Cooley Landing – Linda Gass

Review by Michal Gavish

Bay Area multimedia artist Linda Gass was the first artist to participate in the new Creative Ecology artists residency program at the Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto. The program brings together art, science, open-space environment and educators.  In a series of photographs, Linda brings to the Palo Alto Art Center images of her temporary land-art installation at the South San Francisco Bay.

With the help of members of the community, she marks the original coastline of the landing with blue bands of synthetic material, defining a large area between it and the current coastline. The work delineates the expanded area that was formed in the mid- 20th century by the land-filling from the San Mateo waste dump.

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The long plastic bands stretch through the vegetation, forming an aesthetic abstract shape in the surrounding landscape. In her installation, Gass continues a long land art tradition, creating a contemporary synthesis between the artificial land enveloping of Christos’ islands and the natural landmarks that Goldsworthy arranges in his native landscape. The artist clarifies the temporary nature of the installation in a careful signage, which redirects our reaction to the foreign texture of the blue plastic in the middle of nature. As a result, instead a menacing message of pollution, the synthetic material blends with the environment and becomes part of the intended message, telling a story of a place that used to be a dump-site. Gass narrates her imagery with the happy ending of the shoreline landscape that was recently restored via land capping efforts into a renewed fresh soil with a reborn eco system of lush plants and a striving bird and fish populations.

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But Gass does not let her audience enjoy the small victory of nature. Instead, she issues an ecological warning in her series of stitched silk paintings, describing how the Cooley Land is soon to disappear again under the predicted rise in sea level. Placing these fabric paintings besides her photographs of the community celebrating an environmental victory, Gass warns us on the larger ecological hazards that are threatening this strip of revitalized land. The soothing home quilting harmonies of the cyan works give the misleading sense of paradisiacal calmness and  the mistaken sense of safety of a home, only to discover that they describe the devastating stages of the future disappearance of the land and its vegetation.

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Linda Gass’s exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center raises an important aspect of art activism that adds to the work its multidisciplinary significance. The show summarizes her recent residency at the Center where she devised a hands-on demonstration to the community of the fragile nature of the San Francisco Bay. Along with the apparent pleasure of silk painting practice, Gass is devoted to environmental cause and harnesses her work to the message of the sometime forgotten dangers to our surroundings.

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Cooley Landing is now on view at the Palo Alto Art Center till January 22, 2016.  The exhibition is part of Creative Ecology, a new artists-in-residence program. It is a collaboration between the Palo Alto Art Center and the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.

Palo Alto Art Center
1313 Newell Road
Palo Alto, CA 94303

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Cristina Velázquez : Repurposed Black-Endless

Interview with Michal Gavish

Christina Velázquez is a Mexican-born multimedia artist from East Palo Alto. Her installations investigate women’s experiences and have been exhibited across the Bay Area.  For her new project, Velázquez knits long shawls from VHS tape. Earlier versions of her knits have been displayed at San Francisco’s Meridian gallery in 2013 and at San Jose’s Arc Art in 2014.  Velázquez recently spent a month in residency at the Palo Alto Art Center, during which she invited the local community to help her knit. The resulting long shiny black shawl was installed in November 2014 at the Palo Alto Art Center.

I spoke to Velázquez recently and a transcript of our conversation is below. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Gavish: Conceptually, what motivated you to work with VHS tape?

Velázquez: This project of knitting obsolete VHS films is connected to women’s issues and to recycling. The work is about women as part of the community. Through the knitting I wanted to address how, as women we work together to make handwork. While women crochet and knit, important issues transpire from their dialogs. I wanted this project to engage the knitters in conversation about recycling and to become part of a continuation of that dialog. The concept for my work came about when I encountered at the Museum of Quilts in San Jose a knitted piece made of cassette music tapes. That gave me the idea of reprocessing material by knitting.

I was thinking about the black shawls that old women wear in the villages of Mexico. These women were older and the knitted shawls were characteristic of their generation. They covered their heads and reminded me of the Virgin Mary. I wanted to make such shawls from VHS films, which used to be so shiny. I wanted to marry in my work the two ideas of the old women and the old VHS films, both at the end of their lives, on their way to the landfill, close to their death.

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Gavish: How did you learn about knitting film? How is it different from other materials?

Velázquez: I had a lot of VHS film in my studio, and I decided to learn how to knit it. I started to learn at the Palo Alto Library where the community members were invited to be part of a knitting circle. For six months we knitted scarves and, as soon as I completed my second scarf, I realized that I was ready to make my oversized scarf from VHS films. These films, which were not intended originally for knitting, became like a lot of my art materials that I push and pull, wanting to get them to behave completely differently from what they were intended for. This process of forcing materials is sometime painful and hurts me physically but I really push these objects to obtain their new application.

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Gavish: What was the process in which you have worked with the Palo Alto art center collecting the material, organizing the community knitting and finalizing the installation?

Velázquez: The residency started when the Palo Alto Art Center sent out a call to the community, asking for donations of used and unwanted VHS tapes. Within hours they received hundreds of old VHS films from residents.

The next step was for me to sit and knit a long shawl from these films in the glass gallery and to invite people to join me in the work. My expectations were to create a large shawl that would take up the entire gallery space and to have a lot of people helping with growing the piece quickly. The process turned out to be slower and the piece did not really materialize to the full size that I had envisioned. Still, we had some amazing people with great stories that they shared about their background. Some of them were even professional knitters.

Lisa Ellsworth, the Palo Alt Art Center curator, did the installation itself. She hung the large piece using plastic filaments and her vision and perspective were very important for me. The only visual points that I had were to have a very large organic shaped oversized drape and to be able to project its shadows on the walls. Those were my only take.

 Velasquez

Gavish: What are your plans for the future? How do you intend to continue your knitting project?

Velázquez: My Palo Alto Art Center residency was an important step for my project because in that space my work finally became a complete installation. Beforehand, I made just one or two smaller pieces.  Now it was a large installation that was taking up the exhibition space. For the future, I have in mind a couple of places to apply to continue my project. I plan to work in different galleries and knit more of my films with audience participation. I do hope for it to go on as a community project, where I engage the public in conversations about recycling and about issues connected to women.

On View at the Palo Alto Art Center

1313 Newel Street, Palo Alto

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