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Art: Any which way you 'can'
Marin group lifts lid on creativity with 'Can Do' at the Falkirk

 

Marin's EDGE Art Group has launched an exhibit that extracts layers of meaning from a motley assortment of ordinary materials. Visually arresting, intellectually provocative and at times laugh-out-loud funny, "Can Do: Art Inspired by the Can" transforms the detritus of commercial culture into objects that provoke questions about everything from the allocation of natural resources to the plight of those on the margins of our economy, to the value of art itself.

Sound like a pretentious undertaking? The show at Falkirk Cultural Center is actually quite the opposite—accessible and comprehensible, achieved with a deft touch and infused with so much humor that a visit to the gallery feels less like an afternoon of scholarly research and more like an hour spent in the presence of a quick-witted stand-up comic.

The group's driving concept was to take one of the most common food and beverage containers and see how far it could be stretched. The result is three rooms full of riffs on the nature of the can, its composite metals, the graphics printed on it and even its socio-economic associations. The cylindrical form lends itself to mechanical creatures such as Enrique Goldenberg's dancing figures ("Pas de Deux"), his Ninja-esqe "Can Fu Warrior" and Cecelia Thorner's undulating snake ("Tastes Like Chicken"). Flattened and pieced together, multiple cans become malleable metal fabric, as in Jeanette Carr's "I Can Crazy Quilt" or Stuart Wagner's "1st Prize: Aluminum Quilt Division" with a garish-pink band of Tab, not available in California in many years.

Then there's the can in contemporary art. Wagner works this angle in at least three pieces—one, a literal can of worms; another, a giant can opener that my companion Tina Roberts correctly titled "Church Key"; and a third ("Souper Man"), a large-scale rotating figure in the style of Keith Haring overlaid with a blowup of a Campbell's soup label, an obvious reference to Andy Warhol. Poking fun at two gods of 20th century art in one piece is clever; doing so within the parameters of the EDGE exhibit is brilliant.

Copying real objects has long been a favored activity of contemporary artists. Robert Gober has copied everything from sinks and lightbulbs to bags of cat food. Warhol did a series of life-size Brillo boxes; British sculptor Rachael Whiteread makes plaster casts of fully loaded bookshelves and discarded cardboard boxes. Cynthia Jensen is solidly in this tradition with "Landfill," four rusty cans in a vitrine. Easily overlooked, this is the most subtle piece in the exhibit. Jensen's cans aren't cans at all, but porcelain copies so perfectly rendered that it's impossible to tell them from the real thing. Only the label on the pedestal gives away the secret. "Cynthia is easily the most accomplished fine artist in our group," Wagner and metal sculptor Ventana Amico confided during a tour.

Of course, the can lends itself nicely to interpretations of mechanical devices. Goldenberg produced a 1930s-style machine gun ("Happy Valentines Day"), while the group collaborated on a life-size all-can VW bus ("Canavan") seen bursting through the wall in the largest room. Like a comic-book panel rendered in 3-D, "Canavan" deserves a home in one of Marin's funky music clubs. Given the vehicle's history, nicknaming the piece "Canabus" seems inevitable.

Wearable art—or art that appears to be wearable—is a strong theme. Giselle Kappus offers "Aba-can-da-BRA" an aluminum brassiere like something from Lady Gaga's personal collection. Jensen turns brass and aluminum cans into gas masks with "Got the Vapors," while Wagner's "Bootsweiser" is a pair of cowboy boots fashioned from wood and Budweiser cans.

Amico ventures far into the unwearable with "Faux Fur Sure," a life-size riff on a woman's fur coat made from discarded industrial implements and sharp-edged coiled metal shavings swept from a machine shop's floor. It's the kind of garment that might have been all the rage among monks in the Dark Ages. Melody Oxarat's "Ready?" is a similarly imposing vest made of dog-food cans and amulets—armor both real and metaphysical. Amico also has five small figures in puffy coiled-steel skirts ("Yes, We Can-Can") and an imposing bas-relief image of Rosy the Riveter ("We Can Do It!") made of juice cans, wine and Champagne foils, espresso pods and bits of steel.

A few pieces in "Can Do" are primarily decorative, such as Kappus's "Blue Light," a chalice resembling a small fondue heater, Carr's "Sewduko" and Jensen's "Samsara." Wagner's "All AmeriCAN Flag," made of Pepsi, Coke and Budweiser cans, comments on our national drinking habits as well as our aesthetics. No art exhibit exploiting man-made materials would be complete without commentary on the natural world, among them Kappus's all-aluminum "Canadian Herring" and Thorner's "Canned Pork," a disturbingly amusing piece in which a pig's snout protrudes from the center of a rusty sea anemone.

Neither would such an exhibit be complete without an allusion to money. Shoko Kageyama Klyce has a finely tuned sensibility about this all-too-sensitive subject. In a previous Falkirk exhibit, she offered a large quilt made of moneybags, titled "Security Blanket." Primarily a fiber artist, Kageyama Klyce here works beautifully outside her usual medium, fashioning paper-thin soda cans into a perfect replica of a standard shopping bag, with a couple of hundred copper pennies as ballast. "Redemption" alludes not only to the scant compensation earned by those who collect cans for the recycling value, but to the fleeting sense of spiritual renewal induced by shopping. Truly, pennies from heaven.

CAN DO

EDGE Art Group's exhibit runs through March 12 at Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission Ave., San Rafael. Tuesday - Friday 1-5pm; Saturday 10am-1pm. www.falkirkculturalcenter.org , 415/485-3328.