Monday, June 11, 2007

Colter Jacobsen at Jack Hanley (SF)

Note: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 6/30/07.

Colter Jacobsen’s solo exhibit at Jack Hanley Gallery is so characteristic that, to his faithful followers, it may seem like dropping by his apartment. Certainly the show embodies many of Jacobsen's familiar traits. One of the most prominent is his fascination with finding, or creating, matched pairs of objects.

When Jacobsen displays found objects together in pairs, I gather that he means to represent an idealized psychological rapport between two people. (He is a long-time fan of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, especially that artist’s pair of synchronized wall clocks.) Often his pairings have a comic edge, as with the thrift store paintings included in the exhibit. In these, he seems to acknowledge an embarrassing Kitschy-koo dimension in the longing for a perfect match.

A more subtle process occurs in Jacobsen’s core practice, which is the duplication of photographs by means of drawings (usually in graphite). I tend to think that an urge to touch whatever is in the photo plays a role in his choice of method—but feel free to dismiss this as errant psychologizing.

In his earlier drawings, there was the “original” (actually often a copy) and his drawn copy. Eventually this vein of work became more complicated, and more intriguing, when Jacobsen started to draw copies of his copies— without looking at either the photo or his first drawing. In addition to the doubleness between the photo and its first drawing, Jacobsen added a doubleness between the first drawing and his drawing from memory. In doing so, he has extended his exploration of identity (and if you like, authorship) into almost metaphysical territory. Even without metaphysics, the dual drawings are fascinating to see for the remarkable exactness of the copies, and also for their subtle differences. One drawing (in color, shown below) appears to be a mirror-image memory drawing.

As a reader of poetry, Jacobsen has an interest in language, and words have appeared in some of his work for a long time. The most extended project in the current show is the series of twenty drawings with text—a collaboration with the poet Bill Berkson. In 1980, Berkson selected brief texts from a juvenile mystery novel and typed each text on a sheet of paper, in the lower half. He gave the collection a title page, “Bill,” and put the project away in a manila folder. Recently he came upon the folder and thought that images might be added above the texts. Mac McGinnes suggested Jacobsen as the artist for this, and the project went forward. The resulting images don't have obvious connections to the texts. For me, it was interesting to be reminded that the addition of text to an image creates a new gestalt regardless of the actual words or even the language in which they are written. A little forcefield seems to spring up between word and image.

There are many artworks in this show—too many, I think. And the staging of the show seems to heighten the elusiveness that is already abundant in Jacobsen's work. I found it impossible to parse and feel everything in one take, especially without help. I kept wishing the artist was walking me through it, dropping hints.

The beautiful drawing at the top is based on a photo by the artist's friend, Donal Mosher. The photo is in the show too. Other examples of the drawings are illustrated below. The two bottom images are sets of thrift store paintings.

Note (6/28/07): I have revised the paragraph dealing with the use of text in Jacobsen's work. Thanks to Mac McGinnes for nudging me to clarify the prominent place taken by the drawings-with-text in this exhibit and to acknowledge Jacobsen's collaborator in these works.

Drawings by Martín Ramírez—San Jose Museum of Art

Note: This exhibtion is scheduled to close on 9/9/07.

The second remarkable exhibit of drawings at the San Jose Museum of Art is devoted to the work of Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), a native of Mexico who spent nearly half of his life in state mental hospitals in California.

In 1925, Ramírez came to the United States to seek work, leaving his wife and children with his brother on a tiny rancho that Ramírez had purchased on credit. In the next few years, his life was changed drastically by events beyond his control. His homeland was caught up in the Cristero Rebellion (1926-29), which endangered his family. With the arrival of the Great Depression, his prospects in the United States dimmed. However, he decided not to return to Mexico.

Ramírez’s situation deteriorated, and in 1931 he was committed involuntarily to the Stockton State Hospital. There he was classified as an incurable schizophrenic. Given his distressed economic and family circumstances, the true nature of his mental condition remains uncertain. In 1948, he was moved to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, near Sacramento, where he lived the remainder of his life.

