Multimedia artist Jessie Vala transformed Humboldt State University's Reese Bullen Gallery for her new exhibition, turning the white cube into a blue sculpture grotto. The Eugene, Oregon-based Vala replaced the usual gallery spotlights with blue lamps, bathing viewers in azure light for an oddly calming effect. The marine implications of all this blueness are reinforced by the matched videos looping silently on the back wall — Greco-Roman looking vessels and ancient masks appear submerged through candy-colored filters, intermittently obscured by rafts of bubbles.
Within this unfamiliar blue space, white sculptures grouped in clusters sprout pale blue neon tubes. There are about a dozen of these smooth, complex forms, half of them occupying pedestals, the rest positioned atop low columns. White, unglazed stoneware surfaces recall both fondant and marble. Some sculptures rest on a plexiglass trivet that refracts light laterally in neon blue or, in one striking case, lime green.
These wafer-thin panels of color glow in the blue gloom, enhancing the pallor of the stoneware forms atop them. Blue squares refract the room's ambient light, while the green one bids to fool the eye — the light it refracts comes from a hidden source within the pedestal itself. This characteristic flourish comes across as playful, even as it draws attention to its making.
Vala's sculptures are vertical, symmetrical and modular, with added formal units creating visual complexity. Neon tubing bursts from unfired stoneware forms at regular intervals, emitting an ice-blue light that casts a cold glow on your face and clothing if you stand up close.
One family of forms is based on the stacking of teapot-like vessel shapes in various sizes, another on the branching of hollow pipes from a central trunk. These works resemble overgrown candelabras, trophies or chalices. Sculptures in both groups overflow looping forms radiating out like conduits from a central core. Details, like the gold paint Vala uses according to the dictates of some obscure logic to highlight occasional bits of surface, are unexpected.
The chalice-like objects, some of which appear to have been topped with mutant Tesla coils, vaguely suggest re-imagined ritual vessels from ancient civilizations. They rest atop rough slabs of gray stone that are themselves supported by white columns — architectural elements that evoke the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. A famous work of ancient Sumerian art, the strikingly abstracted "Mask of Warka," appears in both videos. Its presence brings the ancient Near East into the mix of historical reference points.
These objects, too elaborate to conform to a critique of functionality, are clearly intended for ceremonial use. Many of them seem to celebrate water's flow. Vessels are ornamented with stylized teardrops that fall in diagonal pairs. One has a pair of twined swans' necks growing out of the top. Towers of branching faucets arranged like multi-tiered fountains evoke dreams of liquid superabundance. The preoccupation with flow, not limited to liquids, extends to gas and perhaps to ether as well; the neon arcs that complete many stoneware circuits seem like plausible conduits for alternating currents.
The zaniest piece here is also the exhibition's only human figure. It's a bust-length portrait of a long-necked, lion-maned goddess with twinned neon beams shooting out of her eyes and arcing into a vessel placed before her. This campy play on the gaze prompts giggles, even as it sends up archetypal figures including Iris (the ancient Greeks' messenger goddess, who traveled the rainbow's arc between earth and sky) and Medusa (whose petrifying glance turned men to stone).
Perusing the installation is like opening your eyes to a visual playlist that puts the terms mentioned in the exhibition title (objects, time, conduits) on shuffle. The open-ended relationships between them is part of the works' appeal. Ancient-world reference points blur together, producing a feeling of historical past as vague as it is seductive. We are vastly removed from the ancient Greeks and Sumerians in most ways, but we are just like them in our need for water, our dependence on nature's bounty and our ability to ensure the supply of either largely limited to symbolic gestures.
The ultramarine light that saturates the space exerts a strangely calming effect and, as bizarro as Vala's florid, hyper-linked forms may appear, their recuperative intent is palpable. Really, contemplating objects that celebrate the completion of circuits, the removal of blockages and the principle of unimpeded flow is not the worst thing we could do with our time.
Jessie Vala's exhibition Object ^ Time ^ Conduit will be at Humboldt State University's Reese Bullen Gallery from Oct. 25 through Dec. 8. The gallery is located in the HSU Art Department building at the intersection of B and Laurel streets. For hours and more information call 826-5418.
Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata.