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Photograph by Jo Farb Hernández

Fire Dance With Me: Members of Les Gàrgoles de Foc perform in a hail of sparks.

Homage to Catalonia

A new show at San Jose State's Thompson Gallery highlights the varied traditions of Catalonia

By Michael S. Gant

IMAGINE THE stricken looks on the faces of San Jose's City Council members if they were ever asked to approve a performance by Les Gàrgoles de Foc (a.k.a. the Gargoyles of Fire). These incendiary artists spin and gyre through the streets of Catalonian villages in northeast Spain, showers of sparks cascading from fireworks disguised in the sleeves of their voluminous devil costumes. For the big finish, the dancers manipulate the hinged wings of a fire-spitting dragon carried aloft on sticks and poles. The insurance alone ...

For now, we can only dream about such processions, thanks to photographs taken, with no little danger to herself and her camera, by Jo Farb Hernández. Her pictures of the Gàrgoles are displayed in "Forms of Tradition in Contemporary Spain," a new show at SJSU's Thompson Art Gallery. These spectacular nightscapes, bathed in the crimson glow of the fireworks, demonstrate why this medieval tradition is known as correfoc ("running with fire").

Hernández, who curated the show and wrote the copiously illustrated catalog, has brought together four representative Catalan artists working in well-grooved forms. Les Gàrgoles are one of many fire-art groups that have sprung up as part of a resurgence of interest in folk-art styles in Spain. With the encouragement of government agencies and support from modern audiences and collectors, the residents of Catalonia have begun to revive traditions that were truncated by the long, dark years of Franco's dictatorship.

Also represented are the ceramic vessels of Evelio López Cruz of Mota del Cuervo, a village near Don Quixote territory. Cruz controls his creations from the act of digging the earth for his clay, tramping it with his bare feet to the right consistency and carefully building up pots from thick, sausagelike coils on a foot-spun wheel. The wheel does not turn fast enough to generate centrifugal force, so the pots are not technically "thrown."

His undecorated, earth-colored jugs elegantly express their essential purpose as water and wine carriers. The only concessions to fashion are the exaggerated swooping spouts on some of the pitchers. Otherwise, these objects achieve aesthetic distinction by their faithfulness to forms determined by centuries of practice.

David Ventura and Neus Hosta make giants (gegants), papier-mâché costumed figures. These towering (about 8 to 10 feet tall) effigies of kings and queens, grotesques and beasts, are constructed with inner wooden frames hoisted on the shoulders of hidden dancer/bearers.

Even in stasis, the immense regal pair of Nazari and Selma evoke a sense of childlike wonder, simply because the average viewer (Shaq excepted) must look up at them like a child. (Ventura and Hosta will appear at a panel discussion on pressed paper art forms, Oct. 19 at 5pm at Santa Clara University.)

The kicker in the show is Josep Pujiula, a textile worker who spent 20 years of his spare time constructing, all by himself, a fanciful park full of bent-twig mazes, construction-detritus cabins and spindly, open-framed towers of wired-together saplings and branches. The result was a cross between the Watts Towers and the Swiss Family Robinson.

Pujiula doesn't work in a traditional mode the way the other artists in the show do. He is more of an outsider or eccentric artist. His conception, method and vision are his alone. A hearty, white-haired man, Pujiula shows signs of obsessiveness of the kind that kept Sarah Winchester adding on to her mansion.

Sadly, Pujiula's ultimate site-specific project finally ran afoul of bureaucratic necessity, and in 2002, he dismantled it as he had built it—by hand. The pieces were consigned to a bonfire. The photographs by Hernández (who led a campaign to save the structures) are an invaluable tribute to and record of Pujiula's unique achievement.

Forms Of Tradition In Contemporary Spain shows through Nov. 4 at the Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery, San Jose State University (408.929.4723). The catalog by Jo Farb Hernández is co-published by the gallery and the University Press of Mississippi; 225 pages; $35 paper.

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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