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Relevance, Rebellion and Redemption 

Taiwanese trash repurposers bring their vision to Eureka

click to enlarge Gravity - ERIN WHITMAN
  • Erin Whitman
  • Gravity

A tree trunk sways suspended, looming over the eight-inch seedling underneath. A heart-shaped, fibrous leaf, broad as your average human, hangs to the side of the very appealing three-piece band Children of the Sun. Their California jazz-soul winds through the Accident Gallery, buoys the heaviness suggested by this month's exhibition, "Going Green:  New Environmental Art From Taiwan." See, the pieces all focus on environmental issues -- global warming, pollution, waste disposal, loss of habitat and urban encroachment.

One collection of work by Wu Mali documents "Taipei Tomorrow as a Lake Again." Imagining the impact of climate change on the basin city, regional planting activities were designed as a way to not only reflect on environmental issues, but actually gain connection with the land. In an interview in Taiwan Today, Mali explained, "My art is more of a social movement to make changes in our behavior for the benefit of humanity and nature, and to make art more relevant to society."

Currently Taiwan, a primarily urban, highly developed technological country, boasts many contemporary artists who specialize in video art and other new media. For the modern artists who choose to focus on the natural world -- of major importance in traditional Chinese art and culture -- art is a way of looking back and looking forward at the same time.

"Every Drop Counts" by Chung-ho Cheng and Chia-ping Liu demonstrates this beautifully. Fiber-based "leaves" stand tall on stalks, angled to funnel the morning dew into containers. A perfect symbiosis of function and art, these moisture collectors are poised to grow more valuable as access to clean water disappears.

While the impact of the faraway installations is somewhat diminished by only being able to view them through photographs and video, immediate reward is found in the Eureka-specific installations of artists Ya-chu Kang and Su-chen Hung. Hung's piece focuses on the importance of trees for the environment  -- the aforementioned trunk/seedling installation. Kang's outdoor installation, "Hero," the form of a human skeleton wearing a cape like a super-hero and composed of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste collected on local beaches, is sited along Eureka's boardwalk.

Some pieces in the exhibit are less literal. Fay Ku's "Spawn" is drawn with sharp lines but soft meanings, appealing as an illustration in a mythology book, yet hinting at something colder, more clinical. It's the sort of piece you stand in front of for a bit, wondering what's going on.

The "Going Green" exhibition is sponsored by the Taipei Cultural Center, New York City, and funded by the Council for Cultural Affairs, Taiwan, and continues at Accident Gallery, Eureka, through Oct. 2. The artists and the artworks for this exhibition were selected by Jane Ingram Allen, an American independent curator, artist and critic living in Taiwan since moving there in 2004 with a Fulbright Scholar award.

Also worth noting at the Accident Gallery, "An Emotional Pile" by Seth M. Smith VI. While photomontages typically go for the Cubist look or fall into the Hockney-inspired category without adding value, this particular work results in something that appears post-earthquake, made more poignant by recent natural disasters and, in that context, makes a gutsy comment.

Note: The gallery also stocks cards by local treasure Rachel K. Schlueter. If you can't afford one of her paintings, you can still buy a small print to treasure.

Over at Little Shop of Hers, owned by Monster Women frontwoman Courtney Jaxon, paintings by the Journal's 2010 winner of "Best Observer of Eureka Street Life" Jesse Weidel hang above the tempting boots and wild vintage wear. Please note a new favorite in the row of chronicled decay -- you'll know it by its fjords. (We evaded a block-long samba/drum line to duck into the store. Eureka's Arts Alive! continues to up the fun quotient month after month.)

More fine work by the usual suspects is displayed at First Street Gallery's alumni show. Check out "Gravity" by Erin Whitman. The artist's vantage point lies at the foot of the bed. We're treated to feet, legs, a bit of arm, all intertwined in white sheets that make the depiction of the flesh so much more powerful. The subject sleeps, but the painting vibrates with wakefulness.

When we observe art -- paintings, sculptures, mixed-media installations, even songs and the written word -- we relate to it in a couple of different contexts. First, the surface appearance. Is it pretty? Disturbing? Engaging? How we feel about it at first look depends on the inherent qualities of the work: form, composition, subject matter; as well as our own influences: where and when we grew up, what scares us, what bores us, what experience we've had as practitioners. Some people are comforted by traditional landscapes. Some ache for something different. If you see art all the time, you have a different take on it than someone who rarely goes to a gallery -- think how less judgmental we'd be about movies if we only took in one film a year. But being too immersed in the art world can lead to a certain jadedness as well, an inability to appreciate the novel, the inspired, the unfamiliar. Then again, just because something's new and out of the ordinary doesn't make it good. We're back to the "rules" of art, relying again on composition and technique to distinguish between achievement and aggrandizement. How to supercede the establishment without sacrificing quality?

The other factor is, what story does this tell? Sometimes something that doesn't really look like much turns out to be when you discover the history around it. Great movements often start with rebellion against the status quo and last because that initial rebellion opens the floodgates to talent that would not have otherwise had an outlet. Unfortunately, some folks confuse rebellion as its own end, rather than a means to a better one. Tired of pretty paintings of pretty scenery? Present us with something dark and ugly - but in such a way that beauty actually lies within the work. Art without redemption isn't only depressing, it's boring.


Editor's note: With this last thought-provoking piece Jennifer Savage ends her stint as Art Beat columnist. She figures we "have several writers waiting in the wings for a chance to take it on." We don't. Or maybe you're in the wings and simply have not told us. Think you might have what it takes? Send an email to Arts and Culture editor Bob Doran at [email protected].

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Jennifer Savage

Jennifer Savage

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