Friday, December 29, 2006

San Francisco Sightings — December 2006

YBCA’s exhibit “Oakland: East Side Story” (closing 12/31/06) included some interesting work. My favorite was Ben Riesman’s video (photo above). The camera follows the artist, wearing a grocery bag over his head, as he leaves his apartment, circulates through his building, and exits into the surrounding neighborhood, eventually arriving at a cemetary. I have rarely seen anything that so closely resembled a dream. The video camera evidently is mounted on a wheeled contraption strapped behind him (you can’t see it, but you hear the wheels rattling). As the video progresses, the absurdity becomes tinged with other feelings. It’s a memorable work.

YBCA also has a show of Mexican vernacular graphics (through 3/4/07). One highlight is a selection of one-sheet study aids for schoolchildren. There are graphics for adults too (image above).

At Crown Point Press (through 12/30/06), there was a series of landscape photograveurs by John Chiara, based on photographs he has taken in San Francisco with a giant pinhole camera of his own devising. I particularly like one of the prints (image above).

At CCA Wattis (through 2/24/07), there is an incoherent but fitfully interesting show called “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later.” Shaun O’Dell’s installation is rewarding, and disabled artist William Scott contributes some vibrant drawings. The high point was a documentary video by Solmaz Shahbazi about the city of Tehran (photo above). The image quality is sub-optimal, but the artist creates a fascinating exploration of modernization in a country that feels cut off. (Unfortunately, in viewing this video you are NOT cut off from the noise originating in another part of the exhibit.)

In a just-closed show at Little Tree Gallery, Casey Logan played with scientific topics that fascinate him: gravity, black holes, tensegrity, etc. The show felt a bit tentative—like a warm-up for something bigger—but it was engaging nonetheless. One object (photo above) was a crate with multiple “up” directions and war planes trapped inside—perhaps a metaphor for the Iraq War.

At Eleanor Harwood Gallery, in a show curated by Christine Shields (closing 1/1/07), one eye-popper was Jason Mecier’s junk portrait of actress Susan Tyrrell, whose life story has outperformed any telenovela. (The first photo above is taken from the artist's website; the second is a detail that I shot.) Mecier pursues an outsider-artist esthetic with uneven but sometimes fascinating results. Another standout was a small, quiet “memory drawing” by Colter Jacobsen, in which the artist has made a graphite drawing of a photo and then drawn it a second time from memory. The diptych is titled “L’s Goddaughter.” Other notable works in the show were two creepy photos by Donal Mosher, some napkin drawings by Amy Rathbone, and a car drawing by Veronica de Jesus (photo directly below). De Jesus has done some delightful storytelling work in this lace-like drawing style, and I keep hoping a smart children’s book publisher will do a project with her.

At Adobe Books there was a crowded group show organied by the gallery’s new curatorial team. The show included an installment in Kyle Knobel’s ongoing project with security envelopes (photo directly above).

At the Jack Hanley Gallery, there was a festive opening for Superflex’s show “Free Beer and Counter-Game Strategies.” The beer was actually $3.00 (photo above). Well, maybe that covered only the first few sips, the rest being free. The beer was no doubt a good prep for the game stations, where participants could grab wooden mallets and smash potatoes as they were dropped through the chutes (photo below). I don’t know if the potato-smashing continues, though the closing date is 1/20/07.

At The LAB, there was an interesting but poorly installed exhibit, "Listening: Living Art from Japan and San Francisco." The problem here: massive noise bleed. It was hard to focus on anything. Joshua Churchill’s contribution, a sound and light installation in the ceiling, was lost in the cacophany while ironically contributing to it. I’m sure there is a moral there (without faulting Churchill). One of the highlights of this show was the video by Yoshinori Niwa, described in a postscript to an earlier post. Another interesting video showed artist Takashi Horisake covering himself in liquid latex during a slow, serious performance that mimicked Butoh. But the latex skins, once congealed and removed, look comic (photo below). Finally there was a video by Chris Sollars in which six or seven artists, including Sollars, donned kimono made of newspapers and paraded as a group through a commercial area of Tokyo. I was reminded of the 1960 photo of Masunobu Yoshimura standing on a street in Tokyo, wrapped in a collage of paper posters advertising a Neo-Data exhibition. The new images were tame in comparison with that earlier work, and with other projects by Sollars.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Year-End Outbursts from Times Critics

In the final ten days of 2006, some art critics at the New York Times were getting testy.

