Box.

The sculptures are stone-gray, bulkily abstracted figures that I confess to looking past to better see the paintings in what felt like an overcrowded gallery. Even then, the odd blend of somber innocence and dogged refusal to give into any lust for unrestrained color save those small, almost heart-rending, loops of red bird song or spoken poetry made me realize that despite the Zhous' hip video, there are some cultural gaps that resist bridging.

Four Artists From Walter Bischoff Galerie, Stuttgart, Germany: Zhou Brothers, Rainer Görß and Michael Danner runs through Dec. 6 at de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University (408/554-4528).

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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