4.10 / Review

From Saratoga: Happiness Is. . .

By Glen Helfand February 26, 2013

Thumbnail: Christine Wong Yap. what have i added to the wealth of creation, 2012; 1920s Chinese silk ribbon, grosgrain ribbon, thread, pins. Courtesy of Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center. Image: Glen Helfand.

Happiness Is . . . , the title of the three-person exhibition at the idyllic Villa Montalvo's Project Space Gallery, makes knowing use of its ellipsis. Much like the art on display, the unfinished title phrase is an active invitation to complete a thought, a barometer of disposition. One viewer’s immediate response might be “rainbows” while others would insert “a misanthropic film by Todd Solondz” or “a Beatles song about a warm gun.” The title underscores how happiness is something recognized rather than created and isn’t necessarily easy to come by.

The works by Susan O'Malley, Leah Rosenberg, and Christine Wong Yap exude a generosity of color, activity, and tangible object (as in Rosenberg’s giveaway Seed Confetti, which, sadly, were all gone by the time of this writer’s visit). The artists tap scientific, linguistic, and chromatic conventions in a quest to conjure and gently question the constructs and conditions of positive emotional states (as diagrammed in vibrant hues in Wong Yap’s 2012 chart-like drawing, Positive Signs: United Theories). The gallery brochure cites a niche therapeutic approach called Positive Psychology, which emphasizes quantitative research into the experience of happiness. In the case of the exhibition, employing that methodology doesn’t exactly lead to important new findings, but it does offer thoughtful pleasures.

The works, beginning with benches and flags at the gallery’s entrance, are bright and multicolored. Rosenberg paints stripes on basic wooden stools and benches, evoking a candied Minimalism. Next to these, on flagpoles, are Wong Yap's Irrational Exuberance Flags of shimmery nylon, sewn together in a manner suggesting a crafter’s take on ecclesiastical pendants. Inside the gallery, Wong Yap presents two triangular pieces made from dozens of translucent, multicolored vinyl triangles: car-lot-style flags that have been reconfigured into a large geometric pattern and suspended from the gallery ceiling. A multilayered version, MegaPentimento, comes off like a 3-D movie seen without special glasses. 

Leah Rosenberg. , 2012-13; Acrylic paint, mirrored Plexiglas, wood. Courtesy of Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center. Image: Glen Helfand.
Susan O'Malley. A Healing Walk, detail, 2012-13. Courtesy of Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center. Image: Glen Helfand.

As viewed from any direction, the work’s colors change, an optical trick that is incredibly pleasing. Similarly, Rosenberg's two compact neon pieces, Illuminated Stripes 1 and Illuminated Stripes 2, emulate light therapy in the best of ways: the glowing, meditative play of horizontal bands seems like an alluring, pop-psychology version of a Light and Space work.

The language of affirmation appears throughout the exhibit. O'Malley has made a practice of rendering encouraging phrases in bold Helvetica type on brightly colored backgrounds. Here she offers a rest area with pillows arranged for lounging on a thick shag carpet. One can hug them and literally press the phrases against one’s body: “Everything Will Be OK,” “Let Go of Your Worries,” and that Baba Ram Dass classic, “Be Here Now.” The phrases imply a prior position of distress, an idea that the viewer is not skipping with happiness in the present but is looking for the means to get there. These works traffic in bromides and, more than other works here, insert a specter of irony: are we meant to enact these phrases or scoff at them? Are they offered sincerely or with more sincere intent?

The gallery’s location adds layers of implication to the work as well. Villa Montalvo, a former governor’s estate, is a lavish cultural outpost in an affluent South Bay location. It’s difficult to imagine being sad on these beautifully manicured grounds, working in the glamorous new studio spaces or taking in a smooth-jazz concert in summer, under the stars. It seems both fitting and suspect that this show is the first iteration of “Flourish: Artists Explore Wellbeing,” a multiyear series of exhibitions and events exploring themes of meaning and contentment. The idea positions the art space as spa.

But who couldn’t use a bit of refreshing bodywork? O'Malley takes advantage of the site’s landscape with A Healing Walk, a full-fledged hike that makes the show something one can spend a reasonable amount of time with (and offers added value if one makes the schlep down from San Francisco or the East Bay). The piece winds through existing trails on Montalvo’s wooded hillsides, making a vigorous walk (brightly colored walking sticks to aid the journey can be borrowed from the gallery). Along the way, the artist has installed wooden national-park-style signs that punctuate the journey to a final lookout point, with phrases that create a loose, Burma-Shave-like narrative of visual and psychological awareness. Does it generate happiness? Perhaps, though rooted in the body, the endorphins that are released post-hike suggest some kind of physiological condition as much as a mental one. As one surveys the nearby estates, Silicon Valley’s sprawl, and San Jose’s downtown, one might be tempted to pull out a more omnipresent happy-making device and take a picture. It could make the positive vibes last longer.


Happiness Is … is currently on view at the Montalvo Arts Center’s Project Space Gallery, in Saratoga, through April 14, 2013.

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