Liquid Assets 

"Water World" art exhibit shows the many facets of wetness.

"I'm usually too tight to pay for having my car washed," says photographer Jan Wilson Kaufman. Little did she know what thrills awaited. After riding along once with a friend, she starting going back again and again to various car washes, snapping photos as fast as she could while the brushes whirred and the soap swirled. The resulting pictures look almost abstract, like underwater aquarium scenes, but more mysterious. "I get back lots of worried notes from the film processors warning me about being out of focus," she jokes.

Kaufman is one of seven artists in "Water World," opening Thursday, May 22, at the Kala Art Institute. Curated by Lauren Davies, Kala's public programs manager and a fabulous artist in her own right, the show combines photography, digital imaging, and video to present a variety of perspectives on that wet stuff that covers 70 percent of our planet.

Susan Magnus, another of the featured artists, is a shoo-in for "Most Creative Application of a Grandmother's Birthday Present" when it comes time for Best of the East Bay next year. The date was 1957, and the gift was a lifetime subscription to National Geographic magazine. She's transformed it into several different artworks so far, most notably Lifetime, an ongoing sculptural project to which she adds new magazines in yearly installments (the stack is fourteen feet high and growing). Atlas Maritimus, her contribution to the show, is a collection of enlarged, close-up bits and pieces from National Geographic's ocean maps. Hanging on the wall, they look more like abstract paintings than cartography. "We tend to think of geography as relatively constant," Magnus observes. "But these maps reveal the world's geography is fluid and dramatically changing over time."

Most of the other featured artists contribute work that describes in one way or another the interaction of water with humans and human-made environments. Unai San Martin takes pictures of the ocean while sitting on his surfboard; Katherine Westerhout trespasses through abandoned buildings where water is covering the floor; and Lara Odell photographs drained, snow-covered swimming pools in the middle of winter. She's from Buffalo (maybe one of the snowiest places on the planet) and her pictures aren't so much about water as the strangeness of expecting the liquid form and finding the solid form instead. Juxtaposed with the blinding white snow, the hyper-aqua-blue paint on the pool walls seems odd, as do the Winchester-Mystery-House-like ladders that lead nowhere, and the depth signs that mean nothing.

John Wilson White, a former artist-in-residence with the Putah-Cache bioregion project, is the most overtly environmental of the seven, and also the only one to present an installation. His artwork examines household plumbing as the "user interface" between our urban environment and the natural world. "What comes out of the water faucet at home," he says, "is really the transported essence of the place where it came from." And Marci Tackett, a former synchronized swimming coach, takes the most unabashedly poetic view of water with her pictures of people in swimming pools. "To me," she enthuses, "the underwater world is a place of infinite possibilities. The rules of life on land can be momentarily cast aside. The weak can carry the strong, and the infirm are suddenly graceful."

"Water World" is at Kala Art Institute, 1060 Heinz Ave., Berkeley, May 22 through June 21. Opening reception: May 22, 6-8 p.m. Gallery conversation with artists: June 17 at 7 p.m., free. Hours: Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon-4:30 p.m.

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