Two new exibitions at Palo Alto Art Center find common ground in their new interpretations of the past

Publication Date: Friday Jan 28, 2000

Two new exibitions at Palo Alto Art Center find common ground in their new interpretations of the past

By Jennifer Deitz

If you want to say you'd marry her again, a least one diamond company suggests sticking an even bigger rock on her finger the next time your anniversary rolls around.

A more meaningful--and less expensive--alternative might be to drop by the Palo Alto Art Center, where the exhibit "The Thought of Things: Jewelry by Kiff Slemmons" may just change the way your loved one looks at precious metals.

The Slemmons exhibit opened this weekend alongside a second exhibit of baskets, vessels and wall-pieces called "Nature Re-Bound." Although the two displays vary greatly in their style and use of materials, the artists in both camps succeed by casting modern-day light on ancient traditions. The result is everyday objects taking on heightened meaning.

The rings, pins and necklaces in Slemmons' jewelry collection hold no rubies or sapphires. Instead, each piece--meticulously handmade with bits of pencils, typewriters, and faded photographs--suggests that the things of everyday life are more precious than fancy stones.

"The traditional way of valuing jewelry is based on the materials used, whether it is gold, silver or diamonds," said Slemmons. "That isn't what constitutes value in what I do. The ideas that go into each piece is where the value lies."

One of the Seattle-based artist's favorite creations is her series of tiny boxes filled with up to 13 rings. In a sculpture called "Overruled," what looks like a tiny, black tool box holds a set of rings made of silver, which has been toned-down through oxidation to give it a more worn, industrial look. Inset in the silver are pieces of old-fashioned yellow rulers cut into squares, rectangles and half-circles. While each ring could be taken out and worn separately, they are more striking when seen together as sculpture, the overlapping pieces packed snuggly, but neatly, into their box.

Inspiration for some of Slemmons' work comes from her childhood days when her father was editor and publisher of a small-town newspaper in Iowa. A love of words, writing and word-play comes through in how she names her pieces and in the materials she chooses. In a piece called "Anna Nime" a quiet face from a found photograph fills the center of a clock-like circle. But there is a strange humor to the design once Slemmons uses the round ends of two clock hands to create eyeglasses for the face while the pointed ends still reach out toward 5 and 7 o'clock.

The exhibit's curator, Signe Mayfield, is quick to point out, "Anna Nime" leaves room for all sorts of interpretations. In the first place, she says, her use of a family photo, rather than a precious stone, as the centerpiece is a statement about what we value. "Anna Nime," a homophone for the French word for "anonymous," also becomes a tongue-in-cheek way of giving a name to the woman on the found photograph who the artist couldn't have known. Look even deeper, and you discover it is also a nod to the renowned artist Marcel Duchamp, who led a group called "Societe Anonyme."

Similar plays on language and meaning help bring the contemporary basketry exhibit, "Nature Re-Bound" to life.

As you walk into the museum one of the first pieces to catch your eye will likely be a large grid-like wall-hanging made of prunings from apricot trees fastened together with nuts and bolts. Although there are still bends and gnarls left in the branches, they've also been stretched and stripped to create neat boxes four down and four across. Down one row it plainly reads "TREE." Yet San Francisco-based artist Gyonky Laky also points out that more subtly it reads across, "HERE." Laky says the hidden message that there s a tree here is a playful way of getting at more serious concerns she has about preserving nature. The title of the piece, "Sound," is a play on the age-old philosophical question: "If a tree falls in the forest, does it really make a sound?"

For her, seeing the orchards around Palo Alto disappearing makes it seem that no one is listening or noticing the falling trees.

In fact, the clippings she used for "Sound" came from the last of the orchards in Palo Alto, which were saved just in time by Lucile and David Packard. As Laky says, the title of the exhibit "Nature Re-Bound" explains where many of the artists are coming from. Their hope is that people who see the work they've done--the intricate weaving together of twigs, bark or pine needles--will pause to think about nature in a different way the next time they walk past a row of trees on their way to work.

One of the most haunting pieces in the exhibit is a work by Palo Alto artist Sharon Chinen called "Calla Lilies." The wall sculpture combines both natural and man-made materials for an effect that is both beautiful and threatening at once. A row of tall, uprooted Calla Lilies hang in a zigzag pattern along the wall. Long graceful stems made of tree branches flow up into delicate funnel-shaped "blossoms" made of brown papier-mch, but they're contrasted by ragged, dangling roots and sharp, thick thorns. Chinen said the idea for the piece came from a television show explaining how non-native plants brought into California overtake indigenous species, rendering some extinct.

Chinen, who had Calla Lilies growing in her yard which had been transplanted from South Africa, realized the beautiful plants constituted a threat to native plant-life. "They're wonderful," she said. "But at the same time, it makes me quite sad." Still, she says, even if the inspiration comes from sadness, there is joy in turning the mood into art.

What: Art Exhibits: "The Thought of Things: Jewelry by Kiff Slemmons" and "Nature Re-Bound" Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road When: January 23 through April 30 How much: Admission is free For more information, contact: Palo Alto Art Center (650) 329-2366 

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