If you wanted to examine the relationship between man and nature, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful spot than Montalvo Arts Center. Situated in Saratoga at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the place is so idyllic it’s easy to wonder whether critical reflection is actually possible. It is. Proof is can be found in Nature and Creative Capital, an 18-month, multi-disciplinary program that began in July. It consists of a gallery exhibition (Human Nature) examining human-animal relations and site-specific installations (Sculpture on the Grounds) that address the man-nature question. Curated by Kelly Sicat, the program features works by seven artists whose expressions range from polemical and mythopoetic to flat-out funny.
They’re the latest in a deluge of eco-themed shows, the likes of which will probably continue as long as artists feel compelled to comment on the precipitous decline of the planet. (Another show in this realm well worth checking out is Art at the Dump at 5M, comprised of works made from materials scavenged from SF’s waste disposal facility.)
Unlike its closest Bay Area counterpart, the di Rosa Preserve in Napa, where visitors are shadowed by docent minders at every step, Montalvo allows you to wander the grounds and gardens as you please – or trek uphill through redwoods to the top of a mountain overlooking the Italianate villa built in 1912 by San Francisco’s three-time mayor and first popularly elected California U.S. Senator, James Phelan. Phelan, an art collector and something of an aesthete himself, deeded the property to the state at his death in 1930, stipulating that it be operated as an arts institution.
Phelan, as it happens, also helped inspire East Bay sculptor Ann Weber, one of three artists-in-residence participating in Montalvo’s Sculpture on the Grounds program. Her seedpod/space capsule-shaped sculptures (Ode to Montalvo), are built from found scraps of cardboard packaging that are stapled around metal armatures. (One of them carries a title derived from Phelan’s poetic musings.) While such cast-offs are potent markers of brand identity and symbols of consumer waste, Weber doesn’t use them to make environmental statements. These ungainly objects, which in the past have referenced figures, totems, giant spirals and spinning tops, operate open-endedly, oscillating in their associations between organic and industrial. Their biomorphic and vessel-like qualities, which include protuberances and gaping holes, reflect the artist’s background as ceramicist; the industrial feel comes from Weber’s arrangement of cardboard strips into multi-colored geometric patterns, many of which retain recognizable remnants of corporate names and logos. Arrayed here under trees and shrubs, they appear like beautiful, malignant seedpods — dropped from a realm whose arboreal progenitors are substantially larger than any on Earth.
Nearby, and throughout the gardens, the sculptures of South Bay artist David Middlebrook comment directly (and a bit more darkly) on the upside-down state of things. Though Middlebrook, a professor at San Jose State, typically works in the public realm or on private commissions, his works at Montalvo pull no punches. Haywire, a bronze-cast tromp trompe l’œil piece looks like a crate tossed overboard from a ship whose cargo, a golden egg, lies on the ground. The boxe’s harness straps hang upside-down in a gravity-defying metaphor for the illogic wasted wealth. Incidental Incubator, a resin-cast egg shape plunked on three stacked trash bins (bronze, aluminum and rusted iron) comments on the economic stratifications of society; while Head of Man – exquisitely situated in a cactus garden against a forest backdrop — assumes a pan-national stance, expressed by an altered map of the Earth inscribed on a head; it rests on a two-ton, whale-shaped slab of basalt, one side polished, the other side raw.
Ultimately, if the goal of such exercises is to get us to look at ourselves, then Ali Naschke-Messing’s From Within, So Without, scores a direct hit. Into the trunk of a tree where bulbous whorls form at spots where limbs were trimmed, the artist inserts small mirrors that an arborist assured would inflict no harm. The tree, a Bunya Pine, has the texture of elephant skin, and so the mirrors stand out, reflecting all that’s before them. The artist’s stated goal is to bring us “back to knowing through our senses”. Her intervention succeeds. It also recalls another more primitive practice I witnessed in San Juan Chamula, a small village in the Mexican state of Chiapas where, in one of those amazing syncretistic churches, I encountered statues of the town’s patron saints accessorized with mirrors. The purpose, according to local curanderos (shamans), is to ward off the “evil eye” and to reflect bad thoughts back onto those who think them. From Within produces a similar kind of animistic effect.
In the New Project Space Gallery, the most arresting sight comes from the artist/filmmaker/performance team of Celeste Boursier-Mougenot and Ariane Michel. In their laugh-out-loud video, Les Oiseaux de Celeste, a flock of finches – sequestered in a London gallery with food, water, grass and twigs – do what birds generally do. They hop about looking for a place to roost; except here they do it on heavily amplified electric guitars. Hunting and pecking around the fretboard, they unwittingly collaborate with the artist-provocateurs to create a Cage-like performance of light-grade industrial noise that at times borders on rhythmic and melodic. In close-ups, which activate our anthrocentric instincts, the birds appear to be as amused by the random noises as we are.
Art world megastar Tim Hawkinson provides lyrical and disturbing counterpoint. Famous for creating one of the world’s largest musical instruments (the Überorgan first installed at Mass MoCa in 2001), for auditorium-sized inflatables and for smaller-scaled works built of industrial and organic detritus (fingernail clippings, hair, eggs, chickens), Hawkinson has long cultivated a fascination with human-animal relationships, particularly the kind where power relationships are reversed. The two on view here follow suit, but not in the sui generis manner we’re accustomed to seeing from him.
These make direct references to art history: specifically, to Degas’ iconic Ballerina in Sweet Tweet, where a bronze-cast figure of girl exhales a string of birds, and in Doy, where a boy’s eight-fingered hand mechanically crushes the face of his pet dog. One musical, the other murderous, these figures typify the dichotomies that run through Hawkinson’s work and highlight our own symbiotic and sometimes twisted relations with animals.
Misako Inaoka’s wall-mounted, resin-covered toy sculptures, though a bit didactic, further explore those polarities. She casts her animals variously, as energy sources, focal points of environmental disaster, surveillance tools and set pieces for biotech-fueled fantasies. A hydra-headed deer (Connected), for example, sports a pair of linked power poles. Solar Cow, a bovine outfitted with a solar panel, suggests that cows might someday provide us with more than just milk and meat.
Whale Spill, a cetacean sprouting an oil derrick, recalls not only the folly of offshore drilling, but also the fact that whale oil once powered urban street lamps. Most engaging is a wall of carved wooden bird/fish, one of which has a motion-activated head that swivels and screeches at passersby, bringing to mind the benign surveillance described in Richard Brautigan’s poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
Apart from their titles (I Am not an Animal I & II and Cock Fight ), Dana Harel’s graphite drawings of military headgear (and a lone rooster) wedded to signifying fingers provoke but do little to address the theme; they mainly highlight the pitfalls of leaning too hard on academic techniques of representation.
Overall, these two shows are good as far as they go; the problem is, they don’t explore the topic of human-animal relations as fully as one might hope. Missing, for example, is the entire realm of spiritual connections humans once had with wild and domesticated beasts. Never mind the fetishes of today’s pet owners.
On the other hand, it’s probably a stretch to expect that four artists to adequately address this topic. Like cats, artists can’t be herded, and that’s as it should be.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Sculpture on the Grounds:
Ann Weber, Ode to Montalvo on the Great Lawn, through Oct. 31, 2010
Ali Naschke-Messing, From Within, So Without, on the Great Lawn, through Oct. 31, 2010
David Middlebrook, on the Great Lawn and grounds through Sept. 30, 2010
Cover: Ann Weber, “Many the Lilt the Heart May Know Here," 2010, cardboard, steel