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Sculpture on the Grounds @ Montalvo

Looking east across Silicon Valley from  Lookout Point  Photo: CompoClay
How to improve on perfection?  To most arts organizations the question would seem pretentious if not irrelevant.  But at Montalvo Arts Center, situated on 175 pristine acres at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Saratoga, the question of how to present significant contemporary art without upsetting the natural beauty of the place has always been central.  Here, art treads lightly, but it nearly always packs a punch, as Sculpture on the Grounds, an annual event coupled to a gallery exhibition, attests.
Whether it’s art or the outdoors you crave, the synergistic relationship between the two is, invariably, the subject and object of any visit here.  Drive uphill through manicured gardens to the Italianate Villa that was once home to California’s first popularly elected U.S. Senator, James Duval Phelan (1861-1930), and you feel as if you’ve stumbled into paradise, so seamless is the integration of the Center’s working parts into the surroundings.  The latter include two performing arts venues, a gallery and a cluster of architect-designed artist residences. Head further uphill on foot, into fragrant woods, to a clearing overlooking Silicon Valley, and the feeling intensifies.  The view, from Mountain View to Gilroy, and across the Bay to Mission Peak and Mount Diablo is heady, and with just a little imagination you can imagine what the place must have looked like in the 19th century, when streams ran from the surrounding hills into the bay and when a shotgun, even poorly aimed, could bring down waterfowl.
Spoken word artist Kianga Ford (right) leading an audio tour
If you grew up here as I did, when fruit orchards lined Highway 101, such stories resonate – particularly in light of the area’s rapid transition from an agricultural/working class suburb of San Francisco to the billionaire-dominated industrial megalopolis that is today.  The overlay of histories and cultures is the subject of one of Montalvo’s most ambitious projects to date: an audio tour of the area by New York-based spoken word artist, Kianga Ford, which you can listen to on an iPod while hiking the aforementioned trail to Lookout Point, a short, intense walk from the Villa.  In keeping with Montalvo’s ethos, the project’s physical impact is minimal: a handful of directional signs and a couple of chairs, placed temporarily at the top of the hill by CompoClay, an eco-friendly décor manufacturer. 
Ford arrived here last spring as an artist-in-residence, one of 60 that Montalvo hosts each year.  Previously, she told me, most of her projects were based on interviews of urban residents, which she translates into neighborhood profiles. Intoned in a mellifluous voice, they mix the intimate, confessional style of This American Life with the sonic quirkiness of Radio Lab; the latter from composer Mamoru Okuno, with whom Ford collaborated long-distance.  Wisely, Ford doesn’t strive for an epic sweep, but what she does capture she mostly gets right.
Here and Elsewhere, the story of an aging Korean-American woman, portrays, by way of a single individual, those who populated Santa Clara Valley before it became Silicon Valley.  The woman reflects on the circumstances that brought her here (marrying an American GI after the Korean war), those that later transformed her (marrying an H-P engineer after her husband, the soldier, disappeared) and, finally, those that keep her grounded (the proximity of her home to this patch of land, which gives her room to think).  
Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao’s "Edible Dress Tent"

A wistful, elegiac quality permeates her thoughts, and in them we see not only our own mortality but, also, key historical and cultural markers, like how the Peninsula and the South Bay were once very different places, and, more to the point: how, regardless of the era, California’s ever-stoked mythology continues to pull in fresh recruits.  