Drawing became Ramírez’s preoccupation during his incarceration. He used whatever materials were at hand. Many drawings in the exhibit were done with crayon, pencil, and colored pencil. Despite the crowded conditions in which he lived, Ramírez liked to work on a sizable scale, often using paper that he pieced together.

The drawings explore an obsessive set of motifs that re-appear in variations. The motifs include trains, cars, tunnels, church facades, Madonnas, and horseback riders (with pistols) from ranchero culture. The compositions are eccentrically assured and, to my eye, reflect the influence of Art Deco design. Much of the work conveys an almost animistic sense of energy. The Madonnas are quieter, but have a captivating aura of fantasy.

By about 1950, Ramírez’s work had drawn the interest of Tarmo Pasto, a psychologist with an art background who had moved to Sacramento. Pasto communicated his interest to members of the Sacramento art community, and Ramírez’s first solo exhibit occurred in that city during 1951. There was another solo show at the Mills College Art Museum (Oakland) in 1954.

When the first version of the current exhibit appeared at New York’s American Folk Art Museum earlier this year, there were astonished raves from critics at the New York Times and the New Yorker. Now the Bay Area has a chance to see what the fuss was about.

A beautiful (though expensive) catalog is available. It includes a biographical essay by Víctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa, which I have relied on for the above notes. On Thursday, June 21st, at 7:00 p.m., Espinosa will deliver a talk on Ramírez at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose. At the Plaza, Espinosa has organized a supporting exhibit (which I have not seen) about the life of Ramírez.

I am including a few images from the museum website and one (the first) from the NPR website.

Drawings by Il Lee—San Jose Museum of Art

Note: This exhibition is scheduled to close on 7/8/07.

The San Jose Museum of Art is presenting surveys of drawings by two immigrants to the United States whose lives couldn’t have been more different, but whose work shares an obsessive quality that is integral to their remarkable achievements. Art enthusiasts, even those who live far from San Jose, will be rewarded for making the trek to downtown San Jose.

In his Brooklyn studio, Korean artist Il Lee creates abstractions on paper (and more recently on canvas) by drawing with cheap, disposable ballpoint pens. A couple of years ago, Lee switched from black to blue pens (because the manufacturer discontinued his favorite black pen), but now uses either color. He has explored a range of sizes—small, large, and very large.

Lee was born in Seoul, Korea in 1952 and relocated to Manhattan in 1977. He received his MFA from Pratt Institute in New York and began the long, difficult process of finding himself as an artist. His use of ballpoint pens has developed gradually over a 25-year period. Interest in his work has flourished in the past decade.

The drawings are an idiosyncratic blend of Minimalism and gesture. The recording of gesture is energetic but does not seem especially expressionistic. Rather, the work emphasizes the formal qualities of gesture. The enormous amount of work required for these drawings is not immediately apparent, and then it hits you. There are large solid areas of color that have been made by endless overlapping movements of the pen. But the gift is not in the labor but in the amazingly vibrant results.

The exhibit was organized by SJMA senior curator JoAnne Northrup. There is an excellent catalog—at a very reasonable price.

I did not make prior arrangements with the museum to take photos, so I am unable to show individual images of my favorite drawings. But an installation shot (from the museum website) is shown above.

See the next posting for information about the second exhibition.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Jessica Snow at Rena Bransten (SF)

Note: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 7/7/07.

In previous encounters with Jessica Snow’s work, I saw that she had a good hand and very specific, often unexpected, ideas about color. Yet I thought her work tended to look over-busy, as if she believed that a mass of elements would convey a lot of energy. Despite the crowding, the work came across as reticent because of its reliance on pastel shades.

Snow’s new exhibition at Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco is a step up in every way. Using acrylic (and sometimes watercolor) on paper, she organizes a medley of abstract Pop shapes into lively adventures that often look like music in action. Compositions seem tighter, and colors are more varied in tone, often brighter and more saturated. In some works, the forms look as if they could dance right off the page. The energy can turn a bit frantic, and there is a good deal of visual tension, but a happy mood prevails. I would say that Snow is on a roll.