Michael Kimmelman
“And is there any way to describe the escalating orgy of spending on art this year but as obscene? Collectors were paying upward of $130 million for Pollocks and Klimts, sums that make a skeptic ponder the other uses to which such fortunes could be put. The art world seems content, damn the potential long-term cost of being reduced to a mere investment vehicle.” (12/24/06)

Roberta Smith
Matt Greene’s paintings “seem conservative, thin and calculated to appeal to young, straight, male hedge-fund managers with a yen for lap dances and a taste for magazine illustrations from the 1960s.” (12/22/06)

Holland Cotter
“So maybe we should stop pestering art to be some utopian undertaking, some zone for alternative thoughts and forms, and just enjoy it for the high-energy, no-impact game of trivial pursuit it has become.” (12/24/06)

[The image of the Ren character is borrowed from John Kricfalusi's website, titled "all kinds of stuff."]

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Where Are We? — Tavares Strachan

Note: This exhibition has been extended to 1/13/07.

Tavares Strachan is a name you will hear again. (The pronunciation is approximately “ta-VAR-ez strawn.”) The young artist, who grew up in Nassau, Bahamas, graduated this year from Yale’s MFA program. I encountered an example of work at the Armory Show last winter and mentioned it in this blog. That work, thought small in scale, had certain traits that also show up in the artist’s larger projects.

Strachan’s debut on the West Coast is hosted by the non-profit Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It’s a coup for the Luggage Store’s curators, Laurie Lazer and Darryl Smith.

Strachan’s installation is called “Where We Are Is Always Miles Away.” The gallery windows have been blacked out for the occasion. The main source of illumination is the fluorescent lighting inside the primary object, a tall hexagonal chamber standing in the space. This metal structure has windows on all six sides. (Photo at top.) On the floor inside, the artist has installed a square 3,000-pound section of sidewalk extracted from a street in New Haven, Connecticut. The cement rests on a layer of dirt. (Photo above.) Captured as part of the sidewalk are a parking meter and a stanchion that holds three parking signs. A water valve cover with a blue lid was also captured. (Photos below.)

The chamber is hermetically sealed. Its temperature and humidity are controlled by external equipment. The interior environmental conditions, including the light, are designed to mimic those found in New Haven at the time and place of the extraction. (Photos of the air control system are below.)

In a small side room, there are before-and-after photos in New Haven and a short video projected on the floor, providing an accelerated account of the removal in New Haven. Just outside this room is a letter from the City of New Haven expressing enthusiasm for the project and (even more amazing) the city’s willingness to to perform the removal, storage, and replacement pro bono.

Strachan has carried out a related project in which he extracted a 4.5-ton block of ice from a frozen river in the Alaskan Arctic. Later the ice was installed in a refrigerated viewing container, which was shipped to the Bahamas for exhibition in July of this year. The refrigeration system can be operated by solar power. This work was recently relocated to Miami for exhibition during the Miami art fairs this month.

It’s worth noting that there are some precedents for Strachan’s transpositions of landscape. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robert Smithson made his Nonsite sculptures, in which materials like stones gathered from specific locations (often in New Jersey) were placed in metal containers for display in a gallery, along with photos and maps of the site to which the nonsite referred. In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark cut sections from old buildings and displayed them in galleries. In a work called “Sod Swap” (1983), David Nash exchanged two small areas of land between Kensington Gardens, London, and a property in north Wales. In 1998, Richard Barnes made photos of the “Unabomber” cabin in an FBI warehouse in Sacramento, where it was being held as evidence. Barnes also photographed the Montana location from which the cabin had been removed.

