Friday, March 30, 2007

Arrested — Handcuffed — Shackled

Half a dozen years ago—though it seems like decades—the phrase “anything is possible in America” referred to opportunities. Under the regime of George W. Bush, the phrase has taken a different turn. Consider the case of Nyok Mei Wong (pictured above), as described by her in a document I have seen, and in messages from her allies.

Mei Wong is a first-year MFA student in the New Genres department at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her specialty is performance and time-based art. Until recently she lived in Chicago, and an interview in Chicago City Arts Review captured her there. She is a citizen of Malaysia.

On February 15th, she visited the San Francisco office of the USCIS (formerly INS) to check the status of her long-standing application for a permanent resident visa. As a result of that visit, she was arrested, handcuffed, shackled, and sent to the remote Yuba County Jail, where she remained in immigration detention for five days until bail money could be gathered and paid.

During that fateful visit, the USCIS claimed that her application for permanent status had been denied back in 2003. She had never received any notice to this effect, and she says that the USCIS computer system contained no record of the denial.

Mei Wong has been in the U.S. since entering on a student visa in 2002. In the 2003 Diversity Lottery carried out by the USCIS, she was declared eligible for a Diversity Visa, which enables the applicant to work and live permanently in the U.S. She immediately filed the appropriate form (I-485, Adjustment of Status) to complete the visa process. She was issued an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) as a result. Her EAD has been renewed annually. Meanwhile, at each visit to the USCIS, including one last fall, she was told that her permanent visa was still pending.

Now, apparently because of bureaucratic errors at the USCIS, she faces a court hearing in San Francisco on April 5th. There may be additional court appearances. Deportation is a possibility, but exoneration and permanent resident status are also possible.

Friends and supporters have organized a fund-raising campaign to cover legal costs, with a goal of raising $10,000. There is an art auction tomorrow night (Saturday) at The Garage, an experimental art venue in an upscale part of town. Also, donations to the cause can be made by check or through Paypal. Further information is available on the website for The Garage. I am acquainted with several people involved in this effort, and I can vouch for their integrity.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Brice Marden Left on Sidewalk

Heading to an art exhibit this week, I saw some string on the sidewalk. (I used Photoshop to nudge the edges a little.)

Bayeté Ross Smith at Bluespace (SF)

Note: This exhibition is scheduled to close on 4/13/07.

Bluespace, a small privately owned storefront that operates as a community project space, currently is presenting work by young San Francisco artist Bayeté Ross Smith. This project, called “Passing,” is one of a series in which the artist explores perceptions of identity by shifting the visual signifiers of racial type, ethnicity, class, and nationality.

The method used here is simulated passports—digitally manipulated versions of actual passports. Identity photos of a fair-skinned young woman and a dark-skinned young man are incorporated into passports from several countries. Invented names and suitable personal data are also incorporated. The results are intriguing, not only for the unique passport design used by each country, but for the game the artist has chosen to play. The simulations are meticulous and deserve to be seen in person. An example of one of the passports is shown above (image from the artist’s website).

Other work by this artist may be explored on his website. A larger exhibit of his work will open at San Francisco City Hall in mid-April, under the auspices of the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery.

For the exhibit at Bluespace, the hours are noon to 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. The gallery may be open on other days as well. Even on the scheduled days, it is best to call before making a visit.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Two Shows at the Asian (SF)

The permanent exhibition spaces at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco strike me as lackluster, but the museum’s special exhibitions, in the first floor galleries, are often compelling. Currently there are two exhibits that I can recommend highly (and the museum also has a decent café).

Craft has become a contested idea in the art world, but it is at the center of “Masters of Bamboo: Japanese Baskets and Sculpture from the Cotsen Collection,” on view through May 6th. There are many remarkable objects in this selection from the huge collection donated to the museum by Lloyd E. Cotsen. The exhibit is organized around the master-disciple lineages that are characteristic in this demanding, enclosed tradition. Most of the work is from the past half-century. The aesthetic qualities are notable, but what is most riveting is the astounding craft on display. The making of these objects shows a degree of unhurried commitment that marks a space-time leap from the capitalist universe.