Images from the exhibit are shown above and below.

This is a detail of the work above.

This is a detail of the work above.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Deborah Oropallo at the de Young Museum (SF)

Note: This exhibition is scheduled to close on 9/16/07.

Styles of portraiture from the 15th to 18th Century have been a reference point for many interesting (or at least striking) works by contemporary artists. A few names that quickly come to mind: Cindy Sherman, Janine Antoni, John Currin, Kehinde Wiley, and Karel Funk. Now mid-career San Francisco artist Deborah Oropallo has tapped this vein, and the project, called “Guise,” is her best to date.

Oropallo's first step was to cull images from internet sites that show female models in sexy costumes, including styles that play off the outfits of pirates, soldiers, etc. She then blended some of these images with 17th- and 18th-Century formal portraits in which men of power posed in elaborate costumes. The result is a series of large prints that invite the viewer to ruminate about the mutability of costume and pose as expressions of power and of sexuality.

(There is a related treatment of male self-presentation in Stanley Kubrick’s long, absorbing, and visually stunning film, Barry Lyndon. The 18th-Century male aristocrats wear makeup to their evening parties but may be up early in the morning to fight a duel.)

Selections from Oropallo’s “Guise” series are on view through the summer at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Further information about the prints is available from the publisher, Urban Digital Color, in San Francisco. These are high-quality pigment prints in one of two sizes—40" x 30" or 60" x 40".

Examples of the work are shown above and below (images from the Urban Digital Color website).

Arthur Dove — Final Comment?

I have made a fourth update to my posting dated 3/5/07 about the proper orientation of a painting by Arthur Dove that is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Casey Jex Smith at Swarm (Oakland)

Note: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 6/17/07.

Casey Jex Smith is a young Bay Area artist who treats his background as a Mormon as a primary source of imagery. He told me that there’s a lifetime of visual material in the thousand images that the Mormon church has officially approved for use in church matters. He's also fascinated by the sci-fi imagery he grew up with, although not much of this has entered his work yet.

Smith’s solo show at Swarm Gallery in Oakland includes drawings, an array of notebook sketches, a wall collage, a peephole sculpture, and an installation that includes sod. Smith has great drawing skills, and his finished drawings are the core of the show.

The show's largest work is “Faith and Faith,” a 2-part drawing 21 feet high, affixed to the wall. (The photo at the top shows a large detail.) This image reminds me of the cover of the Scientology book, Dianetics, although Smith's approach is much less literal.

At the other end of the scale is a 7.5" x 7.5" drawing entitled “Hidden Treasure” (image above).

A 15” x 11” drawing called “Moroni” (image above) shows the artist’s characteristic way of mixing media and creating motifs that float in space. (In the Mormon religion, Moroni was the angel who visited the founder of the church, Joseph Smith, Jr.). Another fine drawing of the same size is “Flaming Spear of the Gentile” (image below).

When the artist heard that his local church wanted to throw out a supply of images, he rescued them and turned portions of the trove into a wall collage. The collage is so full of costumes—and so male-centric—that it feels oppressive to me. The title is “Fervor.” (The photo below shows a portion of the installation.)

For the show's opening reception, the artist asked that Jello be served. And so it came to pass (photo below). Smith told me that Jello is so popular in Utah that it has been declared the state’s official snack food. (I checked—it’s true.)

Berkeley MFA Exhibit 2007

Note: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 6/10/07.

There are seven artists in UC Berkeley’s current MFA exhibition. From this varied group, I will highlight two. In a series of small works on paper, Jenifer Wofford depicts the world of Filipina nurses who (like her mother) left the Philippines to work abroad. These women provide intimate care in a world where they feel alien and invisible.

The images are rendered in a crisp, economical manner using acrylic and gouache. The style is informed by comics, though the panels are not laid out as a specific story. Rather, they invite the viewer to absorb an implied narrative. Examples of this work are shown above and below.

