'Surreal Sublime' at the SJICA

Institute of Contemporary Art aims lens at psychedelic landscapes in new show
ELEMENTAL: Mary Anne Kluth's collage, 'Yosemite 3 OS Study,' is one of several works on display at the ICA's 'Surreal Sublime.' Photo by Mary Anne Kluth

The mixture of phosphorescent pigments with acrylic paint makes Kate Shaw's paintings shimmer. Her canvases—with titles like Lustre, Radiant and Gleam—are all perfectly round, suggestive of a self-contained otherworldliness.

This is what Saturn or Neptune might look like if we could see those planets through alien eyes. They also bring to mind, once and for all, Harry McClintock's song "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

Shaw's colors are atomic in nature, hyperventilating. There's a reason we can't see any people, mountain goats, lazily grazing deer, fish or any birds in flight. The artist presents civilization's endgame after our annihilation. What remains are glittering and contaminated crusts of earth.

But "Surreal Sublime: Contemporary Landscapes"—one of two summer shows currently at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art—isn't entirely ominous. Shaw is only one of several artists included in an exhibit that advances the idea of what landscape painting, and photography, will look like as we move toward the middle years of the 21st century.

The first image you see at the show is one of Terri Loewenthal's photographs from her "Psychscape" series. All of them here make an impression. Psychscape 33, subtitled "Mount Olsen, CA," could be any tourist's random snapshot of a mountain in the distance. On her pigment print, Loewenthal adds a red and yellow gradient at the center of the image, recalling the prefab Instagram effects that were once far more popular on the social network.

This effect doesn't sound revolutionary—and the feeling it evokes isn't reproduced when captured by a smartphone camera—but standing in front of it, or Psychscapes 16 (Lassen, CA) and 09 (Buck Creek, CA), which are mounted side by side, the addition of highly saturated colors forces you to pause and reconsider what you're looking at. Outside of the Sierra Club's headquarters, would any gallery goer pause for long at pretty pictures of ordinary woodlands? The work could be easily categorized as "Ansel Adams on psychedelics," with Loewenthal's magenta lake and aquamarine clouds. But by choosing to amp up the hues, Loewenthal suggests that we're estranged from nature. Instead of being present, we distance ourselves with filtered photographs of our day hikes and camping trips so that we can share them, ad nauseam, online.

Mary Ann Kluth takes her accomplished photo collages to a new level with the installation Flaming Gorge. In Yosemite 3 OS Study, my favorite of her three smaller collages, Kluth deconstructs a landscape and then reconstructs it. The note identifying them reads, "All works are hand-cut archival photo collage," but they look deceptively like paintings. There are no rough edges. no white wisps of paper left behind—the telltale signs of a dilettante's hurried imprecision. Flaming Gorge enlarges and enhances that approach. The artist assembles cliffs and boulders and clouds into a life-size diorama. Klute writes that she was inspired to make the piece by the explorer John Wesley Powell, the painter Asher B. Durand and her own photos of amusement park rides, like the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Brooks Salzwedel writes, "My work often focuses on natural and unnatural landscapes, disconnected from their usual surroundings or places in time." He achieves this effect with graphite, ink, colored pencil, Mylar and resin. If the dead woke up, they would see the world again but as refracted through cataracts. That's what his fragmented, opaque landscapes indicate. Skyfire, the largest of his drawings, also captures the undead's grumpy sense of feeling aggrieved. A circle of trees is fouled by a thick charcoal smoke that's emanating from a pale fire slowly going out. Mother Nature is no longer on the defensive; she's about to breathe her last, polluted gasp.

Surreal Sublime: Contemporary Landscapes
Thru Sep 15, Free
San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

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