One way that Strachan differs from these artists is his tone. His clinical style of presentation, so seriously elaborate, radiating almost a CSI aura, is a strategy of deadpan wit. Absurd objects are presented with solemnity, sparking amusement followed by more serious thoughts.

Strachan is so newly arrived that there isn’t much commentary available on his work. What little I’ve found is couched in the evasive style so common to art-speak these days. There are statements that the artist “touches on” this and “references” that. It’s the sort of writing where entire fields of knowledge—ecology and entropy—are introduced with a wave of the hand. Even the short quotes from the artist do not really bring the work into focus. (A full-fledged interview would help.)

Strachan’s practice is confounding because the results are so striking, yet hard to pin down. His work clearly means something, but he's not trying to illustrate a proposition. I see him as an ideographic artist: he uses symbols that have manifold meanings. His work is not about making statements but about creating awareness. His stunts are so unexpected that they seem to bypass critical analysis and register in some visual-emotive area of our brains.

It’s also clear that Strachan’s works are more than objects; they are performances. After learning the basic facts about the objects, you marvel at the resourcefulness and determination required to produce them. Realizing that so much effort was invested in an absurd project, you sense the artist's exuberance and feel energized by it. And you catch the hint that you, too, could intervene in the world.

One of the contents of Strachan’s work is an interest in displacement—what it looks like and how it feels. Displacement is now a universal experience, even for people who stay in the same locale. The world’s rapid changes, occurring on many levels at once, are leaving everyone somewhat adrift. Random bits of our former worlds turn up looking forlorn. But paradoxically, displacement can also make people more aware of connections that were unseen or neglected before. In Strachan’s work an underlying sense of connection seems as strong as the evidence of disconnection.

Another meaning of the work can be seen in Strachan’s use of environmental control systems. He seems to be suggesting that any place on the globe, no matter how negligable, is maintained by fragile balances of nature. And by transporting samples of the world far from their origins, he invokes an awareness of the entire Earth as a system of balances.

In his Luggage Store installation, Strachan also manages to signify, in his prankster way, the extent to which living in a free country subjects people to constraint. Ripped out of context, the parking meter and the three parking signs symbolize the regime of micro-management that people face at every turn.

Strachan's ability to create memorable objects that balance wit and seriousness is a sign of his artistic acumen and probably of his staying power.

A footnote: Recently I happened to see video documentation of two related projects by other artists. On the theme of management of public space, the Rebar Group is doing an ongoing project called “COMMONspace,” under the sponsorship of Southern Exposure. The group is carrying out actions in privately owned open spaces in San Francisco to test the behavioral codes and enforced rules of each site. Also, in a too-brief group show at The LAB, young Japanese performance artist Yoshinori Niwa presented a video showing him as he carried a bag of trash from Tokyo for disposal in San Francisco. Along the way, the bag went through Narita airport security and a checkpoint (customs?) in the U.S. It was a very funny and pointed performance.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fraenkel’s “Nothing and Everything”

Note: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 1/27/07.

Unlike a lot of galleries that specialize in photography, the Fraenkel Gallery has never felt like a photographic ghetto. The gallery is successful in connecting its aesthetic to the broader art world. To a large degree, this happens because the gallery shows a lot of work that explores abstraction, minimalism, and the conceptual. But another reason is that, occasionally, Fraenkel sponsors exhibits that incorporate work other than photography. Such is the case with the current exhibition, entitled “Nothing and Everything,” a joint project with Peter Freeman Inc., New York.

The exhibit is calm yet energizing. There are many fine works considered individually, but the show’s expansiveness comes from the cross-talk between the works that have been selected for inclusion, some familiar and some not. There are affinities and differences to explore, and these can be pursued not only within each room, but across the three rooms. You may find yourself walking back and forth a few times. I was happy that the furthermost room, so often devoted to a variety of work not connected to the main exhibition, was pulled into this exhibit. There wasn't the sense of anti-climax that usually arrives upon entering the third room.

