Monday, January 22, 2007

Kenneth Lo at ATA (SF)

Alert: This exhibit closes on 1/30/07.

The worst place to see an artist’s video may be the window gallery at Artist’s Television Access (ATA) in San Francisco. Although I can recommend Kenneth Lo’s entertaining “Rice Balla Chronicles,” now showing there, I must point out that the video is displayed on a monitor with a bulging screen and poor color adjustment, situated behind a non-pristine window. Also, the sound is either muffled or tinny, depending on which speaker is activated—the one inside the TV, or the lone speaker driver hanging naked in the doorway outside. Under the cascades of vehicular noise on Valencia St., the video soundtrack often disappears.

Lo’s video is a 12-minute edit of material originally prepared for his Berkeley MFA show last year. In part, it’s a fantasy revenge project, a kiss-off to his high school years in Orange County when, as Lo informed me, the jocks bullied him because he was a short, skinny, Asian, and artistic. But it’s also a comedy about social identity, from the perspective of a young Chinese American guy. Basketball is brought into the mix because the artist is a long-time Lakers fan and, growing up, he observed African-American players adopt hip-hop styles as part of their identities.

The video reinvents the 5’7” artist as a basketball phenomenon who once played against Kobe Bryant. The time sequence of the imagined story is a bit confusing, but apparently what you see is Ken Lo at his basketball peak in 1996, before an injury sidelined him for good. The montage includes a hip-hop music sequence, an animation sequence using shadow puppets, and some hand-written inter-titles. The live action features a toy-sized hoop and ball. To accompany the video, Lo created two basketball posters, framed by a Chinese lattice pattern (photo at top).

As recounted in the video, Ken Lo’s athletic skill and moxie made him the talk of the town. Several hot young babes tell the camera they love Ken Lo. A guy in a hoodie and a ball player banter about Ken Lo, giving praise. Ken Lo’s mother speaks from her kitchen to say how popular he is. A basketball coach is interviewed in his office. The only nay-sayer is an old Chinese guy eating in a restaurant, hen’s foot in hand, saying that Ken Lo doesn’t speak Chinese, he dates white women, he’s no good. All the characters are played by the artist himself. He disappears into them, with superb results.

Below are some fuzzy screen shots.

Post Mortem for Artists

Nadine Jarvis, a recent graduate in design from Goldsmiths (London), has invented a new way to handle the residue of cremation. In a project called Carbon Copies, she has envisioned the transformation of the carbon content of a person's cremains into graphite, which is then used to manufacture a set of pencils (about 250 per person). Each pencil is imprinted with the deceased person’s name and life dates. The pencils are kept in a special wooden case, which includes a build-in sharpener. The shavings from the sharpener remain in the case.

This could provide a final outlet for the artistic impulse.

Here are links to photos of a case and a pencil.

Friday, January 19, 2007

"Listening" Re-opens at The LAB (SF)

Following a holiday closure, The LAB in San Francisco has re-opened its exhibit "Listening: Living Art from Japan and San Francisco." The show will run through 1/27/07. I blogged about this show on 12/19/06 and 12/29/06 (at the end of each posting). The show has problems but also rewards. A special delight is Yoshinori Niwa's deadpan video, "People like us," which shows Niwa transporting a bag of trash from his home in Tokyo to San Francisco. A tiny QuickTime version can now be seen on Niwa's website, but it's much better to see it normal-size as part of his trash installation at The LAB. Below are a few images from the QuickTime verson.

Heading to the train in Tokyo:

Close-up of the bag:

The bag on the train:

The bag at security, Narita Airport:

The bag on the airplane seat:

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lauren Davies at Ampersand (SF)

Note: This exhibit closes on 2/11/07. The gallery has limited hours.

Lauren Davies’s childhood fascination with natural history museums plays out in her art, with weirdly wonderful results. Her latest project, entitled “Dominion,” is on view at Ampersand International Arts in San Francisco. Her point of departure for the show was a decrepit French schoolroom map of colonial Africa (detail at left).