Like New Religion, Ford’s pointed take on the latter, nails the essence of a tech-oriented networking event. Ideas are “more common than carnations — everybody has a dozen of the most beautiful,” she observes. “It’s like when I lived in LA and everybody had the next big screenplay. I thought it was just a stereotype…Here, everybody has a game-changing idea.  Except statistically we know that there are very few game-changing ideas, so 99 percent of the room is just a masquerade.” No matter. In the spirit of the place, Ford joins the fray, introducing us to an app of her own invention, replete with revenue model. 
Where she stumbles is in her attempt to evoke the area’s agricultural past in Valley of the Heart’s Delight.  A litany of unspun facts, it drones on like a Viticulture 101 lecture, and after a few minutes I tuned out.  Too bad, because from the top of Lookout Point, which is where I began listening to this story, you can survey a piece of that history in the grapevines that cascade down Montebello Ridge, home of Cupertino’s legendary Ridge Vineyards.
With Edible Dress Tent, an installation near the Villa, Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao engage the area’s agricultural past directly, using an enormous dress-shaped gazebo made of fencing and canvas to which they affix climbing vines: tomatoes, squash, basil, sweet peas and the like. Where the duo previously employed this form to address more contentious issues like gender inequality and immigration, its current incarnation serves only one purpose: pleasure.  It’s a living fertility shrine, a turbocharged mating call.  A collaboration between the artists and Montalvo’s master gardeners, the structure is ringed by a resplendent garden of dahlias and rye, and at its apex, on a platform, a live model pirouettes in slow motion with a watering can, pretending to irrigate.  Inside the tent, there’s a swing onto which you can climb.  There, you can inhale the perfume of the surroundings, listen to the buzz of insects and the slightly discordant din of audio speakers which issue birdcalls, love songs (Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On) and catcalls (“Hey baby, lookin’ good!”) in 11 languages.  Lest I miss the erotic charge produced by the combined effect of these things, Lasser commanded me to “Look up her dress!”  I did, and for a few seconds I felt like a horny teenager. 
Daniel Canogar: stills from "Flicker" and "Tracks", video projections (click to enlarge)
Madrid-based Daniel Canogar, an artist of worldwide repute, takes over Montalvo’s Project Space Gallery, providing the smartest, most materially inventive video installation I’ve seen in a long while.  He calls it The Film Trilogy. It’s a tribute to the history of local filmmaking whose connecting threads, from Eadwearde Muybridge to Pixar, track the close relationship between Silicon Valley and Hollywood while hinting at the less vaunted but equally rich history of abstraction. In each of the three segments, film snippets are projected onto reflective media to produce light patterns that, at times, become sculptural.  Spin utilizes a wall covered with shiny DVDs to create reflections: one on the discs themselves, and another on an opposing wall, with images that oscillate in appearance between floating eyeballs and jellyfish.  Flicker and Tracks employ slanting strips of celluloid (35mm film and VHS tape), strung floor-to-ceiling in crisscrossing patterns.  These, like the DVDs, become the “screens” on which we see the projected images, cleverly reversing the usual order of things.  Film buffs will probably struggle to identify Canogar’s sources, even though he points them out in an accompanying pamphlet.  Others may see analogies to the projections onto sculpture made by Tony Oursler
Ann Weber, "O California, best beloved land"
In the main, what dazzles is the shifting parade of colors, geometric patterns and biomorphic shapes.  At one jaw-dropping juncture in Tracks, the celluloid strands morph into what looks like a glowing Sol Lewitt sculpture; while at the end of Flicker, Muybridge’s Horse in Motion (1878) – the mechanical animation he created with the zoopraxiscope while working for Leland Stanford — makes a stunning and unexpected cameo. 
If, at this point, you haven’t had your fill, well, there is plenty more to see.  Remnants of past Sculpture on the Grounds exhibitions have become permanent fixtures of the Montalvo landscape.  They include David Middlebrook’s iconic Broken Wing, a pedestal-mounted bronze piece shaped like a giant inverted comma; Cameron Hockenson’s Control Tower, an aviary “condominium” that has substantially enriched the local bird population; and Ann Weber’s O California, Best Beloved Land, her tribute to William Phelan whose bequest enabled this haven for art, artists and hikers back in the early ‘30s. Weber built this seed pod-shaped object out of cardboard packaging three years ago, and her steel remake of it brings to mind a space capsule that’s made a soft landing.
Such landings, it seems, are what Montalvo has always strived for.
Sculpture on the Grounds” @ Montalvo Arts Center to October 30, 2012.
Daniel Canogar: “The Film Trilogy” @ Project Space Gallery to October 14, 2012.

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