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    Interview with Sculptural Artist Sayaka Ganz

    January 23rd, 2013

    Wisdom by Sayaka GanzTo most people, a spatula is just a spatula. But to sculptural artist Sayaka Ganz, kitchen utensils are discarded orphans who deserve a second life. Drawing upon the Shinto belief that all objects have spirits, Ganz creates impressive animal sculptures using salvaged plastic housewares, breathing life into the objects by discovering how they all fit together.

    Her work is quietly powerful, depicting various animals in motion, and beautifully evoking sentiments of longing and harmony. Up close, the individual objects stand apart from one another in a chaotic jumble. But from afar, the plastic objects blend together giving the sculptures immutable intensity.

    Ganz collects her material from thrift stores, donations and even dumpsters. She organizes the objects by color into several different bins, and once she has enough of a certain color, she begins the planning process to depict the movement of a specific animal. She studies pictures of the animals from different angles to design the structure and joints, and then welds an armature out of metal for structural support. Only then does she start securing the plastic objects into the armature with wire, placing them together like puzzle pieces to bring her animals to life.

    Installation by Sayaka Ganz

    Although she creates sculptures of many different types of animals, her most impressive pieces are her black and white horses, which seem to leap through the wall like equine phantoms. It is hard to believe that these sculptures are created from everyday, ordinary objects such as coat hangers and serving spoons since each of her pieces have such spirit and unassuming ferocity.

    By creating beautiful pieces from the discarded material, Ganz helps the objects transcend their origin. She does not condone the use of plastics; instead, she hopes to reduce waste by reanimating these objects into beautiful works of art.

    Ganz took a break from preparing for her latest show, “Danze Della Natura”, in Cecina, Italy, to speak to Art Animal about her work.

    AA: How has your background influenced your work?
    SG: I spent my early childhood in Japan, and was influenced by the Shinto beliefs that all objects have spirits. Nowadays there are more and more disposable items that we forget about. It makes me so sad to see them thrown away. I feel like they are orphans. My work gives these objects new life.

    AA: Why do you focus on animals, instead of other natural objects like trees?
    SG: I want people to sympathize with the objects, and I feel it’s easier for people to relate to animals. We project our emotions on to them. You look at a dog being mistreated and your heart breaks. Some people feel that way about trees, but it’s definitely stronger with animals. I think people even sympathize more with animals than people sometimes.

    AA: You also sculpt mythical creatures, like the Asian dragon. Is there a special significance to the dragon?
    SG: Dragons have always been very special to me. I was born in the year of the dragon. It is a very intriguing mystical creature, and very powerful. It is similar to the phoenix, rising from the ashes and defeating gravity. I’ve always been intrigued with flight.

    AA: Switching gears here, congrats on your upcoming show in Italy. It seems like most of your work now is either invited shows or private commissions. Was it hard to get work shown when you first started?
    SG: Well, it depends on when you think my starting point was. I was making other forms of sculpture before I started working with plastic.  By the time I got to plastics, I was used to the rejection. It didn’t seem like a big challenge. I would get in about half the time to shows I applied for. Now, though, I haven’t had to apply to anything in a long time. Opportunities come to me. For many years, that wasn’t the case.

    AA: Do you have any advice to young artists just starting out?
    SG: Don’t let setbacks keep you from working. The first time you apply to a show is probably the hardest. You have to work through the rejection to desensitize yourself. The rejections get smaller the more you apply just by the sheer volume, and they mean less and less.

    Ocean Song by Sayaka Ganz

    AA: How has your work progressed over the years?
    SG: My early work was done mostly in metal. It was heavy, mostly sculptural installation pieces, and I couldn’t do any that hung from ceilings because of the weight. I sculpted animals like I do now, but they were motionless animals, or animals just about to walk. They weren’t like my pieces now that feature fast motion. When I first started using plastic, I started experimenting with the objects. Many of the plastic objects I use are linear and streamlined, which is great for motion lines. They almost look like brush strokes on my pieces. The motion lines make my sculptures come alive.

    AA: Is it difficult to depict motion?
    SG: Well, it is easier to depict speedy motion than slow motion. For example, if a fish is swimming in the water and not swimming very fast, that is very difficult because of the line of motion and the way the water looks around the fish. The fish just looks still. It’s difficult to picture and express. But if there is a clear direction, then it’s clear to me where to put the motion lines.

    AA: Most the objects you work with seem to be kitchen utensils. Why is that?
    SG: Well, I started with kitchen utensils in graduate school. I was already working with scrap metal, and I randomly picked up a bag of kitchen utensils that I found. They looked like the type of shapes that I used already with the scrap metal, like gardening tools such as trowels. Spatulas and spoons have a similar shape, and work well for streamlining the pieces.

    Piece by Sayaka Ganz

    AA: Do you have a favorite object to work with?
    SG: I love serving forks and coat hangers!

    AA: Up close, you can see the individual plastic objects, but from afar, the pieces really do look like animals. How do you achieve this cohesiveness with the different objects you use?
    SG: A lot of what goes into creating that cohesiveness has to do with the direction I place the objects. I work until I find the right fit. I do bend some of the plastic with a heat gun, but I think over all I only alter like 10% of the objects I use. I don’t feel like I need to control each individual object to the point where I am molding everything specifically. When you look at my sculptures, you see the way things fit isn’t really perfect. Some other artists make sculptures with such precision that the connection points are completely seamless. My sculptures don’t do that on purpose. When I align the objects, I see these gaps, and the negative space becomes an interesting visual element. It starts to seem like people working together. Sometimes when we are working together in a group, there are many disagreements, but we can still work towards the same goal. Looking from a distance, sometimes the disagreements don’t matter. I like to think of the way the objects fit together in my sculptures as a metaphor for human connectedness and for life.

