Palo Alto Art Center's fall shows create drama with careful use of light
A gritty photo essay about miners in South Wales wouldn't seem to have much in common with brightly colored paintings from Haiti. It's the light that links them.
At the Palo Alto Art Center, both collections are arranged in darkened rooms with judicious use of light. The effect is dramatic, almost theatrical.
In the small Haitian exhibition, a single light trained on each canvas makes the jewel-box hues pop. The strength of the colors is fitting, as this is a show about the resilience of local culture and the enduring belief in Vodou practice. Symbols and shapes, traditional objects and practices figure prominently in the art.
A Vodou priestess stirs a ritual ingredient in a tall bowl in Carlos Jean Baptiste's 1999 acrylic "Mambo" ("priestess"). Glossy, ethereal light seems to illuminate her skin, headscarf and peach-colored dress.
In Gerard Valcin's 1975 acrylic on canvas "Leve Zombi," a ring of worshippers in white dresses and headdresses sways with rhythm. There's a timelessness about the ritual that's reflected in a nearby exhibition card, which points out that Haiti became the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere, with lasting effects on the culture.
"Their independence allowed the Haitians to maintain their West African cosmology, aesthetics and traditions with less outside interference than any of the other former slave colonies in the Caribbean," the card reads. "The visual arts, along with an oral tradition, are the primary forms of cultural transmission in much of Haitian society. ...
"The signs and symbols of Vodou that are seen in the exhibition paintings provide evidence of the invisible powers of belief that have sustained a culture through centuries of adversity."
Symbols seen in the paintings include the veve, abstract drawings that Vodou practitioners create in cornmeal, ash or flour on temple floors. A veve can be seen snaking around the ground between worshippers in "Leve Zombi."
Darker symbols fill an untitled oil on canvas by Jacques-Enguerrand Gourge: a book with mysterious writing, a pale-eyed horned beast, sad-looking animals. Despite the eerie feeling, the colors are just as bright as in the other Haitian paintings, the brushstrokes steady.
In the neighboring gallery, color is nearly absent, but light and dark are just as key. Bay Area photographer Colette Campbell-Jones explores the South Wales mining community where her husband was raised, using a hybrid photographic process. Cut-out photos and digital files combine in a "collage of photographic fragments," as she describes it in an artist's statement, "resulting in the construction of a new or altered reality."
The installation is as theatrical as the Haitian exhibition, but it's like comparing Mamet to "Mame." This room is as grim as its neighbor is vibrant. Inside the dim gallery, a visitor steps inside a wrap-around wall of photos: men with headlamps, eyes bright in grimy faces; forbidding rock formations; lamps held in strong hands; spiky mining equipment.
During a recent heat wave, the world inside the installation felt confined and stuffy. That was likely nothing compared to what the miners, cogs in the business, went through. As Campbell-Jones described it, the oral histories she collected during her project "reveal the terror of being literally consumed by the earth underground and simultaneously by the frightful economic machinery above."
Still, these men formed communities and kept their humanity in these dour conditions. The installation includes an image of one miner washing another's back in a shower. Someone has also drawn a whimsical chalk figure on a mine wall. Art abides, even underground.
What: Fall exhibitions at the Palo Alto Art Center of Haitian paintings, mining photos and Bay Area photo collections (see separate story)
Where: 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Dec. 12, open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m.; and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org or call 650-329-2366.