After the austerities of bamboo, the exhibition of miniature paintings and other artifacts from India seems almost licentious. That show is called “Princes, Palaces, and Passion,” and it lives up to its name. I am a huge fan of Indian miniature paintings, and it is always a thrill to see a good selection in person, as most of the reproductions in books seem to take the life out of them.

The Asian's selection, organized over an eight-year period by UC Berkeley professor Johanna Williams, focuses on the Mewar Kingdom in the part of India now known as Rajasthan. Across a four-century span, the earliest works seem tentative, and the late works seem Mannerist. In between there is about a century and a half of sparkling achievements (late 17th Century through early 19th Century).

The formal devices of these paintings give them a contemporary feel, and the colors still seem fresh. The stylized rendering of trees and shrubs is a feature I particularly enjoy. A few paintings show princes holding implements of hunting or war (as in the image above). But often there is an atmosphere of upper-class relaxation and eroticism that calls to mind 18th Century European painters like Boucher and Fragonard. In the Indian work, however, the idealization of court life does not seem so rooted in time; it can even look like episodes from a sci-fi adventure. The exhibit will be on view through April 29th.

There are catalogues for both exhibits, but unfortunately the quality of the reproductions is disappointing. Additional bamboo work and Indian paintings are on view in the permanent galleries upstairs.

Photography is not permitted in either exhibit, so the images here have been culled from the internet, as follows (top to bottom):
Kawashima Shigeo, “Model for Funabashi Shore Park Exhibition,” 1999. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.
Yamaguchi Ryuoun, “Wave Wave,” 1999. Photo courtesy of the Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Bamboo Basket Collection.
Shono Shounsai, “Shimmering of Heated Air” (flower basket), approx. 1969. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.
Surajmalji, “Son of Rao Narayanadasa,” approx. 1820. Photographed for the Berkeley Art Museum by Benjamin Blackwell. Image from Indian Writing Station website.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Dove Post Updated Again

For readers who have expressed interest in a question I raised about an Arthur Dove painting at the de Young Museum (SF): I have made a second update to that post. See below under the original date, 3/5/07.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Hello Nauman

Very soon I will post some comments on the Bruce Nauman exhibition in Berkeley. In the meantime, here's a T-shirt that I whipped up while thinking about Nauman.

Two Small Sculptures (SF)

Here are two little sculptures that I enjoyed seeing in February, one shiny and rough:

Mitzi Pederson at Ratio 3
(reflective paper, acrylic, aluminum tape; 12.75 inches high)

Ulrike Palmbach at Stephen Wirtz Gallery
(wood, dyed muslin, cotton batting, thread, cord; 8 inches high)

Photoshop to the Rescue

Recently I came across an impromptu sidewalk memorial in San Francisco's Japantown (photo above). The handmade Christian cross didn't bother me, but the tacky disorder around it certainly did. There were barcodes on the two unwrapped bouquets, a cigarette pack, and a stubbed-out cigarette. OK, maybe I'm getting fussy in my old age.

Fortunately, a disturbing image like this can be sent packing. It can even be turned into contemporary art with one-step Photoshop transformations. See below. Zhazam!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Outside the de Young Museum (more)

Here are two more photos from outside the de Young Museum in San Francisco.


Nightfall with surveillance camera:

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Enjoying the de Young Museum (SF)

Joseph McElheny (detail, see below)

In earlier posts, I complained about various aspects of the new de Young Museum in San Francisco. But a visit to the de Young offers many rewards. Below is a sample of the artworks that I enjoyed last month at the museum.

Background: Cornelia Parker, “Anti-Mass” (2005)
Charred remains of black Southern Baptist church destroyed by arson.

Foreground: Josiah McElheny, “Model for Total Reflective Abstraction” (glass, 2003)

Doris Salcedo, “Untitled” (concrete, wood, steel, 1998)

Bruce Nauman, “Double Poke in the Eye II” (neon, 1985)

Jess [Collins], “If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink” (oil, 1962)

The above painting is auto-biographical. In the mid-1940s, as a draftee in the Army Corps of Engineers, Jess worked as a nuclear chemist for the Manhattan Project. In distress at the Post-War threat of nuclear war, he turned away from science in 1948. The painting includes a nuclear mushroom cloud, children playing under nuclear fallout, a parrot (mindless imitator) devouring an owl (wisdom), and a man looking backward on it all with a deck of cards in his hands.