    For more information about Sayaka Ganz, visit

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    Review of “Immaterial” at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary

    January 17th, 2013

    Artists often try to capture a moment, feeling or sensation in their work. Two notable installation artists, Amy Ho and Cathy Cunningham-Little, capture all of these in their exhibit, Immaterial, at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary in Oakland, California. Both artists use light as a medium to challenge the viewer’s sense of spacial and physical reality.

    The first piece I encountered was Cunningham-Little’s installation sculpture, Six Degrees (2010), featuring a series of mirrored glass globes and steel ladles in which the viewer can see her own reflection from different angles.

    Cathy Cunningham-Little, Six Degrees

    Cathy Cunningham-Little, Six Degrees (installation view)

    Resembling large Christmas ornaments hanging at various lengths, the globes sway lightly, casting wavering shadows on the back wall. Cunningham-Little uses the reflections on the glass as a metaphor for the interconnectedness among people; the globes capture not only the viewer’s reflection, but the reflections of others as well. Each viewer’s experience of the piece becomes individualized through the ever-changing reflections.

    The clear highlight of the exhibit was Cunningham-Little’s awe-inspiring manipulation of color and light. Unlike many artists who capture physical objects in their work, Cunningham-Little has taken a different route, instead focusing on the intangible, ethereal images that are created by light. To accomplish this, Cunningham-Little worked with bits of “dichroic” glass (glass that has been treated with chemicals to limit the visual light spectrum). By expertly bouncing light off the glass at different angles, Cunningham-Little created large-scale, visually-dazzling murals on the wall. The vividly-colored beams of light radiated like swords from the center of the work, dramatically piercing the blank slate of the wall.

    Ho has taken to creating and photographing miniatures to explore artificial realities. Much like artist Kathy Aoki  (who frequently references pop culture in her miniatures, like her Hello Kitty Mount Rushmore), Ho explores imaginary spaces and challenges perception with self-made miniature scenes.  Up/Down II (2012) is a video projection of stairs on the gallery wall and the same image in reverse on the floor, inviting the viewer to imagine a virtual stairwell space and challenging the viewer’s sense of spacial reality.

    Amy Ho, light box installations

    Ho also explores depth and color in a series of wall-mounted light panels, using shadow to give them dimension. Though the pieces are striking, they miss the mark of the artist’s stated intent. Each of the four panels features duratrans prints in red, blue, yellow and green, backlit by fluorescent tubes that are positioned to create a double vision of the image in the light box. The light boxes are supposed to represent the three-dimensional spaces one might inhabit. However, though the idea was creative, I didn’t imagine myself inhabiting the spaces, instead just marveling at the brilliantly-lit boxes.

    Immaterial leaves the viewer with a simultaneous sense of euphoria — mainly due to the effects of the brightly-colored light displays — and doubt of reality; after viewing the exhibit, my perceptions were completely thrown off. Beyond their obvious talent as artists,  Cunningham-Little and Ho were successful in their purpose, leaving the viewer to question the very nature of reality and the mind.

    See Cathy Cunningham-Little and Amy Ho through January 24  at the Chandra Cerrito Contemporary in Oakland. For more information, visit

    Four and a half stars

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    Art Trends: Gummy Bear Art

    January 11th, 2013
    gummy bear on tractor

    Gummy Bear on Tractor (c) Jenice Johnson

    Though the gummy bear is now over 90 years old, it still holds a place in contemporary culture. Today, the gummy bear is widely recognized as a symbol of popular consumerism and bygone childhood days; it has been replicated into gummy bear cartoons, stuffed animals, toys…and art.

    Surprisingly, “gummy bear art” has become something of a sub-genre as artists take on this symbol of pop culture to explore political issues and dark emotions while maintaining a light, humorous air.

    In her Gummy Bear series, Taiwanese artist Ya Ya Chou uses gummy bears to demonstrate her concern about toxic food ingredients and the artificiality of the well-loved treat. Chou’s “Chandelier”, a piece made entirely of gummy bears strung on wire, juxtaposes a well-known symbol of luxury against the strangeness of what popular culture is willing to consume.

    “With their jewel tones and translucent qualities, [Chou] thinks they look more like decoration than something edible and notes that even when the bears were left out for cats, roaches and ants, none showed interest in eating the candy,” said writer Liz Good in Fiberarts Magazine.

    Many artists, however, prefer to use the medium in a more lighthearted manner. Jenice Johnson’s Gummy Worlds, for example, is a collection of playful gummy bear photography and greeting cards.

    “I just love the look and reaction these little guys get,” Johnson said. “It brings the kid out of everyone…and a smile on their faces. That’s what’s important. Making people happy.”

    Johnson’s work is decidedly lighthearted, depicting the gummy bear in its “natural habitat.” Images include a gummy bear couple on a park bench, playing in the snow or mowing the lawn. Other images reveal a slightly dangerous side to the gummy bear world. One image shows a gummy bear caught in an eagle’s talons, while “Gummy Assassins” depicts a gummy bear being run through with a cocktail pick.

    Gummy Bear Snow Bench by Jenice Johnson

    Snow Bench (c) Jenice Johnson

    More often than not, though, artistic conceptualizations involving the gummy bear take a dark turn. What would be considered vulgar, obscene or graphically violent seem strangely cute and playful when acted out by gummy bears. A quick Google search for “gummy bear art” leads to images of gummy bears stabbing each other with pins, engaging in sexual acts or alienating “differently colored” gummy bears.

    Aside from the symbolism of the gummy bear, artists are drawn to the benefits of the medium. Haribo produces more than 80 million gummy bears a day, allowing artists to create art cheaply and in abundance.

    The gummy bears is also uniquely versatile: their gelatinous nature filters light to make them seem luminescent, and the gummy bears’ soft squishiness allows artists to pierce and fashion them in different ways. Artists and designers have featured the gummy bear in everything from paintings, lamps and erasers, to jewelry, sculptures and conceptual photography.

