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Shark Byte: WITH RIGHT SPIRIT, VIEWERS WINNOW ART FROM KITSCH

Published: Sunday, September 2, 2001
Edition: Morning Final
Section: Front Page: 22A
Memo: Photos by Karen T. Borchers, Jim Gensheimer and Judith Calson -- Mercury News; map by Tracie Tso -- Mercury News; ''Sharquita'' courtesy San Jose Downtown Association Jack Fischer is the Mercury News' visual arts critic.

Source: JACK FISCHER column

It's a fish, all right, but is it art? That's a question being asked with improbable frequency these days in San Jose, where close to 100 six-foot-long, fiberglass sharks have been decorated and installed throughout the downtown to form the city's largest outdoor tourist attraction.

The SharkByte Art project is, of course, a marriage of commerce, creativity and philanthropy: Business types commission artists to decorate an object for display by their stores, then auction them off for charity later. So is it art? At a time when contemporary artists are promoting themselves as doggedly as any pop star or politician, and the lines between art and kitsch have grown blurry, it seems churlish to sniff that the commercial elements of SharkByte Art make it ineligible for the club.

The better answer is: It depends. It depends on who is doing the design, the idea behind it, and how well it is executed. And it matters, because there are lessons about looking that can be learned even from our finny friends, if you approach them in the right spirit.

Here are some points you might want to consider as you tour them:

Is the chosen design in some clear way well-suited to the selected medium, i.e., a tube-shaped, 35-pound fiberglass shark? A shark-as-banana fits the bill. A shark as a sandwich probably wouldn't.

Is it done with sufficient technique to convince you of the illusion it is attempting to create?
Is it a new idea -- something you have never seen before or wouldn't have thought of? In other words, is it genuinely creative?

Finally, is it suitably silly -- as befits a project based on decorating plastic sharks? Like cartoons, they should offer quick payoffs, not be self-serving (we've got businesses involved here, remember), and not leave you puzzling about the intent.

The best sharks in SharkByte Art will do some or all of these things. The ones that should be gutted, cleaned and rendered for Corvette fenders will donone. If you're looking at a shark and wondering to yourself, ''Why is this design on a shark?'' it may be time to consider the body shop.

The sharks, it must be said, offered their San Jose promoters a few difficulties that Chicago was able to avoid with its Cows On Parade. (The latter was the first domestic incidence of the now burgeoning national preoccupation with decorated fiberglass animals.) For one thing, cows are goofily endearing in a way sharks are not. For another, cows resonate with the history of that old meat-packing center and home of Mrs. O'Leary in a way the sharks may never in San Jose, hockey notwithstanding. And lastly, the shape of a cow's body may lend itself to more anthropomorphic humor than does a shark's. Pants are funny. Try to put pants on a shark.

The sharks also caused promoters a few headaches when some were vandalized and others were found to be in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The damaged sharks have been repaired -- and in some cases protected -- and those sharks that endangered the disabled have been modified.

But art won't -- entirely, anyway -- be denied. Is SharkByte Art art for the ages? Nah, there are no Sistine Chapel sharks out there, no ''Guernica'' of sharks. But that's OK. We can still learn a little about art from them.

A GUIDE TO THE BEST OF THE SHARKS THE HUNT IS ON UNTIL OCT. 31 THROUGH THE STREETS OF SAN JOSE HERE IS A COMPLETELY SUBJECTIVE HIT PARADE OF SOME OF THE MOST ENTERTAINING, INVENTIVE, AND SILLY SHARKS. NOT ALL 100 WERE IN PLACE AT PRESS TIME BUT WE HAD TO, WELL, FISH OR CUT BAIT. THESE ARE THE COOLEST TO DATE, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER. -- JACK FISCHER, MERCURY NEWS