The show includes 37 works by as many artists, so there is much more to see than I can mention here. In the first room, there is a small, early 1960s painting by Agnes Martin, which is hard to photograph. The central pattern reminds me of certain architectural facades from the same period, especially Edward Durrell Stone’s building at 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan. On the wall adjacent to the Martin, there is a more literal example of the recessive and the reflective: one of Gerhard Richter’s recent “Glasscheibe” works, in which a pane of glass is mounted a few inches from the wall (photo above).

The back wall of this room features one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s minimalist seascapes, “North Atlantic Ocean, Cape Breton Island”—a stunningly beautiful photograph. (Photo at top.) Another wall is devoted to one of Robert Gober’s well-known “Drains.” The artist's simple, decisive choice evokes an array of thoughts from comic to creepy (photo above).

In the second room, it is good to see one of Piero Manzoni’s “Achromes” (photo above). Across the room is a single galvanized tin shape (like a check mark) from the early career of Richard Tuttle. It commands its wall space with energy to spare. On an adjacent wall is Steve Wolfe’s 1990 homage to a sketchbook (photo below). This artist is best known for reproducing the covers of books from the curriculum of his college days.

In the back room, there is a print of the famous “Dust Breeding” photograph, a 1920 collaboration between Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Nearby is Diane (dee-ann) Arbus’s 1960 photo of “Clouds on screen at a drive-in.” On another wall there is one of Vija Celmins’s meticulous drawings of a field of stars (photo below).

On another wall in the back room can be found Peter Hujar’s 1975 photo “Hudson River,” in which the ripples of water seem unnaturally smooth and silent. It’s a perfect example of how to bring a tired subject back to life. (Photo below, from the Fraenkel website.)

To the right of Hujar's work is a recent trompe l’oeil painting by Alex Hay: “Gray Wood.” (Photo with detail below.) This artist abandoned his successful New York career in the early Seventies for life in a remote Arizona town. He re-surfaced in 2002 with a solo show at Peter Freeman, New York. (In 2003, SFMOMA acquired his giant version of a paper airplane, from 1968. It perks me up every time I see it.)

Finally, I’ll mention an artist who remained in New York: the minimalist painter Robert Ryman. He has contributed a work (c. 1967) from his own collection, a small whitish square of painted linen that is attached to the wall with masking tape. (Photo below.)

Friday, December 15, 2006

New Allegations about the Natsoulas Gallery

According to reports by two Northern California newspapers, the daughters of noted Bay Area artist David Park have questioned the authenticity of a painting that was sold under his name by the John Natsoulas Gallery, a prominent regional art dealer located in Davis, California. The reports appeared in the Sacramento Bee on December 7th and in the Davis Enterprise on December 15th.

This is the second time in newspaper reports that the Natsoulas Gallery has been accused of misrepresenting artwork. In October, the Sacramento Bee reported on a lawsuit in which an artist claimed that his own work had been sold by the Natsoulas Gallery, with forged signatures, as the work of the well-known artist Richard Diebenkorn. (See my earlier blog on this topic.)

Along with one of the allegedly forged Diebenkorns, the disputed work by Park appeared in a 2004 show (and catalog) produced by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Both works were from the collection of Fresno collector George Blair.

The report by the Sacramento Bee quotes an FBI source who said that the Bureau is not pursuing the Diebenkorn forgery allegations because the time period has exceeded the federal statute of limitations.

According to the reports, Park’s daughters have withdrawn their cooperation with a David Park exhibition scheduled by John Natsoulas for 2007.