    The only downside seems to be that Haribo only produces a handful of colors (though other manufacturers create gummy bears with more colors), so any tone or shade variations need to be altered with dyes and markers. The gummy bear also does not hold up well under heat; assemblage artists and sculpture artists have made the tragic discovery that gummy bears melt after prolonged exposure to the sun.

    With the prevalence of gummy bear art, one has to wonder what that says about popular culture today, especially since the art form is becoming more and more globalized. Perhaps as the sub-genre continues to grow, we will begin to piece together a more interesting (and even slightly disturbing) viewpoint of our collective, human culture, seen through the otherworldly eyes of one of the world’s most popular candies.

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    Top 10: Taxidermy Artists

    December 27th, 2012
    Bully by Kate Clark

    “Bully” by Kate Clark

    Reminiscent of Victorian fascination with oddities and collectibles, taxidermy art has had a modern resurgence. Taxidermy was once about the preservation of dead animals; but nowadays artists are using this medium to explore universal themes and create unique and beautiful works of art. In many ways, taxidermy can be viewed as mankind’s longing to create meaning in the natural world.

    “In recent decades, taxidermy and other preserved animal parts have begun to appear in a surprising amount of contemporary art,” notes Raquel Poliquin of the taxidermy art website, Ravishing Beasts. “Taxidermy has become a potent medium to discuss a variety of pressing issues: the contours of the line between humans and other animals, questions about conservation and species loss, and more basically to provoke deeply enigmatic encounters with the natural world.”

    This week, Art Animal brings you our ten favorite female taxidermy artists who use this medium in unique and bizarre ways to challenge the viewer’s idea of death and nature.

    10. Amanda Sutton

    Amanda Sutton taxidermyHeavily influenced by Walter Potter, who was the first person to dress up preserved animals in costumes, Amanda Sutton of Amanda’s Autopsies has followed in his footsteps to create traditional taxidermy pieces and steampunk critters.

    We love the detail found in her creations, particularly her squirrel goggles.

    9. Kasey McMahon

    Kasey McMahon taxidermyWhat do you get when you cross a stuffed possum with lasers? The text-o-possum!

    Conceptual artist Kasey McMahon uses taxidermy and technology in unusual ways.

    After the success of “Compubeaver” she created “text-o-possum,” made out of This work a bluetooth laser virtual keyboard encased in an “elegant possum.” This piece is a guaranteed conversation-starter at the office.

    8. Katinka Simonse (Tinkebell)

    Tinkebelle taxidermyHighly controversial Dutch artist Katinka Simonse (aka Tinkebelle) calls attention to animal rights issues through her taxidermy and live animal art.

    In 2004 she gained notoriety by reportedly killing her pet cat and creating a purse out of it, asking viewers why our culture considers it okay to kill animals like pigs and cows for consumption, but not pets. However, after facing public outrage, the media distorting the truth, and criminal prosecution, she explained this was a fabricated story to gain attention.

    7. Polly Morgan

    British artist Polly Morgan creates still lifes with dead animals as her subject. Her work is highly collectable and sells for as much as £100,000. Her work ranges from whimsical to uncomfortable, highlighting humanity’s fascination with death.

    6. Carlee Fernandez

    Carlee Fernandez taxidermyCarlee Fernandez‘s taxidermy work transforms natural objects into new configurations that challenge traditional boundaries.

    Inverting binary categories such as animal/human, femininity/masculinity and beauty/grotesque, she invites the viewer to engage in a dialogue with her conceptual pieces.

    5. Kate Clark

    Kate Clark explores the tension between human and mythical realms by creating sculptures of wild animals with human faces. Her work intentionally evokes a duality, inviting the viewer to recognize and reject the figure, ultimately bringing new depths to her sculptures.

    4. Sarina Brewer

    Sarina Brewer, Custom Creature Taxidermy Art

    (c) Sarina Brewer, Custom Creature Taxidermy Arts

    Artist Sarina Brewer of Custom Creature Taxidermy remakes the natural into the unnatural, creating taxidermy fantasy creatures like mermaid goats or gryffins.

    As a child, she was fascinated with cryptozoology and the anomalies of nature. This fascination is manifested in her eccentric and fanciful composite beats.

    3. Lisa Black

    Fixed Fawn by Lisa BlackNew Zealand-born Lisa Black combines the aesthetics of steampunk robotics with taxidermy art.

    Her art is unique because she incorporates computer and mechanical gears with dead animals, creating robo-creatures, and challenging our perceptions of what is considered “natural.”

    2. Julia deVille

    Julia deVille taxidermy“Memento mori,” Latin for “remember you must die,” is a genre of art that was popular throughout the 15th to 18th centuries which reminds people of their mortality.

    Julia deVille incorporates this aesthetic into her eccentric taxidermy and unique jewelry pieces to remind her viewers to celebrate life and enjoy the present.

    1. Iris Scheiferstein

    Iris Schieferstein taxidermyGerman artist Iris Scheiferstein has worked with dead animals for many years, combining the pieces in unique ways to give a new face to death. “The earlier you die – the longer you are dead,” is one of her favorite mantras.

    Our favorite taxidermy pieces by Scheiferstein are her heels, which make it look as though the wearer has hooves. The heels were so shocking that she was threatened with a jail sentence for her “obscene” work.

    Featured image: “Exitus” (c) Polly Morgan. Photo courtesy of the artist and Breed London (


    Top 5: End of the World Artists

    December 20th, 2012

    With the end of the world supposedly just days away, doomsday theories involving earthquakes, meteor collisions, famine, nuclear war, economic collapse and even alien invasion run amok. Horror and beauty have often gone hand and hand in modern art, and artists have recently turned to thematic elements of the apocalypse, death and destruction, resulting in pieces that are at once terrifying and fascinating.

    “I think humans prefer to live on the edge of destruction and chaos because it makes us feel more alive and powerful and god-like to overcome adversity,” said photographer Lori Nix, whose dramatic work often portrays scenes of the apocalypse and an abandoned humanity.

