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Apocalypse Now Showing

An air of impending doom enlivens the best pieces in the San Jose Museum's permanent collection

By Michael S. Gant

SUNNY SKIES, beautiful beaches, earthquakes every 10 or 20 years instead of hurricanes four times a summer—why are Californians so pessimistic? The definite buzz of Nathanael West's locusts can be heard at the San Jose Museum of Art's exhibit of new permanent acquisitions. The selections, gathered during the last few years for the museum's 35th anniversary, concentrate (although by no means exclusively) on the work of 20th-century West Coast artists, and millenarian worries permeate the best pieces.

Chester Arnold's large 1999 oil, Entropic Landscape, puts the viewer in the midst of a narrow valley of discarded tires rising steeply on both sides and receding to a horizon line blotted by billows of gray smoke, a reminder that when such blazes start in tire graveyards they are often allowed to burn unchecked. With all the talk about the end of oil, Arnold's smoldering discards from the age of the auto look distinctly like the fuel for civilization's funeral pyre.

Another mound of detritus dominates Robert Schwartz's 1996 gouache In the New Year (on display in the upstairs gallery). All the trash of consumer society pours out the window of a ruined building in what appears to be a deserted housing project. In a note of hopefulness, three foreground figures carefully nurture a nascent garden in the midst of the refuse.

Out of a more natural disaster, L.A. artist Charles Arnoldi has created a frantic beauty. Source (1985), a two-paneled piece, combines a radial burst of bright paint strokes with branches strewn across the canvas, evoking the destructive power of the Mount St. Helens explosion, which tossed trees across the landscape as if they were so many jackstraws. The newest rumblings at the volcano only add an extra aura of anxiety to Arnoldi's vision. In similar fashion, Edward Dugmore's large-scale 1957 oil, 23rd Street (seen in the previous show of selections from the permanent collection but not on display currently), uses the full power of Bay Area abstract expressionist technique to fill a wall with vertical paint strokes in red and green that hint at a forest fire running out of control.

Tony Oursler's disturbing installation Slip (2003), on the other hand, looks like a man-made disaster, a biotech experiment gone wrong. A backward S-shape formed of fiberglass serves as a 3-D screen for a DVD projection of a distorted pair of eyes bracketing a huge curving pair of lips. As nonsense syllables are pronounced by the mouth, its distended teeth and glistening tongue glide in and out of view. The illusion of lubricity is both mesmerizing and repulsive—like baby-sitting Eraserhead.

Modern high-rises plugged into rivers of triangular coffinlike vehicles flowing through freeways that are more feeding tubes than roads jam Irving Norman's Awakening of the City (from, appropriately, 1984). In this cramped, obsessive-compulsive piece, every window reveals some naked wage slave shuffling papers or poking disconsolately at a morsel of food. It's a vision of the economy as machine that rivals anything in The Matrix.

Sandow Birk's huge Inferno (2003) gives us Dante's hell as an L.A. rush hour in the wake of the cataclysm all Californians know is coming: the perfect storm of earthquake, volcano and fire. As familiar landmarks collapse into a molten-orange river of destruction, the headlights of the cars stream pass the neon signs of Carl's Jr. and McDonald's franchises.

Although Birk has included the Golden Gate Bridge, Mr. Rushmore and the Twin Towers and referenced 19th-century American landscape painter Frederic Church, the most direct antecedent is The Burning of Los Angeles, the painting that West's antihero Tod Hackett works on during the chaos at the end of The Day of the Locust: "Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city. ... He [modeled] the tongues of fire so that they licked even more avidly at a corinthian column that held up the palmleaf roof of a nutburger stand."

It's About Time: Celebrating 35 Years runs through Feb. 13 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. (408.294.2787)

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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