(I would like to thank an anonymous tipster who directed me to the newspaper reports.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

San Francisco Sightings — November 2006

Gen Art, a non-profit based in New York, organizes events for an audience of 21 to 39 year old “hip, sophisticated, brand aware influencers,” as their website says. In San Francisco, Gen Art produces an annual event called “Emerge,” styled as a cutting-edge art exhibit. But art and artists never seem to be the first priorities in this event. The shows are curated, but they aren’t a good snapshot of the local scene, not even the emerging edge of it. What’s more, some artists have told me, after participating, that the Gen Art organizers lack the understanding and practical skills necessary to support artists in an exhibition. One problem that keeps coming up is pretty basic: lighting of the artwork. Even security can be an issue. Last year, two artists I know had their work and equipment stolen—by a security guard for the show! I have seen three of the last four “Emerge” shows, and each has been a downward slide from the previous one. Gen Art’s real mission seems to be the opening party, which was ticketed at $40 this year.

Nonetheless, the “Emerge” shows have included some good artists over the years. Young artists are always hungry for a place to show. I can’t blame them. In this year’s show, I particularly liked Misako Inaoka’s field of moss that floated near the ceiling (photo at top).

I was also impressed by Caleb Duarte’s installation, part of which was a little hut that seemed to have been caught in a cyclone (photo below).

Elsewhere in town, the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery raised funds by selling artwork (multiples) commissioned by the gallery. (Some of these are still available at the gallery through 12/16/06.) There is some good work, reasonably priced. I particularly liked Valerie George’s photo diptych of her mother and herself (a digital print, alas, but a good one):

An unrelated artist with the same last name, Mary George, had a solo show at the artist-run Queen’s Nails Annex (QNA). Her major motif was weird head masks hanging from the ceiling—you could pop your head into one for a quick identity switch. There was also a shelf of oddball sculptures, including one that included a fragment of tree trunk, two color photo negatives, and a small flashlight. I looked at this and thought, “That’s so Mary George.”:

Also at QNA, Reuben Lorch-Miller had an installation in a darkened back room that involved a projection of video noise and a single drawing. I didn’t get it, but I did purchase (for $10) a CD of short sound pieces by this artist. I’ve been playing the first cut, programmed to repeat, as a soundtrack while driving.

At Steven Wolf Fine Arts, the Los Angeles artists Kent and Kevin Young did a mind-reading performance and exhibited several videos. Their work plays on the fact that they are monozygotic twins. For me, the most compelling of the videos showed just their eyes, shifting around, uncertain or perhaps fearful. Here are two shots from this work:

Clement Street now has an art space, at the rear of a new store called Park Life. A recent show there included sets of work of the shaggy dog variety. One standout was an equestrian X-Games diorama by Porous Walker, aka Jimmy DiMarcellis:

This artist also makes drawings in a low-brow style that falls flat or pops by turns. I was amused by this one that reads "USE PEOPLES POWERS AGAINST THEM":

Japanese artist Ogi had several works in the show, including a warning about TV:

Finally, Kyle Mock presented a tight row of small works including his conception of an early miniature music player:

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Monica Canilao at Needles and Pens

Note: This exhibition will be on view through January 2007.

A comment I often hear about my constant forays into the local art world is, “You see everything!” It’s true that I see a good deal. This week, for example, I saw 8 exhibitions and made 2 studio visits. But I don’t see everything I’d like to, much less everything that’s going on.

In recent months I’ve been neglecting the exhibitions at Needles and Pens, a small zine and clothing store with a modest exhibition space and a long-standing art program. For example, I missed their latest exhibit by Mary Joy Scott, an artist whose interest in tattoo iconography and 19th-Century ladies, including criminal types, has produced some interesting results. Here is part of the wall painting she did for her show (image from the gallery website):

For its latest show, Needles and Pens features the work of Monica Canilao, a BFA graduate of CCA. (Actually, she refers to it as CCAC, in honor of its former name, California College of Arts and Crafts.) Although Canilao has participated in group shows that I’ve seen, this is the first time I've really focused on her. It is immediately clear that Canilao belongs to a particular lineage of Bay Area work. In terms of media, she is interested in found materials and collage. In terms of subjects, she presents figures, animal and human, that are transformed in mystical ways. Some of the symbology and the incorporation of fabric and thread give the work a shamanistic feel. All of this is familiar territory, and in another artist it might seem derivative. But Canilao manages to make each work personal and strange. The best pieces have remarkable presence despite their modest scale. There are many interesting details to linger over, and the compositions display great clarity while retaining a spontaneous feeling. Below are some examples of this cryptic but interesting work. In the first two pieces, the tan diamonds are unfolded manila envelopes.