    Before the Mayan clock sounds the alarm for the end of the world, we give you five of our favorite female artists whose work has the powerful ability to both inspire and horrify through depictions of savage reality, brutal hypotheticals and humanity’s urge to control the chaos.

    1. Lori Nix | Photographer | The City

    Mall by Lori Nix

    (c) Lori Nix

    After growing up in the midwest where bomb shelters, missile silos and storm shelters were common, photographer Lori Nix became obsessed with the apocalypse. This obsession is highlighted in her most well-known series, The City, which is Nix’s imagination of an apocalyptic world without people. Nix is what you might call a “non-traditional” photographer since she designs and photographs miniature dioramas instead of natural scenes in the world. Each of the carefully-crafted miniatures showcases places that humanity has abandoned, like decaying libraries, buildings on their last legs and mother nature taking over. Nix’s work is both playful and suggestively dark, beautifully depicting the failings of humanity.

    2. Berlinde De Bruyckere | Sculpture Artist | Three Sculptures

    Berlinde De Bruyckere

    (c) Berlinde De Buyckere, “Liggende I, 2011-2012.” Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt.

    De Bruyckere’s critically-acclaimed art has been deemed “disturbing” and “unsettling,” simultaneously shocking and absorbing the viewer. Using wax and dead animal parts (including horse skin, wool, and hair), De Bruyckere creates large sculptures that look like distorted animals and people, evoking themes of death, the effects of war, and the fragility of life. Her current exhibition, Three Sculptures, on display at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, includes wax sculptures of decapitated figures. Invoking the myths of Artemis and Actaeon, branches and antlers grow out of the translucent skin of the figures in a quasi-symbiotic/parasitic relationship.

    3. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster | Installation Artist | “TH.2058”

    TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

    (c) Dominque Gonzalez-Foerster, Photo: Tate Modern

    Gonzalez-Foerster is a French artist and filmmaker whose work includes large-scale installation pieces. One of her pieces — the large-scale exhibition, “TH.2058” — was inspired by the 2005 London bombings and credit crisis. Envisioning London caught in the grips of a futuristic disaster, she filled the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern with blue and yellow bunk beds to make the space resemble a bomb shelter. The exhibition also had audio tracks of dripping water and corrupted melodies played over a transistor radio, adding to the unease of the room.

    4. Junko Mizuno | Manga Artist | Pure Trance

    Pure Trance by Junko Mizuno

    (c) Junko Mizuno

    Mizuno is a Japanese manga artist whose drawing style, which mixes childish sweetness with blood and terror, has been termed Gothic kawaii or kawaii noir (“Kawaii” means “cute” in Japanese). Her first graphic novel, Pure Trance, is set in a post-World War III world. Food supplies have disappeared, and people survive on highly addictive pills called Pure Trance. Girls suffering from overeating disorders are sent to a treatment center run by a homicidal dominatrix.

    5. Angela Mercedes Donna Otto | Illustrator

    Angela MD Otto

    (c) Angela Mercedes Donna Otto

    German illustrator and graphic designer, Angela M.D. Otto, plays with humanity’s urge to control chaos and create meaning in the world. She works according to “apophenia,” a term used by psychologists to describe the mind’s will to construct meaning, order, and forms into chaos, like seeing faces in the clouds, or Mother Teresa in a grilled cheese sandwich. Otto creates her work by dripping liquids like coffee and juice onto paper, and teases out the images of splotches and spills with colored ink. The resulting images are akin to a Rorschach inkblot test; only Otto herself has the ability to “see” the meaning of the images, stamping her personal psychology onto her illustrations.

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    Review: “b+w” Exhibit by Amy Kaufman

    December 13th, 2012

    Amy Kaufman starEvery now and then, you walk into an art exhibit that physically stops you in your tracks and makes that little voice in your head say, “Holy shit.” This was my reaction upon viewing Amy Kaufman’s latest exhibit, b+w, on display at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. The exhibit is a series of charcoal drawings — some so huge they span entire walls — which explore the process of distilling the forms and shapes of nature down to the most basic elements.

    After recovering from my intense initial reaction to Kaufman’s work, the word that immediately jumped into my mind was “alembic.” According to my Merriam-Webster pocket dictionary, alembic (n.) is defined as “something that refines and transmutes as if by distillation.” And indeed, Kaufman’s charcoal images seem to be filtered through the alembic of Kaufman’s mind. These images are not just abstract lines or patterns hastily drawn; these images are scenes from nature that have been reduced to their most basic elements — trees, flowers, landscapes and biological forms — yet that still give the viewer a sense of form and beauty in the most simple context.

    To say that Kaufman’s work is visually striking is an understatement. Her work literally breathes and pulses on the walls from the optical illusions created from the monochrome black and white. While traditional optical illusions can be jarring due to their crisp lines and rigid adherence to form, Kaufman’s work reflects the unpredictable qualities of charcoal; her pieces have a softening at the edges — grey smudges and imperfections — that draw viewers in and give them a chance to relax.

    Amy Kaufman ringWallflower (2009), is Kaufman’s most impressive piece. Consisting of three panels, Wallflower spans an entire wall at about 10 feet by 10 feet. It resembles a giant sunflower head, the Fibonacci-arranged spiral seemingly undulating and waving from various viewpoints, giving the piece unanticipated depth and dimension. The longer I stood and stared, the more I became drawn in, my slightest movements playing off of the piece’s polar tension of black and white, bringing it to life.

    Amy Kaufman knotAlso impressive is Seabox (2012), Kaufman’s first “surround” piece, which rings the wall of a smaller gallery room in the museum. Evocative of the ocean, the fifty-foot drawing consists of a blue background with black and greytone horizontal stripes, which seem to wave slightly like water. In fact, my balance was thrown off slightly as I entered the room. I found myself swaying while examining the piece, absorbing Kaufman’s art so much that I became part of the piece through my own movements.