Mel Ramos, “Superman” (oil, 1961-62)

Bruce Conner, “Snore” (mixed media, 1960)

Part of the above sculpture has unraveled. This can be seen by comparing it to the photograph for Conner's most recent retrospective, in the book 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II (1999).

Frank Lobdell, “31 December 1948” (oil, 1948)

Mark Rothko, “Untitled” (oil, 1949)

Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park 116” (oil, 1979)

Edward Hopper, “Portrait of Orleans” (oil, 1950)

Wright Morris, “Houses on Incline, Virginia City, NV” (photograph, 1941)

Anonymous 19th Century kindergarten collage

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, “Corridor Pin, Blue” (1999)

Zhan Wang, “Artificial Rock” (stainless steel, 2005)
The above shows one face of a very irregular sculpture, different on each side. There are craggy holes running through it, transverse to the above view. The second photo shows the bottom. The third photo shows the intense sky reflections at the top, on the side facing away from the museum, which looms in the background.


Ed Ruscha,“Safe and Effective Medication” (lithograph, 2001)

The above was part of a Ruscha prints exhibit that has ended. (Image from Adam Biesk Fine Art website.)

Gerhard Richter’s “Strontium” at the de Young (SF)

For the opening of the new de Young Museum, leading German artist Gerhard Richter was commissioned to create a monumental photo-mural for the main interior court. This work, entitled “Strontium,” is a grid of digitally manipulated C-prints, laminated between aluminum and plexiglass. It cost a fortune.

According to David Strubbe in the Berkeley Science Review (Spring 2006), the image is the crystal lattice of the material strontium titanate as seen by high-resolution transmission electron microscopy. Strubbe says that the blurring of the image was contributed by Richter.

The top photo, from the Contemporary Art Institute website, shows the whole work. Below are images showing the scale of the work and a detail of the pattern.

Repeated viewings have not altered my original impression, that the work misfires. Despite the intense optical buzz, the overall effect lies somewhere between tedium and low-level irritation (like static). I keep thinking that the panels would really sizzle if they were arranged on the four walls of a small gallery. Also, I think that the main court, with its surprisingly bland geometry, could use a blast of color.

Monday, March 05, 2007

An Everyday Ghost

Here's a photo I snapped on 2/8/07 while eating a sandwich in a Berkeley cafe:

de Young Installation Question Answered

Note: See the four updates at the end of this posting. (I have also modified the title of this posting.)

The de Young Museum in San Francisco has on display a painting by Arthur Dove (oil on panel) which has the title “Sea Gull Motive (Sea Thunder or The Wave).” The museum dates the painting to 1928. Here is my photo from a visit last month:

Having doubts about how the work was hung, I went to the library today to consult Ann Lee Morgan’s scholarly study, Arthur Dove: Life and Work, with a Catalogue Raisoneé (1984). That reference work shows the painting oriented as follows, and gives its date as “c. 1926.”

I will contact the museum to find out if the curators have a justification for hanging the painting vertically.

Update: On 3/12/07, I received the following response from Timothy Anglin Burgard, Curator-in-Charge of the American Art Department, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco:

The painting is signed by Arthur Dove on the verso of the panel in the vertical orientation. In addition, the painting was correctly reproduced in its vertical orientation in all the early sources, including "Modern American Painters" (1930) and, more importantly, in "America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait" (1934). The horizontal orientation has no historical basis prior to 1973, when the painting reappeared.

Update #2: Timothy Burgard's explanation (above) reflects standard museum practice, but even after receiving his message, I still wondered about the painting. I was able to contact Ann Lee Morgan, who said that Dove almost never signed his paintings on the back. Her catalogue raisoneé lists the above painting as unsigned. I am not in a position to make any judgment about the signature noted by Burgard.

What continued to spark my interest was that, viewed in a vertical orientation, "Sea Gull Motive" seems anomalous in Dove's body of work. Typically, when he painted a landscape—and here I am excluding his nature-oriented abstractions—he provided an indication of a horizon line. The works tend to be grounded in that way, even when he is showing nature in a turbulent or ecstatic mode. In this context, a horizontal orientation for "Sea Gull Motive" seemed more characteristic. Of course, the case is complicated by the fact that this painting has a diagonal composition.