A detail of the above work is shown at the top of the posting.

Canilao's version of a turkey:

A detail of the above work:

A black sheep (an inadequate photo that doesn't make clear the fabric elements of the composition):

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ghosts in the Machine

At the height of the dot-com boom, SF Camerawork was forced out of its Natoma St. space because its lease renewal would have cost more than six times the former rent. The organization kept going by sharing space with New Langton Arts. Now this venerable non-profit has been able to return downtown by leasing a second-floor space near SFMOMA. The inaugural show, which opened in October and ended last month, was “Ghosts in the Machine,” curated by David Spalding.

I imagine that Camerawork wanted to re-open with an important show, and the curator's theme was a good one: the past haunting the present. But the exhibit became a missed opportunity. Mostly it registered as an ineffective rehash of social and political outrages, a random selection from the 20th Century. And there was a noticeable inclination toward gimmicky work.

One of the sharpest works, at least formally, was an installation by Mildred Howard using a photo image of a World War I soldier (an ancestor of the artist). The image was printed life-size on a set of wooden panels that were cut to the outline of a human shape and installed as a field of vertical markers. A pile of white rocks lay amid the figures—a symbol of what, exactly? The African-American soldier is standing stiffly in his uniform and looks unhappy. (See image above.) Wall text noted that this man had been psychologically damaged by the war and never recovered. The back side of each panel was a target—white ovals on a black background (image below). The message was obvious, but inadequate. While the image of the man was affecting, no insight could arise from such a simplified response to such a complex event.

Another work of formal interest was Dinh Q. Lê’s cloth panel on which images of several victims of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge were embroidered, white on white (image below). The images were based on identity photos taken at Tuol Sleng, a school that was converted into a death house. There was a germ of a good idea here, but it would have been more affecting to see individual portraits done this way, side by side, many of them.

Lê’s other contribution was a photo-mural about the Vietnam War. Spread across a wall was a mix of famous photojournalist images, stills from Hollywood films about the war, and found photos (image below). Interspersed were a number of Lê’s characteristic photo weavings, based on mat weaving techniques he learned as a child. To me the weavings seem an aesthetic gaffe because the foregrounding of the technique distracts from the content. Overall, the display did not provoke any new insight on the war. Frankly, it looked clichéd.

There were two contributions by Walid Ra’ad. One was an abstracted video about the car bombings during the Lebanese Wars (1975-1990). It was so boring that none of the gallery visitors watched it for long (including myself). The other work was a group of prints showing enlarged notebook pages of a fictional historian. On these pages, color images of outdated automobiles were “pasted in” to represent the types of vehicles used in the Lebanese car bombings. The images looked playful, like a storybook. I found them stupefying, like party favors at a wake.

Photographer Tony Hooker’s subject matter was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1932-1972). This was a study sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service in which several hundred impoverished black men with syphilis were deliberately given ineffective medical care so that the progress of the disease could be studied. The men were not informed of their diagnosis.

In Hooker’s photos, archival images of the experimental subjects are superimposed onto more recent shots of the hospital’s ruins (image at the top, from the Camerawork website). The works pull you in, but you can’t understand them unless you read some text. And once you do the reading, the photos seem inadequate to the subject. They are too aesthetic, and they don't tell enough. A documentary approach would have been more effective in evoking a complex reality in which both white and black medical personnel mistreated their patients for decades. Despite these criticisms, Hooker's body of work was the most satisfying in the exhibit.

At the entrance to the exhibit was a set of works by Claudia Kunin, which attempted to create a ghostly presence in 19th Century photo portraits by dangling one gauzy copy in front of another, both versions being printed on chiffon fabric. The result was pure Kitsch, and I thought for a moment I had walked into a gallery at Carmel.