    Kaufman’s composition evokes a number of philosophical questions: What is art if not a way to examine life? Air Sac 1-4 (2000) appears to be a tangle of knots, raising questions about what lies at the nexus of art and nature. Several of Kaufman’s pieces hone in on the source of an object found in nature by placing the focal point in the center of the canvas, such as Seedcake (2007), which resembled a dandelion puff, or Compass (2004), a white circle around which black spokes emanate like a sunburst.

    Kaufman’s dynamic use of minimalism simultaneously reduces the composition to its necessary elements and evokes new layers, philosophical thought and depth through optical illusions. I highly suggest a visit.

    “b+w” by Amy Kaufman runs through February 9, 2013 at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. For more information visit


    Review: (In)security by Michele Pred

    December 4th, 2012

    If anthropologists were to assess items representing the aftermath of September 11, 2001, they might include the piles of random materials left behind at airport security checkpoints across the country. For over 12 years, conceptual installation artist Michele Pred has been an anthropologist of sorts, gathering items like lighters, matchbooks, sewing scissors and pocket knives that were confiscated at the security checkpoints at San Francisco International Airport. In her newest exhibit, (In)security, on display at San Jose State University’s Thompson Gallery, Pred uses these items to visually represent how our lives have been impacted in unexpected ways since 9/11.

    Michele Pred

    Michele Pred with her piece, Fear Culture 2

    Many of the items, such as sewing scissors or cell phone chargers, are seemingly harmless, calling into question the state’s ability to assess real danger (though for the record, TSA now allows many of the confiscated items in Pred’s exhibit to go through security, including sewing scissors). Pred’s diverse array of “dangerous” materials can be regarded as cultural residue of the aftermath of 9/11: a brief anthropological snapshot of a turning moment in this nation’s history.

    The exhibit includes a list created in 2002 of prohibited items, many which seem so self-evident that it is laughable. Do we really need to be reminded that bows and arrows, compressed air guns, meat cleavers, spear guns and automatic weapons are not allowed on flights? Apparently we do, since a daily detection log from July 3, 2002 reveals that a compressed air gun was confiscated at SFO, along with four corkscrews, a plethora of metal scissors with pointed tips, three hardware tools, two knives, three screwdrivers and three matchbooks.

    By placing the confiscated items together in recognizable shapes such as a heart or the red, white and blue of the American flag, Pred brings new meaning to the material. There is a rewarding subtly to the choice of items in the exhibit. Her piece Fear Culture 2 consists of numerous confiscated items in petri-dishes placed in the shape of a large American flag. Many of the items have a highly personal nature, as though they were once someone’s favorite pocket knife or lighter. Made up of confiscated matchbooks, Matchbook Heart seems almost retro, even though the materials are little more than a decade old, since the images on the matchbooks’ cardboard covers have faded, furthering the impression that this exhibit is an anthropological look at this relatively modern moment in history.

    Michele Pred matchbooks

    Michele Pred umbrella

    One of the more surprising pieces was Blending Security, an installation consisting of five confiscated blender blades lined up behind glass. The piece made me realize the scope of materials that people consider necessary for travel. I was unaware that people actually attempt to travel with things like blenders, something that seems to me to be an obvious hazard. (However, the official TSA blog reported that agents confiscated a grenade launcher in Seattle earlier this year, so people have done crazier things.)

    On the surface, Pred’s exhibit brings you face-to-face with the politics of national security and reminds her viewers the extent that we have been impacted and inconvenienced on a day-to-day basis since 9/11. It raises several questions around the government’s ability to dictate our lives. Upon greater reflection, Pred calls into question the varying levels of value we place in material possessions. Sewing scissors and matchbooks may not incur much of a sense of loss, but the loss of a family artifact, such as a pocket-knife handed down through generations, would have significantly more impact on an individual’s life. How does that kind of loss affect the individual, at the expense of maintaining national security? Alongside the more obvious political questions, Pred’s exhibit delves into deeper and highly personal questions like these, leaving the individual to fill in answers.

    (In)security will be on display at the Thompson Gallery until December 14. For more information about Michele Pred, visit



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    Review: Michele Guieu’s “Let’s Fight ‘Til Six and Then Have Dinner”

    November 23rd, 2012

    Michele Guieu explores themes of childhood and its fleeting moments in her latest exhibit, “Let’s Fight ‘Til Six and Then Have Dinner”, currently on display at Kaleid Gallery in San Jose, CA through November 30. The title of the show, a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, calls to mind the idea that everything — no matter how good or bad — passes by, and will come to an end. As Guieu writes in her artist’s statement posted in the gallery, the show opened “just a few days before presidential election day. [The title of the exhibit] puts the urge to argue and the hunger for peace in a (childish) perspective.”

    The installation is primarily comprised of mixed media collage drawings mounted on wooden boards, created from the pages of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Essentially, Guieu’s installation is a response to the complicated world we live in, shown through the lens of Alice, a child. However, it is clear that despite the childish content and drawings, Guieu’s pieces are deliberate and carefully planned.

    Other mixed media pieces featured quotes from the stories, including, “What impertinence!” and “Perhaps it doesn’t understand English,” along with Alice in Wonderland‘s familiar illustrations originally done by Sir John Tenniel.

    The exhibit also featured a display table filled with Legos, plastic army men, bugs, dinosaurs and other small plastic toys which had been painted black. The addition of the figures paired nicely with the illustrations, adding depth to the installation.

    She creatively included a series of short videos, featuring Guieu’s two sons. Played over carefully chosen music, the videos show her sons building structures out of wood pieces, drawing pictures of monsters under the bed and trick-or-treating. One of my favorite pieces about the videos were the boys’ explanation of their own world and creations. All of the elements together evoked my own sentimental feelings and caused me to reminisce about my own childhood.

    Also exhibited were short animated films created by Guieu’s 10-year-old son, created in stop motion animation via drawings done on Post-its. I thought it was a nice touch to include works from her son, which further brought the children’s world to life.

