In the stereopsis test for depth perception, one stares at an apparently random jumble of dots until, all of a sudden, select visual fragments coalesce into a defined shape that then, miraculously, detaches itself from the page.
Such was my experience at the Kala Art Institute's sprawling Residency Projects, the culminating exhibition of work by nine jury-selected fellows. Impressive across the board, the 38 works on display range from the super-minimal, as with Seth Koen's barely-there forms embossed in white paper, to the profuse, as with Lauren Rice's large-scale mixed-media collages.
The show privileges no particular point of entry and promises no overarching coherence. Yet, standing back and taking in the whole, three thematically in-sync artists seemed to link arms and step forward from the rest. The work of Alison O.K. Frost, Vanessa Marsh, and Francesca Pastine makes for a brilliant exhibition, in and of itself.
"Post-apocalyptic" seems an apt, if slightly too sensational, way of describing the shared undercurrent here. Frost and Marsh, at least, do not shy away from the word. "I've always had a strange sense of dread or anxiety of a pending environmental doom," said Marsh. "For many (possibly all) people, seemingly opposite urges to insulate and self-destruct exist as driving forces on a personal level, so that pictures of an end of the world as we know it can stand in for the sort of day-to-day 'micro-apocalypse' that we create in our own lives," added Frost. The two artists had never met until midway through their residencies.
To produce her eerie, dreamlike landscapes, Marsh uses an innovative photogram process, in which she layers acetate drawings of West Coast geography and scale models of people, trains, and other objects upon light-sensitive paper, exposing the scene to light at intervals. In effect, things that would normally be lit — radio towers, street lamps — remain dark, while an inexplicable hazy glow emanates from the terrain. Stiff figures, often lugging baggage of some kind, contemplate what feels very much like an aftermath.
Frost's sketches, etchings, and engravings picture nuclear anxiety with a similar serenity, even playfulness. In her DeLillo-esque "HazMat Choir," a rapturous congregation sings in anti-radiation suits. Elsewhere, a cabin rests idyllically in the shadow of power plant cooling towers; or, festive party flags deck out what is titled "Chernobyl Theme Park."
Meanwhile, Pastine's sculptures and accompanying ink-print photographs depict striking tribal masks that, upon close inspection, turn out to be fashioned from pages of The New York Times' stock market gauge. This smart, metaphorically loaded gesture (financial speculation as pagan ritualism, The New York Times as cultural totem) warrants a review of its own. In concert with the post-apocalyptic voices of Marsh and Frost, however, the masks emphasize another reading — as anthropological discoveries to be made by future humans, who will contemplate in softly lit wonder the mysterious relics of our own, long-since-extinguished civilization.
Residency Projects runs through September 15 at Kala Art Institute (2990 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley). 510-841-7000 or Kala.org