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Art Review: 'Afterlife'

A new show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art shows how artists make visionary statements from cast-off materials

SO MUCH JUNK, so little art. One way to redress the balance is for artists to pass on exotic, nonsustainable materials like cochineal dye harvested from scale insects or Carrera marble and to choose recyclable materials instead to realize their visions. Collage and assemblage artists have being taking this tack for decades, but now such eco-friendly methods are showing up all over the place. Recycling is chic. Such is the impulse driving the fascinating group show “Afterlife,” now at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

The show, curated by Kathryn Funk, who was the institute’s director some 20 years ago, brings together nine artists who hold back the engulfing tide at the landfill by “repurposing” society’s leftovers. In aggregate, of course, the effort won’t save us from drowning in our own trash, but the pieces do give pause for thought and might even spur us on to some more sensible and manageable consumer strategies.

Mark Fox-Morgan, a recent SJSU MFA grad, takes up the center of the gallery with the frame of a one-room house fashioned from beams and two-by-fours. The structural elements look like very rough-textured wood, but closer inspection reveals that they are recycled cast paper solidified with acrylic and glue. The shack appears almost sturdy enough to really work. When the forests are gone, we may have to turn to such novel shelter, although fireplaces will be out of the question.

The same confusion of materiality informs Lisa Kokin’s floor installation of “rocks.” These seemingly solid objects are actually made from compacted pulped paper gathered from old self-help books. Here and there, encouraging words for readers bent on improvement can still be read (“How to obtain and practice the ideal sex life”), as if they were quartz veins in a chunk of granite.

Kokin also rescues thousands of multicolored, variously shaped buttons, fasteners and belt buckles and carefully strings them together to create, if you stand far enough away, a full-length portrait of a woman in a red dress arm in arm with a man in gray and black shirt and trousers. They appear to be long settled into middle age, and it is easy to imagine that these are a marriage’s worth of lost, detached and mended fasteners—an impression heightened by the large clock face sewn into the mix. (Don’t miss her website,, which features a shamelessly appealing video about her dogs.)

Probably every poor student has owned an overupholstered monstrosity of a discarded easy chair like the one Scott Oliver has dissected for The Valley. Oliver peeled back the faded green cloth from the damaged foam and large coil springs of the seat and spread them out like wings on the wall. The underside, dotted with tufts of green fabric and tan stuffing, is cut across the top in the outline of a mountain range, perhaps the peaks surrounding Hetch Hetchy Valley before its inundation with dam waters.

Working at the opposite end of the scale, Santa Cruz artist Robert Larson uses the Surgeon General’s warnings cut out from Marlboro cigarette packages as miniature mosaic pieces. Carefully, obsessively, Larson pastes thousands upon thousands of these dire missives into a meticulous grid on three enormous linen panels (it’s no wonder the piece is dated 1995–2002). The result is an expanse of white broken up by rectangular passages of light and dark stained and crumpled papers that provide some gradations for the eye to follow. The actual point of the warnings disappears unless you peer closely: “Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema,” “Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide,” etc.

Beverly Rayner’s works bristle with menace; she uses leftovers for sinister purposes, commenting on society’s increasing penchant for spying on its citizens 24/7. Surveillance Apparatus Infiltration Network Cell, made from plastic mesh sleeves, wire and old lenses, conjures up a biomechanical spybot. A translucent ovoid shape like a beetle’s body with raised veins made from insulated wires exudes seven twisting tubular tentacles that end in sockets with images of staring eyes. Here is a piece of art that would rather look than be looked at.

AFTERLIFE runs through Jan. 23 at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 560 S. First St., San Jose. (408.283.8155)