    All in all, the paintings and video were beautifully executed, but I failed to see a connection to politics or peace as the artist’s statement suggested. However, the charming portrayal of her children and their imagination more than made up for any lack of connection to the artist’s statement.

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    Review of “Beauty in Landscape” by Kathy Aoki

    November 2nd, 2012

    In Kathy Aoki’s view of the future, mascara slicks and lipstick tubes will float on the tides after Los Angeles is flooded from global warming. Future excavators will then unearth the Pharaoh Gwen Stefani Mortuary Temple. Artists will attempt to erect a monument to cuteness with a Hello Kitty-themed Mount Rushmore.

    In Aoki’s second solo exhibit, “Beauty in Landscape”, now showing at the Swarm Gallery in Oakland, California, Aoki revisits her role as “curator” of the fictitious Museum of Historical Makeovers. In a simulated museum experience — set roughly in the 4th millennium — Aoki presents works that center on the concept of landscape, exploring beauty, gender and cute culture consumerism. She presents these concepts through “ancient” artifacts and historical illustration.

    While Aoki’s concepts and illustrations are clever on their own, the real genius is in the commentary she provides on each museum-style label placed next to each piece.  For example, in the Mascara Forest series, the label tells viewers that artist Stephanie Wimper (a fictional character) started painting mascara wand forestscapes after she became fascinated with eyelash essentials. The commentary to the side of the piece notes that the artist first experimented with real mascara, but “found there to be clumping.”

    Similarly amusing was the Gwen Stefani Mortuary Temple excavation, which is said to have began in 2468 A.D. In Aoki’s fictitious future, singer Gwen Stefani has achieved cult status and certain “artifacts,” like the canopic jar containing the head of Winston — “Pharoah Stephani’s” favorite sheepdog — is believed to display the people’s undeniable love for their Pharoah.

    In the Hello Kitty Monument photo series, the fictional photographer, TS Lensington (who, Aoki tells us, won a Massachusetts State Fair photo award in 2010), captured the failed attempt of one artist to erect a Mount Rushmore-style monument to cuteness in the Yukon Territory. Here, Aoki cleverly slips in a bit of social commentary with a quote from another fictitious character: “It’s just like an American to leave his trash everywhere.”

    Even though Aoki’s work is based on fiction, her illustrations very convincingly mimic the style of real historical artists. Much of her work alludes to the work of French artist and cartoonist Honoré Daumier, who famously used his work to comment on the social political life of France in the 19th century. One of Aoki’s hand-colored wood cuts depicting the “Destruction of Glamour Palais” — a beauty-centered theme park which was destroyed in the flooding of Los Angeles — mimics “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Japanese artist Hokusai. However, Aoki’s wave is littered with mascara, princess crowns and lipstick tubes.

    Overall, Aoki’s exhibition is clever, brashly poking fun at cute consumerism and society’s obsession with beauty. By mimicking historical artists, Aoki’s warning message about the danger of this obsession are easily accessible to a wide audience while maintaining a tongue-in-cheek level of humor.

    Kathy Aoki’s exhibit will be on display through November 8, 2012 at the Swarm Gallery in Oakland. For more information, visit or



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    Transformative Dance Workshop with Anna Halprin

    October 19th, 2012

    Photo courtesy of the Dance Arts Foundation

    When you have the chance to dance with a legend, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. I had the privilege of participating in a two day Movement Ritual and Dance Exploration workshop in Kentfield, CA, led by pioneer of postmodern dance, Anna Halprin. At age 92, her career has spanned six decades, yet she still travels, dances and inspires countless people to undergo healing and transformation through her unique dance and movement exercises.

    Halprin started her work in the 1950s when she came up with revolutionary new directions for modern dance. She was one of the first in the contemporary Western world to use dance as a healing and transformative art. In 1955, she founded the progressive and highly experimental San Francisco Dancers Workshop, which allowed for public participation and exploration of new types of movement. By the early 1960s, Halprin began collaborating with other artists and leaders such as Fritz Perls, Moshe Feldenkrais, Carl Rogers and Thomas Gordon in a groundbreaking movement that started bridging the fields of dance, art, somatics, performance, psychology and education. In 1978, she founded the Tamalpa Institute, which offers training programs and workshops in the Life/Art Process, a movement-based expressive arts approach that integrates dance and movement, visual arts, performance and therapeutic practices to support personal, interpersonal and social transformation.

    Halprin’s work also focuses on using dance as a way to explore contemporary culture. Dance historian Dr. Janice Ross, Halprin’s biographer, notes that “Halprin’s story offers a vivid case study of modern dance in the process of redefinition in postwar America.” Ross believes that Halprin’s work is “emblematic of Beat culture in the 1950s, youth culture in the 1960s, multiracial culture in the 1970s, the culture of illness in the 1980s, and subsequently, the culture of the aged from the 1990s to the present.”

    Photo courtesy of Peter Larson

    During the workshop, Halprin referred to a few of her dance performances as being pivotal reflections of American cultural history, including a multiracial dance performed in response to the Watts Riots and a public nude performance (for which she was later arrested for indecent exposure).

    With her radical history in mind, I was eager to meet Halprin, who turned out to be a small woman with vibrant energy and a quirky sense of humor.

    The workshop was held at her Mountain Home Studio. Nestled in a shady redwood grove, the studio featured a large outdoor deck that was designed and built by her late husband, Lawrence Halprin, who was a landscape architect and designer. Most of the workshop was held on the deck that was surrounded by amphitheater-like benches, allowing for different qualities of light to filter in through the trees as the workshop progressed. Halprin commented often on the light, noting the ways in which it interplayed with the movements and moods of the pieces.

    “You are not an object in space,” Halprin said. “You are part of the space.”

    Although I’ve been dancing my entire life, my training has always consisted of formal choreography. Halprin tends to focus on “scoring” instead, preferring the dance that emerges to be a collaboration; participants dance individually, moving according to how they feel. These loose parameters give dancers an opportunity to truly experiment with movement. Her style of dance is often grounded in daily movements such as walking or sitting in order to explore the relationship between the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels of everyday experience and expression.