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HOW SHARKS WORK
Circle of Palms
Mercury News page designer Jonathon Berlin cut portals in his shark to take us inside for aRube Goldberg-like tour of a Silicon Valley shark's innards. In addition to the obligatory partially digested dot.com tchotchkes, there's a partially munched day trader, and tubes labeled for both guts and glory. Plus, solar panels make it light up at night. This one should be buried where it stands and dug up in 20 years. (Full disclosure: This shark was sponsored by the newspaper.)
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FRANKENSHARK
San Jose International Airport (to be installed by Wednesday at the Terminal A baggage claim) Artist David Choe and some youthful assistants created a shark even an arts writer can love.It's not what you think. None of that Mary Shelley folderol. This Frankenshark is an environmental nightmare with gas pump hoses and nozzles growing from his body. The shark is trussed in rope that it seems to have broken free of, and is faintly painted with haunting faces -- perhaps the memories of human encounters. This fellow is mad and maybe coming for us. Very cool
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SHARQUITA
Paseo de San Antonio
Artist Joel Parod's rendition of shark as banana is fun not just because the painting of a banana's skin is so faithfully rendered. It's also because, in noticing the similarity of shape between the fruit and the fish, he combines two such dissimilar things in an unexpected way. And bananas, like pants, are funny.
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BAMBOO SHARK
Compaq Center
Romona Helmholz's elegantly simple rendering of a shark made of bamboo strips is flat out fun to look at. Never mind the interesting meditations possible about rendering a plant as an animal, the chain of life and all that.
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MACK THE SHARK
Market Street, between Post and San Fernando streets
OK, having a shark play ''Mack the Knife,'' with its famous shark lyric, is dumb, dumb, dumb. But Yamaguma & Associates, which crafted this shark for the sponsoring San Jose Jazz Society, has made what is, to my knowledge, the only shark anywhere you can play music on. Follow the numbers on the side and whack the corresponding xylophone key on its back and Bobby Darin will have nothing on you.
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FISH & CHIPS
55 Almaden Blvd.
It was, of course, de rigueur that high tech would make several appearances in SharkByte Art. This is the best of them. Punning artist Aaron Thatcher painstakingly -- no, monomaniacally -- encased his shark in hundreds of green printed circuit boards, computer chips and other electronic detritus to offer visually compelling proof of what we've always suspected: Strip away the skin and sharks are, indeed, killing machines. What does this one do? Nothing. But, then, neither do a lot of the area high-tech companies these days.
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THE LITTLE BALLERINA SHARK
Circle of Palms, adjacent to the Fairmont Hotel on Market Street
Artist Chuck E. Foltz's whimsical upending of a shark to create a young ballerina on pointe -- excuse me, on fin -- spoofs American preoccupation with body image while juxtaposing that most civilized of activities with the embodiment of raw instinctual motion. The braided hair down the back has just the right carelessness, as if mom had just knotted it for practice.
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CARMEN SHARKANA
Circle of Palms
Denise Satter's design violates the rule that the idea should have something to do with a shark . . . its shape, something. But are we really ready to say that jokes about Carmen Miranda are no longer funny?
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MEGAHARDWARE MOUTH SHARK
San Pedro Square
Artist Edward Seichei didn't find the standard-issue fiberglass shark sufficiently menacing, so he modified it to create a truly impressive industrial-strength carnivore. Sure, it's sponsored by Orchard Supply Hardware, but Seichei saved it from being an advertisement with his inventive intensity. Check out the mouth full of blood-red circular saw blades and the ''sea'' of tools beneath, which just might be the bones of past meals.
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PUCK! THAT HURTS!
PHOTO: Lobby of 10 Almaden Blvd.
Artist Paul Leduc's rendering of a shark in a dentist chair after catching a puck in its mouth wins plaudits for humor, originality and the impressive level of detail. From the bloody, tooth-encrusted puck on its chest to the spit vacuum in its mouth, it's a comical, convincing tableau. Here the body shape works against type -- the implausibility of a shark in a dental chair is part of what's engaging.

ABOUT THE SHARKS The exhibit: Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, with sharks to be auctioned for charity in mid-November. For more information: Web site (www.sharkbyteart.com) includes a map of shark locations that can be downloaded. Or call the San Jose Downtown Association, (408) 279-1775.

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The San Jose Mercury News archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a Knight Ridder company.

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