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The San Francisco Examiner

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March 9, 2000, Thursday FIRST EDITION


LENGTH: 1108 words

HEADLINE: Pipeline to the Beyond;
Artists examine, ironically and otherwise, non-mainstream spiritual beliefs, often involving UFOs

BYLINE: David Bonetti


   Quackery rules these days at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The three shows that run through April 30 under the rubric of "(extra)super[meta]" feature art work and objects that derive from, participate in and comment on activities and belief systems surrounding non-mainstream spirituality. The title itself is a clever derivation from extraterrestrial, supernatural and metaphysical. It also could have incorporated "para" for paranormal and paranoid, but things usually sound better in groups of threes. With so many of the spiritually gullible walking the streets, this could prove to be a popular show.

"Heaven's Gate was the spark," curators Ren de Guzman and Arnold Kemp write about "Above and Beyond," the large group show that is the trio's centerpiece.

"The image of the black-shrouded corpses with Nike sneakers broadcast by all the news media crystallized everything in contemporary culture that spoke of fringe belief systems and their hold on our imagination," they continue. "It was a truly painful moment when popular culture, advertising, New Age spirituality and the paranormal collided and forcefully entered our collective consciousness."

The quackery in "Above and Beyond" ranges from the fervent to the ironic. What exactly are we to make of the Aetherius Society, a group founded in London in 1955 that supports outposts on three continents, including one in - where els e? - Los Angeles? The society believes, according to the curators, that extraterrestrials constantly visit the Earth and that "advanced beings from within our solar system have helped mankind throughout the centuries." The objects representing this cult include a video tape of believers testifying to their faith, holy rocks gathered from spiritual places such as Mount Baldy and the pice-de-rsistance, a "prayer battery" that stores the faithful's prayer energy. This last object, a baby-blue contraption the size of a toaster, utterly lacks aura.

Another work steeped in quackery is Dennis Balk's "Photo Magnetic Receiver," a device hidden inside a tent, like that of The Great Oz, that aims to enable us to see UFOs more easily by heightening our perceptions. Simulating a display at a trade fair, the Orgone Box-like "Photo Magnetic Receiver" consists of a pair of walls equipped with lights that you sit between after drinking a liquid that, you are promised, is not harmful. Outside the tent, text panels of techno-gibberish explain, none too satisfactorily, the machine's goals.

For the benefit of The Examiner readers, I risked all by drinking the potion and going through the process. But unfortunately I have to report that I have not subsequently seen any UFOs. The fact that Balk is pulling our legs partially redeems the experience but does not justify the time spent with it.

Two photographers are of particular interest and appeal. The Vancouver-based Douglas Curran has spent a decade searching the hinterlands for UFOs, flying saucers and the people who regularly see and monitor their passing. His dozen color prints are solidly in the documentary tradition, but what he documents deviates from the street scenes and family sagas that dominate that genre.

Curran's subjects are true believers in the extraterrestrial and their naive folkloristic creations. He captures phenomena ranging from minimalist sculptor "Jene Highstein's Concrete Flying Saucer" - a mushroom-shaped work of art that looks like a flying saucer - to backyard productions that look as if they would never be able to take off, even if the Great Whatever were to come to Earth and order them to fly.

The pictures reveal the sad lack of imagination common among those who believe in the paranormal. Their flying saucers look just like those you've seen represented - small, circular, pod-like metal constructions.

A clue to the problem is present in "Betty Ann Luca constructed fiberglass replicas of the aliens who abducted her aboard a flying saucer in 1967. Chesire, Connecticut." (All the pictures have caption-like titles.) Whatever Betty Ann Luca thought happened to her, she had

to fall back on the most conventional representation of an "alien" - a blue android-like creature with slit eyes - to express her experience. Luca's thoroughly conventional living space with its cheesy glass and metal furniture suggests that the people who see UFOs and report paranormal experiences are desperate for some beauty or magic in their lives. But lacking education, a level of culture above banality or a meaningful philosophy or politics, they funnel their hallucinations into the most predictable forms.

Charlie White's four large color photographs virtually steal the show, and they play belief in the uncanny for comedy. In three of them, White digitally has inserted rampaging monsters into scenes of everyday Los Angeles life - the cafeteria of a college fraternity, a gym, and by the side of the road. In the fourth, he has used the extraordinary skill of a Hollywood special effects lab to create the head of a dead monster that has met its match. White's pictures are hilarious and unsettling. The digital insertions are flawless, and you believe, if only for a moment, that what you're seeing is a record of a real event. Yet the images are so well-staged, they are also funny. The disruption of the narcissism of a gym by the invasion of a marauding beast has a certain rightness to it.

Jessica Bronson's videos - one of mirror-imaged lightning, the other of the swirling vortex of a storm - are terrific, although they only tangentially touch on the show's subject. And veteran minimalist John McCracken's four sculptures, two stainless steel and two polyester resin and fiberglass, are, as always, charged with an immanence, but it is a little disconcerting to realize that the artist has said that he has thought that he was creating objects that could have been brought here by a UFO.

"Above and Beyond" is by turns amusing and irritating, but it seldom convinces that anything really exists beyond what we can see. (Nor was that its intention.) However, it doesn't even touch on the distinction between beliefs in the supernatural and more conventional spirituality. For instance, are Catholic beliefs in bodily assumption and transubstantiation any less kooky than those of the Aetherius Society?

"(extra)super[meta]" also includes a one-person show of British artist David Miles' cardboard devices that help him get through the perils of the day and an installation by Bay Area media artist Jim Campbell that demonstrates the extrasensory-like possibilities of the viewer existing in multiple locations simultaneously.

GRAPHIC: COLOR PHOTO, "Jene Highstein's Concrete Flying Saucer," a photograph by Douglas Curran, at the current show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

LOAD-DATE: March 10, 2000

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