Industry and Entropy 

Oakland art show Catalyst disturbs and entertains.

It's easy to imagine Marina Vendrell sitting on BART or waiting for the bus, sewing busily on a new sculpture. But who knows what the person sitting next to her must be thinking.

Vendrell makes soft, plushy, furry sculptures that seem at first like children's toys, with bright colors and internal music boxes that play when you pull or squeeze them. But there's also something a little unnerving about her work, and it's not just the idea of a kid accidentally swallowing one of the decorative beads or pom-poms. It's the sense that these are really grown-up toys in disguise. To begin with they're almost embarrassingly voluptuous, covered with bulbous attachments and hanging sacs that make them look like plush versions of the Woman of Willendorf. There's also the fact that Vendrell has butchered other things to make them; like a thrift-store Dr. Frankenstein, she has cut up and reassembled used toys and old fur coats into objects that are furry and bright and sing pretty songs but are also monstrous and wrong in a way that a trusting child might not realize until it was too late.

She drives the point home with her titles: Clot for a big red conglomeration of puff balls and yarn, or Mammy for a brown mound of fur. You can't help handling Mammy, petting it, stroking it, then recoiling when you turn over a flap of fur and realize it's an animal's foot with pads and claws still attached. Fur is loaded with so many political and emotional associations, and its power in Vendrell's sculptures comes partly from the guilty pleasure of touching it, and partly from the time-warp it evokes back to a naive time when fur wasn't so complicated -- when all it meant was protection and pleasure without any emotional, ecological, or moral implications. Vendrell's sculptures aren't for kids, yet they make their viewers childlike in this way. She holds out the lollipop, and it's there for the licking -- to hell with diet and propriety.

Vendrell is one of four Bay Area artists in Catalyst, an exhibition that also features mixed-media works by Amy Berk, Matt Volla, and Tim Jag, the show's curator. All four are relatively young, although they've got decades of art-world experience between them; a common love for bright, poppy colors and materials ties them together. Vendrell and Berk live in San Francisco, Jag in Berkeley, and Volla in Oakland.

All four of the sculptures Jag contributed to this exhibition are part of his Industry Codes series. It's an ongoing project using industrial materials, which for him includes everything from metals and plastics to fake craft-store flowers and fur. The work's fundamental playfulness distinguishes it from the rest of the art in the gallery. Like Vendrell, he "Frankensteins" disparate elements into animal-ish creatures, using rubber hoses, for instance, to connect boxes covered in colorful fake fur with flowers growing out of them. But unlike Mammy, his creations seem goofy and nonthreatening.

We might even call it Dada if he weren't so conscious and systematic about his project. The way Jag combines animal with machine, organic with industrial, and "real" with "fake" suggests an element of exquisite corpse, as though many artists, each with a different (or non-) intent, worked on the sculptures. In the end, his incredibly eclectic visual vocabulary is a blessing and curse. All the bright colors and whimsical nonsequiturs are so mesmerizing that it's hard to see past them to Jag's underlying commentary on connectivity, cloning, and fabrication -- serious concerns for our biotechnological age.

Matt Volla contributes eight paintings, a series he calls Pourology, to the show. He made them by pouring varying colors of enamel paint onto slabs of wood. The varied viscosities and colors resulted in all different kinds of patterns and morphs; colors fall on top of one another and intertwine in spidery webs. Most of the finished works look like fabulous, tropical, fried-egg-shaped fish. There's no doubt that Volla exerted quite a bit of control over each piece, but they are less about the artist's hand than the material properties of paint when left to its own devices -- the way that gravity pulls on it, and the way it pushes and pulls and mixes with itself. It even piles up in a three-dimensional way when he lets layers dry in between applications. This is again partly accidental and partly on purpose; he compares the process with Marcel Duchamp's Three Stoppages, in which the artist dropped string from a certain height and preserved the resultant shapes as sculptural artworks.

Volla is currently pursuing a master's degree in electronic music at Mills College, and his résumé includes as many musical performances as art exhibitions. He approaches both pursuits with the same basic M.O., a kind of back-and-forth between improvisation and systematization, absurdity and logic, entropy and "extropy." He embraces the element of randomness in his paintings. To his way of seeing, it makes them more artistic, not less, just as improvised music is no less musical than the rehearsed kind. And in case the point isn't clear, he presents Bumbology, a video featuring dozens of quivering, bouncing Bumble Balls. Starting in a clump and slowly radiating outward, they demonstrate in no uncertain terms Volla's fetish for the unpredictable.

Sewing, for Amy Berk, can be a way of illustrating the surrounding world. It also can be almost like an exercise in automatism; What's Left of Theory (not in this show), for instance, was an embroidery piece she created while listening to speakers at an academic conference expounding on Deleuze, Kant, Hegel, and their cohorts. Its squiggles might represent her subconscious dismissal of what she was hearing -- a way of trivializing all those overly deep thoughts. But it can also be understood as a practical and constructive response that attempts to show how art and life can literally "interweave" in a much more natural and harmonious way. Any artist who uses fabric necessarily incorporates an element of manual-ness into her or his work, but for Berk it's a crucial component, and her art makes little sense otherwise.

Most of the colorful appliqués she contributed to Catalyst are made from synthetic materials such as polyester, fake fur, and glass buttons. They are sculptures, but they're just barely three-dimensional, presented like stretched-canvas paintings on the wall. Some of them feature small decorative additions to pre-printed fabrics, like Pop (Yves St. Laurent) and POP! (After JI), where the "designer" pattern recalls Duchamp's experiments with ready-made industrial objects. In others she's sewn large swatches of fur or velvet onto a plain background. The works in this latter group are notable for their obviously crooked edges and visible basting, but Berk isn't necessarily aiming for a tight, smooth, finished look. Her amateurishness seems deliberate -- maybe a way of paying homage to the hallowed masters of modern art without straying too far into the realm of superstreamlined conceptual minimalism and away from the real world of thread and hands and stitches.


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