Sunday, February 25, 2007


Note: This exhibition is on view through 4/22/07.

Every two years, SFMOMA selects a handful of Bay Area artists to receive the SECA Art Award. The award is named for the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art, a museum auxiliary whose role in the process is never fully explained in press releases. After the announcement of the awards, the artists prepare for the award exhibition, held in the early months of the following year. My sources tell me that the artists are assigned an area in the layout and then allowed to present themselves more or less as they wish.

The winners are selected by SFMOMA curators. Their general criteria are set forth in the exhibition's press release. One is “a high level of artistic maturity,” a puzzling phrase for artists who, in some cases, have just graduated from MFA programs. The other main criterion is that the artists’ work “has not yet received substantial recognition.” SFMOMA should retire this phrase, as it sparks titters. Many of the winners have had gallery representation at the time of the award, and some have had international exposure.

Generally the winners are young artists who have developed practices that are somewhat distinctive and that feel promising. Good work can be found in each biennial show, and it’s refreshing to see the locals featured at this museum, which otherwise is more interested in younger artists from elsewhere.

To followers of the local scene, though, some SECA choices can seem peculiar. Each time a round of winners is announced, people ask “Why this artist and not that artist?” Speculations about cronyism are floated with regularity. Also, many observers find the overall results too safe, too tame.

The number of SECA award winners varies from year to year. One of the five for 2006 is Leslie Shows, a painter whose method is collage. Working generally on a large scale, she creates barren, abandoned, or ravaged landscapes through a painterly accretion of materials glued to paper or panel. The materials are sometimes affixed with a degree of looseness, giving the surfaces a rough, even decaying quality. The paintings are as fascinating close up as they are from a dozen feet away. They reflect an enormous matrix of choices.

Typically, Shows works on several pieces concurrently, over an extended period. In the initial stages, her paintings look chaotic, with barely attached elements drooping forward rather pathetically. As each painting finally comes together, you realize what an exceptional visual imagination has been guiding the process. One work in the SECA show is actually owned by SFMOMA: “Two Ways to Organize” (photo at top by Leslie Wells/Fredrik Nilsen Studios). Another compelling work has a title as long as this landscape: “Heap of Elements for a Body, About to Act or Finished Acting” (photo above, from SFMOMA website). The immense detail and physical qualities of Shows's paintings are hard to capture in photos.

The other painter in the show, Sarah Cain, is accomplished in her flat work but often at her best when she can animate space via an installation. Her MFA show at UC Berkeley included one piece that featured a tree branch leaned against a wall, and there’s another in the SECA show. These totemic, delicately unruly works seem designed not just to represent magic but to embody it. They really charge the space around them. (Photo above.)

The show also includes Cain’s odd small painting, “Gladness Becomes Weeping” (photo above). It looks like a trial version of a Minimalist object, or maybe an artifact from a low-budget 1970s sci-fi movie. The piece is geometric but casual about it. The top part is a piece of cardboard wrapped with what looks like copper wire (though it’s actually string). The shiny line near the bottom is a string of beads.

Kota Ezawa explores famous images from the media and from art history by making reductive versions using a computer drawing program. (Yes, he draws.) The exhibit includes two images from his lightbox series called “The History of Photography Remix” (photos above). There is also an animation entitled, “Hardcore and Censored,” based on parts of the travel and porn video recorded by tabloid celebs Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee and subsequently stolen and posted on the internet. Ezawa's images are so flat that your mind drifts to the dialogue, which at first seems banal and then artificial. It’s like bad actors reciting a tone-deaf script. It's creepy to realize these sounds passed for real life.

Mitzi Pederson is a mainly a sculptor, though she also makes drawings that reflect some of the impulses expressed in her sculpture. The sculptures are often a mash-up of prosaic building materials and glittery craft supplies. She’s interested in physical balance and tension, and also in broken edges. She can work on an intimate scale but also likes to take over space. The largest piece in the show (photo above) is her cinderblock installation, “Untitled (ten years later or maybe just one).”

The final participant is Amy Franceschini, who gets a whole room for her “Victory Gardens 2007+” project. (The project also has a website.*) Given the attractive, marketable qualities of the other awardees, perhaps the curators felt a dose of social practice would be in order. I found Franceschini’s installation less compelling, both visually and conceptually, than some of her prior work. It felt less like art than like an ecological project put across with sharp design and PR skills. The reference to the Victory Gardens of World War II is poignant, though. The very name carries a whiff of national purpose that seems to have vanished, except in rhetoric.

*A project that addresses related issues is the Edible Schoolyard, created by food guru Alice Waters.

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