In any case, on 3/23/07, I went to an academic library and found evidence that persuaded me that the vertical orientation—the one shown at the de Young—is correct. One of the books mentioned by curator Burgard, which shows
the painting vertically, is Modern American Painters (1930), written by the art dealer Samuel M. Kootz. I found that Dove references Kootz's book in a letter to his dealer Alfred Stieglitz, the noted photographer. Stieglitz had asked Dove to write something in response to the section of Kootz's book that deals with Georgia O'Keeffe. It is clear from Dove's letter that he has read Kootz's book: he refers to specific statements by Kootz that can be found in the book. It is also clear that he approved of the book. He declared, It would take quite a man to do a better book.” Surely he had seen the reproduction of his painting in the book, and he voices no complaint. To me this is conclusive.

Dove's letter,
circumstantially dated 4 December 1930, can be found in the selected correspondence between Stieglitz and Dove, a work by (again) Ann Lee Morgan, entitled Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove (1988, page 201).

Update #3: I received a delayed reply from Barbara Haskell, author of the catalogue for the retrospective of Dove's work that she organized under the sponsorhip of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1974. In an email response, she says, “When I did the show, the owner of the painting (and, as I remember, Dove’s son), said that Dove showed it both ways. I prefer it horizontally—I think it relates far more to Dove’s other work and to his typical motifs.” So perhaps either orientation is historically correct.

Update #4: A month ago, I received a message from Ann Lee Morgan stating that Dove was a right-handed painter. I returned to the de Young to see if the brushstrokes in this painting could provide a clue about its proper orientation. During my examination, there was a moment when I envisioned a wacky headline: “Man Injures Neck While Studying Arthur Dove Painting.” This is a very brushy painting with more than one layer of strokes, which go in a variety of directions. Overall, though, it appeared to me that the work had been painted mostly while it was vertical. There are some strokes that curve in a way that would be awkward indeed if the painting had been horizontal. And there were strokes that appeared to move from top to bottom along the veritical axis, which are implausible as right-to-left strokes in a horizontal canvas. I doubt, however, that the painting was kept vertical for its entire execution. The white edges against the dark areas appear to be painted at right angles to the edges, pulling away from the edges. These would have been easier to do if the painting were placed horizontally (or even flipped vertically). It's possible that Dove noticed, when he turned the painting around, that it worked in more than one orientation. See the comment above.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Henry Wessel at SFMOMA

_______San Francisco, 1973________

Note: This exhibition will close on 4/22/07.

SFMOMA has a good exhibit of work by Bay Area photographer Henry Wessel (born 1942). After I saw the show, the word that came to mind was “laconic.” Not many Americans are laconic anymore. Chattering seems to be the new national mission. Wessel’s pictures provide an escape from the din.

Wessel captures everyday places and people, a type of visual inventory that looms large in American art photography. Sometimes it can feel like a worn-out category. But Wessel has managed to capture a good many images that sing quietly in their plainness. His best pictures tend to be those with people in them, as he has a gift for capturing body language. There is an iconic dimension to his people, but without the reductionism that often occurs in photojournalism.

The examples included here are gelatin silver prints: the one at the top is from the Robert Mann Gallery website, and the two below are from the Charles Cowles Gallery website.

Southern California, 1985

Santa Monica, 1989

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Women Artists at Mills (Oakland)

Note: This exhibit closes on 3/15/07. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday.

The Mills College Art Museum, currently seeking a director, has maintained its exhibition program by bringing in guest curators. The present exhibit was organized by Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA. She was asked to do a show focusing on women artists, and she wasn’t given much lead time. Nonetheless, by resorting to SFMOMA’s permanent collection and loans from a handful of collectors and galleries, Bishop has pulled together a fine exhibit called “Take 2: Women Revisiting Art History.” Nine artists are included.

As usual in this venue, the artwork looks too spread out, but the quality of the selections keeps the visual energy from dissipating as you move through the show. It’s a thoughtful exhibit that allows the works to unfold. It engenders a mood of calm alertness that is refreshing.