Joe McKay presents a series of urban landscape photos that have been expertly manipulated (via Photoshop) in a particular way. The original photos contained tall street lights. He has removed the light poles and left the tops, the luminaries, floating like UFOs.. Below are three examples of these delightful UFOs (images from the artist’s website).

In addition, McKay presents a looping video, upside down, of the underside of a freeway interchange in Oakland. (Photo below.) This little work is strangely compelling, and an excerpt can be viewed on the artist’s website.

The MFA exhibit is held in the Berkeley Art Museum, where there are a number of other exhibits of interest, starting on the ground floor.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Bay Area Currents 2007 (Oakland)

Note: This exhibition is scheduled to close on 6/29/07.

The non-profit Oakland Art Gallery (OAG) is presenting nine Bay Area artists in the 2007 edition of its “Bay Area Currents” survey. The juror this year was Aimee Chang, curator of contemporary art at the Orange County Museum of Art. There is always some good work in this small annual show, but I think it would be stronger if it reached deeper into the local art community. I can think of numerous artists whose work ought to show up here. Are many artists simply not applying? I don't know.

This year, the highlights of the show are sculpture. A key factor is probably Aimee Chang's experience as co-curator of a widely noted exhibit in 2005 at the UCLA Hammer Museum: “THING: New Sculpture from Los Angeles.” I felt the placement and lighting of the sculptures in the OAG space did not show them to full advantage, but that didn't kill the intrigue.

Two of David O. Johnson's neon sculptures are included. One is a cube of bricks, on a pallet, with a green glow emanating from inside (photo at top). This incorporates four tropes of Minimalism—bricks, a cube, plexiglas, and neon light. The result looks like a Minimalist cube turned ratioactive. Or maybe it represents the over-heated California real estate market! The other work is “Gated Community III,” a neon gate that is askew and might be the entryway to hell. (Photo below.)

Zachary Royer Scholz continues to explore discarded pieces of foam presented as minimalist objects. I would call this Funk Minimalism. One work, installed on the wall, appears to be a pair of split cushions, which have been tarted up slightly with paint and ink. There is also a mismatched pair of tall mystery objects sagging against the wall. (Photos below.)

Xuchi Naungayan is represented by a couple of floor-standing sculptures that did not sustain my interest but also by a wall sculpture, “Polyhedron Drip,” that I thought was terrific. It's made of wax, graphite, and wire. It creates marvelous shadows (see below).

There were several works by Terry Mason, who appears to be a polymath in the materials arena. One smallish work showed a cockfight in metal—or should I say in bling. (Image below from the OAG website.) A much larger work was a device that translates light energy into the ultra-slow movement of a horizontal bar that, for some reason, has a twig extension. I didn't understand the work, but was impressed by its odd configuration and excellent craft. It could serve as a clock. I'll be keeping an eye out for Mason's work.

Christian Maychack at Gregory Lind (SF)

Note: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 6/30/07.

Walking into a really good sculpture show creates the sort of rush that makes art addictive. For me, the new exhibit of work by Christian Maychack, at Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco, was just that kind of experience. You might not guess this from the gloomy title, “A General Record of Things Breaking Down.”

Maychack has a penchant for undermining architecture and other stiff designs in ways that suggest structural failure, burning, melting, crystal growth, and—strangest of all—a takeover by the organic world. His work is often creepy, but in a deadpan way. Sometimes there are hints of sexual organs. There is always a strong formal sense and, increasingly, a refinement in the use of materials.

The work could be seen as an assault on Minimalism by means of Surrealism. Victory is not the goal: neither the rigidities of Minimalism nor the pushy visual tricks of Surrealism manage to triumph.

The work at the top is a kind of Rorschach blot (in 3D), sparked by the many meanings that viewers have ascribed to Maychack’s work. Below are other images from this don’t-miss exhibit.

The shiny part is metallic.

A Sol Lewitt grid sinks into the earth.

Detail of installation.