    One of the first exercises we did was to draw a self-portrait. The images that emerged were as varied as the people in the class. Feeling a bit out of my element, but knowing that I was there to seek some sort of personal transformation, I drew myself naked inside the belly of a giant seed that sat at the base of a tree surrounded by stars. I imagined that a doorway had opened, but I hadn’t yet taken the risk to emerge.

    After completing our portraits, we partnered up to dance what we had just drawn, focusing our movements on three personally meaningful words. I chose to explore “magic,” “unsure” and “grow.” Quickly, the words had collapsed from movement into sound, and we began making strange noises while we danced. I emitted guttural noises and made large movements with my arms, alternating between swaying and leaping into the air. Throughout this strange dance, I felt incredibly liberated to be doing something so unconventional in a group that viewed it as completely normal.

    Other dances and exercises focused on experimenting with isolated movements, practicing proper posture and learning the importance of being grounded.

    “I was very active in the women’s lib movement,” Halprin said. “The first thing we did was to throw away the high heels and bring the feet to the ground. Women need to be grounded. I don’t know what it means for society that women nowadays are back up on their tiptoes.”

    During the rest of the workshop, we worked on group and solo dances, focusing on different parts of the body.

    Often, emotion that gets held up in the body can be released through movement, making you more aware of your own body and deeper emotions. Halprin can attest to the power of this exercise. In 1992, while drawing a self-portrait, she imagined a malignant tumor. She was so aware of her body that she discovered her own cancer before the doctors did. After bringing suppressed emotional material to the surface, her cancer went into remission. Today, Halprin works with people who suffer with cancer, trauma, AIDS or other life-threatening illnesses, helping them through their healing processes. After her husband died, she used her own techniques to begin healing, moving through each emotion and learning from her experiences to share with others.

    On the second day of the workshop, we went inside the studio and did several exercises to explore movement in the spine and to improve flexibility. We worked on releasing tension from joints and slowly falling to the ground, one vertebrae at a time, and then reversing the movement to a standing position. By now, even though I had had an amazing first day, I started to feel upset about my body. It was impossible for me to fully relax. Even when lying motionless on the floor in a totally safe space, I still felt tense and had a hard time moving my body and joints. I attributed this to spending my work days at a desk, and almost started to cry that I was incapable of being fully free and relaxed because of a career choice.

    This feeling of panic was heightened by a quote on the bulletin board in the reception area. The quote read:

    “The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said: ‘Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.'”

    “The body is living art. Your movement through time and space is art. A painter has brushes. You have your body.”

    I took this message to heart and reflected on it during the rest of the afternoon. Later, we worked on a dance inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, finding the body’s core through diagonal movement. The movements were more structured and ritualistic than the other dances we had done, and I took comfort in choreography, still feeling the danger of collapsing into an emotional puddle.

    The last exercise was to complete a second self-portrait to discover any transformations or shifts that had occurred. My second drawing revealed significant changes: I drew myself fearlessly jumping off a cliff into my open mouth, leaping into myself to become whole. This picture made me realize firsthand that Halprin truly has a gift, having created deeper understanding about my own life in only two days. Her secret is simple: listen to your body and use it to create something beautiful.

    “The body is living art,” Halprin said. “Your movement through time and space is art. A painter has brushes. You have your body. Why wouldn’t you want to make each movement as beautiful and meaningful as possible?”

    Today when I woke up, I stretched, reinvigorated and treating every movement in life like a dance.

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    Review: Nervous Device by Catherine Wagner

    October 11th, 2012

    Catherine Wagner’s latest book, a full-length poetry collection titled Nervous Device, explores the boundaries between author and audience, using a masterful command of language that is both playful and provocative. Drawing inspiration from William Blake’s “The Bounding Line,” Wagner’s poetry delves into sexual, political and cultural themes as well as the communication between humans that surrounds them, jumping between imagery and never letting you fully settle into a comfortable space.

    Having interviewed Wagner before writing this review, I felt I understood the complex themes she explores better than I would have if I had read the work without context. My initial impression (pre-interview) was that the collection was too smart and intellectual for me to fully comprehend. (Ironically enough, Wagner later told me that trying to be smart in the book was a fear of hers. “That’s the deadly thing — the wish to appear smart — and I hope I didn’t succumb to it too often,” she told me.)

    But the difference between other poets and Wagner is that Wagner doesn’t have to try to make her poetry smart; it simply is.

    The Notes and Acknowledgement section highlights this fact. She starts off with a quirky story about shocking someone by talking about her cervix and vagina (an auspicious start to any poetry collection, in my opinion), and then launches into all the references and literary passages she pulled from while writing her Nervous Device. I had only heard of a handful of them.

    Wagner’s command of language is apparent. She plays around with syntax and grammar in a light-handed manner, experimenting with cadence and melody. Her poems emit a sense of freedom, breaking from traditional rules and style, often sounding almost child-like in their lack of “proper” grammar. For example, in “Pleasure Trip” Wagner writes, “She grew up in the blitz. House destroyed by bomb. Go home, house gone. It scared me so I never got over it, in my life. Said the lady. She sing most soberly.”

    The beautiful thing about Wagner’s poetry is that she doesn’t try to put distance between the reader and the topics she explores — however uncomfortable — by writing about abstract concepts. Life isn’t all flowery language or romantic abstraction, and Wagner makes you painfully aware of this. By using phrases like, “Tumor against her spine, growing” and “pulled [boogers] through body shield,” or “I have no vitreous eyeballs when I bloom dead,” she brings you viscerally close in ways that perhaps make you cringe or want to squirm away. But if you stay with her — sit with the discomfort — you will be rewarded. Wagner’s gift is her ability to break through and see things from a new angle, allowing her readers to make connections that they had never made before.