In a brief curator's talk, Bishop said that Sherrie Levine was one of the first artists she decided to include. More than a quarter century ago, Levine made her name—indeed, became notorious—for re-photographing Walker Evans’s documentary photographs of the Depression era and presenting them as her own work under the title “After Walker Evans.” (She photographed the images from catalogues.) This project sparked interest among Post-Modern and feminist theorists. Looking at the examples presented in the Mills exhibit, you might conclude that reading about this work is as good as seeing it.

Levine’s sculptures have a greater physical impact. Located in the center of the show is a work from 1990 that is derived from an image in a 1938 painting by Man Ray, “La Fortune.” (Photo above from the Whitney Museum website). The sculpture is a carom billiards table, regulation-sized, with its 3 billiard balls glued to the felt and turned wooden legs that look eccentric, though similar to the one visible in the painting. (See photo below.)

Traditional portraiture is brought into the mix with selections from Cindy Sherman’s History Portraits. In one of these photos (fairly large), she seems to be channeling Madame de Pompadour as painted by Boucher, but with a decidedly louche air. (Surely 18th-Century French women of this class powdered away the sweat from their bosom?) In a smaller photo, she impersonates a Colonial American type whose prosperity is matched by sobriety. This photo has an emotional core that seems absent from others in the series. (Images below).

Kara Walker is represented by several works, including the following silhouette (detail):

Janine Antoni turned to silversmithing to produce a small but riveting sculpture entitled “Umbilical” (2001). It’s a sterling cast of a silver spoon from the family collection, which is attached at the bowl end to a negative cast of the artist’s mouth, and at the handle end to an imprint of her mother’s fingers.

Even more perverse is Antoni's “Coddle” (1999), a color photograph in a hand-carved oval frame, about 22 inches tall. It depicts the artist cradling her own leg—a narcissistic version of a Madonna and Child painting. (The two images below, from the Luhring Augustine website, are clearer than my own.)

British artist Sam Taylor-Wood has made references to art history in a number of works, including the two short films at Mills, which are presented on monitors in separate galleries. One film, “The Last Century” (2005), looks back to classic photographs of Parisians in bars and cafes—for example, Doisneau in the 1950s and Brassaï in the 1920s and 1930s. Those photos in turn look back to 19th-Century paintings of similar subjects. Taylor-Wood’s film presents a scene in a British pub that looks momentarily like a still image, but isn’t. (Photo below.)

The other film, “A Little Death” (2002), is based on a painting by the 18th-Century painter Chardin. (The painting shown below is probably the specific source; the image is from Detroit Institute of Arts). This type of work by Chardin is based in turn on 17th-Century vanitas paintings, which were designed to remind viewers that time conquers all. Taylor-Wood’s version is time-lapse photography of a dead hare and a single peach. The hare decays horribly and become a host for swarming insects. Meanwhile, the supermarket peach stays “fresh.” (See images below.)

German artist Beate Gütschow fabricates large photographic images based on classic landscape paintings. Seventeenth-Century artist Claude Lorraine seems a particular influence. The elements of each image are skillfully assembled, but subtle mismatches are deliberately left unaltered. The results look lovely at first, and then quite unnerving. (The image below is from the Danziger Projects website.)

The youngest participant in the show is San Francisco artist Stephanie Syjuco, who was born in the Philippines. References to art history occur in some of her work—and she has acknowledged her attraction to the formal qualities of Modernist art and design—but her practice is more focused on issues of globalization, identity, and mass-marketing of goods.

In the first gallery at Mills, Syjuco has installed “Wirtschafts-werte (Economic Values)” (2003), a display of anonymous “products” on industrial shelving. (Photo at top.) The products are Minimalist blocks covered in woodgrain contact paper. The concept for the piece and its title are derived from a 1980 installation by German artist Joseph Beuys, in which he displayed food products from East Germany in the drab packaging produced by that Communist state.

In a rear gallery, there is a selection of poster-sized prints from Syjuco’s “Comparative Morphologies” series (2001). Digital images of electronic parts are arranged in the style of antique botanical prints. One example is shown above, and a detail from another is shown below.

Two other artists rounds out the exhibit. From Mills faculty member Catherine Wagner, there are large color photographs from her “Re-classifying History” series. Unfortunately, these are not her best work. Likewise, the drawings by Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander do not show her to advantage. They are underwhelming, and there are so many of them. It's regrettable especially because Sikander is the only artist in the group who makes references outside the Western art tradition.