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The Year in Arts

Visual Arts: Artists in the valley showed off new ways to rework old materials in 2009

A SENSE of engagement drove most of the local museum and gallery shows in 2009, with an emphasis on thinking globally and creating locally. The phenomenon manifested itself in some creative “recycling” by artists demonstrating the need to conserve rather than exploit, while making some trenchant points about the Earth-altering changes that are looming just over the next melting iceberg.

Collage and assemblage are the premier techniques for making the old new again. Early in the year, the San Jose Museum of Art showcased the collage creations of psychedelic-era Bay Area artist Wilfried Satty, who deconstructed 19th-century books and other printed ephemera to fashion his own surreal history of the Gold Rush era. At first, his illustrations looked like factual records of events like fires and saloon brawls, but Satty often presented jarring clashes of scale by pasting large heads on small bodies or by filling a sky with an unexpected floating creature.

The de Saisset Museum’s “Tech Tools of the Trade” ranged widely in its presentation of media-driven works by Bay Area artists. Alan Rath’s New Watcher IX featured two round metal circles connected to metal arms containing tiny video monitors that projected a pair of eyes. Such technical minimalism was enough to suggest a sculpture of an uncanny being on the verge of consciousness.

As always, the South First Fridays events continued to bring large crowds downtown for a healthy dose of art displays and happenings. The most boisterous of these came in June, when SFF joined with 01SJ for subZERO, a tech-savvy street festival. The warm evening lent itself to some quality flaneuring through booths where artists showed off everything from a futuristic divination set to Tesla coil zappers.

“NextNew: Green” at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art concentrated on ecological themes with a generally dystopian cast. Misako Inaoka’s small mutant animals were cobbled together from children’s toys; the menagerie depicted a scary future of desperate adaptation in the face of climate change. Several of the “NextNew” artists deployed cast-off materials: recycling as a kind of redemption. Vanessa Marsh’s sculptures of industrial wreckage were meticulously fashioned from various found materials. Michael Ryan’s installation Dead Space used motors, wires and tubes to animate some plastic bags that seemed to respire gently with rhythmic puffs of air. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster constructed not from body parts but from consumer packaging.

Glass-blowing artists the de la Torre brothers contributed a stunning installation called La Reconquista to MACLA. Not stopping with glass, the de la Torres mixed and mismatched plastic flotsam and pop-culture detritus. Working with symbols both potent and denatured, they satirized the enterprise of globalization as practiced for 500 years. A corner of the gallery was plastered wall to ceiling with blow-up color images of a church in Oaxaca. The spires and arches of the church, digitally stitched together, were encrusted with ads for Bimbo bread, Quaker State and Coca Cola. In front of this backdrop sat a large altar, complete with gold-painted wood framing and elaborate columns. Three 3-D panels were crowded with famous and infamous historical and contemporary figures. All time collapsed in this vision. The conquerors and the conquered flip-flopped depending on one’s angle of approach. Such a perspective, forever shifting, proved both scary and exhilarating.

This show of modern Mexican-American visions is nicely paired with the Palo Alto Art Center’s “Treasures From the Mexican Museum: A Spirited Legacy” (running through April of the new year). This compendium from the whole range of Mexican art sparkles with exquisite examples of Aztec and Mayan creations to some terrific 20th-century examples of folk art, most notably an amazing papier-mâché sculpture by Felipe Linares. This large bemused skeleton figure sprouts cactus spears, ferns and flowers from its bones. Birds, frogs and snakes perch and slither over its joints. It is Adam reunited with Eden.

The year ended with a fine and fertile show of pieces by 13 Stanford art profs called “From Their Studios” at the Cantor Arts Center. The 13 artists displayed a satisfyingly wide embrace of techniques, materials and artistic intentions. Buffeted by digital media and Kindles, I was especially taken by photographer Robert Dawson’s magnificent tribute to the eternal values of real (as opposed to virtual) libraries. The imposing yet contemplative classical interior of the Woburn Public Library, Woburn, Mass., conjured up a secular temple of knowledge.