    But not all of Wagner’s poems are difficult to read; some simply make you laugh. I have to admit, my new favorite term is “prosody whore,” written in “Arrived Detaching Toward the Union.” Her lightness and humor contrast nicely with the more difficult pieces, working well to round out the collection. Much of her work is beautifully written (“Snowflakes built rotating palaces on the way down. Crashcrust parking-lot crystalle”), adding to the pure pleasure I got from reading the collection.

    At first glance, Wagner’s poems seem difficult to understand, jumping between different concepts and images and never letting the reader get comfortable. But when is life ever comfortable? Wagner’s work highlights this uncertainty, the potential for miscommunication and the beauty in human connection. After several reads, Nervous Device‘s beautiful language and imagery crept up inside me, winding around in my mind and taking hold like quietly powerful vines. Each time, Nervous Device seems like a first read since the rich and sensual language somehow manages to remain fresh and new. I eagerly await future collections from Wagner, knowing that she is only going to continue to surprise and satisfy her audience with her unique lens on these universal topics.

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    Review of Ranu Mukherjee’s “Telling Fortunes”

    October 4th, 2012

    In her work, artist Ranu Mukherjee explores the idea of the contemporary nomad and how repeated relocation has shaped Silicon Valley through its immigrant population, migrant workers and dot-com booms and busts. Focusing particularly on South Asian, Chinese and Latino culture, she uses images that she “crowd sourced,” collecting images from the public to make her work more meaningful. Taking these often iconic images to represent uprootedness and a new home, she renders them into digitally animated films which discuss speculative narratives of material conditions brought on by global capitalism.

    Mukherjee’s latest exhibit, Telling Fortunes, is on display at the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA) through January 13. As part of its ongoing series, Beta Space, and in conjunction with the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial: Seeking Silicon Valley, the SJMA commissioned Mukherjee to create two hybrid films that explore how Silicon Valley was shaped.

    The first hybrid film, “Nearing and Viewing (Production Through Encounter),” featured random moving images from bees and honey, to a cash register and bricks, to jaguars, lemurs and macaws. Mukherjee’s films are unique because the images and animation seem to just melt into each other, changing the scene so subtly that viewers hardly notice. As though in a dream, the film slowly pans over the fading and changing images before cutting suddenly to new scenes. Through the use of disparate and seemingly unrelated images, Mukherjee makes a statement about the cultural coalescence of Silicon Valley residents, inviting viewers to make their own connections to explain how the images are related.

    Personally, I found the content of these images to be intriguing, especially the images and footage of animals from San Jose’s Happy Hollow Zoo, a place I used to visit as a child. However, I failed to see a distinct connection between the images and life in Silicon Valley.

    Her second film, “Radiant Chromosphere (Move Towards What Is Approaching),” made a statement about the effects of the sun’s energy on the agricultural and economic future of Silicon Valley, weaving together images as disparate as fields awaiting development to solar panels, snake charms, space and a turtle. Though seemingly random, the film was executed better, providing the viewer with a clear trajectory of an idea and theme. For example, solar panels reflecting bright colored lights from the sun are overlaid with orchards and fruit before becoming interwoven into a Tree of Life. The final image is a collage-like pattern of macaws, solar panels and fruit in the branches.

    Mukherjee also printed images from her films on silk saris, representing the same themes of her work in different mediums. One of these pieces, “Double Lingham,” is a strikingly beautiful ink on sari work that uses vivid oranges, pastels and greens to represent the lingham and yoni — the union of creative, sexual and spiritual energies as well as good fortune. Mukherjee masterfully layered materials to allow light to pass through the thin saris, elegantly tricking the eye into believing that the images are rising to the surface beneath a luminous sheen. The work was reminiscent of long-lost memories and hazy dreams; though it wasn’t readily apparent what I was looking at, the images were somehow familiar, resonating with me.

    The final piece of the exhibit (and the first one visitors encounter) was a soundscape set, “Listening Park,” which is a collaborative installation with sound designer Mike Maurillo. The simulated park consists of a single wooden porch swing, hybrid fruit trees — which produce three types of fruit, symbolizing the tree of life — and speakers. Audio clips of birds and bees are woven together with bits of recorded conversations and Mukherjee reciting pieces of the I Ching. However, random bits of interviews with the zoo-keepers at Happy Hollow Park intermixed with jungle sounds and birds chirping felt ill-fitted and discordant, lacking any sort of melody or coherence. Mukherjee’s melodic voice reciting intermittent recitations of the I Ching at least added some semblance of musical cadence. Even so, the noise of traffic and airplanes taking off from the nearby San Jose Airport often drowned out the audio; but perhaps Mukherjee and Maurillo designed the installation this way on purpose in order to further implicate how Silicon Valley’s tech rise has impacted local nature.

    Only after exploring the entire exhibit and watching Mukherjee’s videos did the audio loop in Listening Park make sense, leading me to conclude that better placement of the sound installation would have enhanced my experience of it. Ironically enough, Mukherjee apparently consulted the I Ching for placement of the pieces in the exhibit. Mukherjee also consulted other forms of fortune telling, including a fortune telling machine within the Winchester Mystery House. Printed on a sari for the piece “Distant Lands” is the phrase, “Your life may take you to many distant lands but you will always return home safely again,” taken from the machine. My reaction was to scoff at the obviousness of the fortune, wondering how many cards she had to go through before finally getting that one. It seemed to tie in a little too perfectly to the thematic elements that Mukherjee was exploring, while other areas of the exhibit seemed to hardly tie in at all.

    Ultimately, I thought the exhibit was extremely ambitious. Though immigration and nomadic life in the Silicon Valley seems like a narrow topic to explore, Mukherjee’s exhibit proved that it is an extremely rich and diverse theme, drawing on California history and its projected future, the tech industry, and several different and distinct cultures. While Mukherjee’s work displayed these ideas beautifully in her rendered films and images, I wish the connections between the ideas had been stronger to allow for a more unified presentation of thematic elements.

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