In recent years, some of Davies's best work has been animal sculptures and dioramas. Elements of these can look realistic, but everything is fake. The animal sculptures are often incomplete, or in process, in ways that can be unnerving. The dioramas merge several aesthetic styles: traditional displays of natural history, Modernist abstractions, and Arte Povera’s use of abject materials and lack of finish. There’s a slightly demented air to the proceedings, with a comic edge that adds pressure instead of releasing it.

In this show, one of the dioramas is called “Petting Zoo Pongo” (photo at top, from the gallery website). While Pongo is the genus for orangutans, the paw in this piece is presumably a gorilla’s. It's a duplicate of a gorilla paw noted below. Perhaps Davies is referring to legendary gorilla-like creature called pongo, as in the B-movie White Pongo (1945).

The other diorama is “Ivory Products,” in which Ivory Soap is the stand-in for true ivory. The debossed product logo is partially visible in one section. Despite the pun with materials, the invocation of ivory, and the tattered display, give the work an elegiac quality. (Photo above.)

There is also a poignant aspect to “Glove,” a simulated gorilla paw that has been dropped casually on the floor, suggesting human negligence. (Photo above.)

One of the strangest works replicates what the zoo industry calls a chimpanzee “enrichment device.” (Photos above and below.) In this case it's a feeding device in the form of a high-rise termite mound. Chimps in the wild use twigs to probe the real mounds for termites, which they eat. In zoos, their probing gets them some mashed food. Next to her replicated mound, Davies displays a simulated tube, stuffed with simulated food, that is ready to be installed inside the fake mound. After pondering this work, you can go home and enjoy your own “enrichment devices.”

Gym Action at Steven Wolf (SF)

Note: These exhibits will close on 2/24/07.

To be in spirit for the new shows at Steven Wolf Fine Arts, you should arrive dressed for the gym. Walking in the door, you see half a dozen bench-press contraptions arrayed across the room (photo above). The barbells are huge. On the rear wall is a row of mirrored surfaces. The full-sized equipment dominate the space in a way that makes the viewer seem small and secondary. But it’s made entirely of paper. The artist is Christopher Tallon, from Los Angeles. The show is called “Six Pack.”

In the adjoining space, artist Mark Lee Morris has set up an exercise room, complete with mirrors, exercise videos, a gym locker, etc. Several times a week he visits the space to work out to the videos, which feature multiple versions of himself. The title of this show is “Hardcore/Psycho Workout.” (Photos above and below.)

This crisply installed exhibit isn’t a health club. It’s a spa that promotes surface allure and panders to narcissism. Located in an art gallery, it suggests that’s where the art world has arrived.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Anselm Kiefer at SFMOMA

Note: This exhibition is scheduled to close on 1/21/07.

The work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, even the most recent work, looks like the product of a long-dead era, though he’s only 61 years old. SFMOMA is offering a rare opportunity to explore Kiefer’s distinctive achievement in an exhibition called “Heaven and Hell,” which closes soon. This is the first major survey of Kiefer’s work in the United States since 1987. The project was organized by Michael Auping at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and San Francisco is the final venue. The exhibit includes paintings, drawings, and sculpture made over a 35-year period.

Most of the exhibit shows Kiefer at his most monumental, solemn, and hieratic. There are sculptures made of lead that require cranes to lift them. There are paintings large enough to serve as stage sets. The scale signifies the grandeur of Kiefer’s themes, which include the Nazi catastrophe, the failure of scientific rationalism, and humankind’s search for spiritual knowledge across the centuries. It is a lonely grandeur: social life is entirely excluded. If the show had a soundtrack, you would hear deep groaning basses and cellos, doomsday trumpets, and shimmering orchestral ostinatos.

To fully prepare, you would need to understand the large array of cultural references that are threaded through the exhibit. In addition to the Nazi regime, Nazi architecture, and the Holocaust, there is the Kabbalah, Nordic mythology, Gnosticism, the Icarus myth, alchemy, astrology, the Aztecs, star charts (with NASA identification numbers), and much more. There is the English Renaissance mystic Robert Fludd, the early German artist Albrecht Dürer, and the 20th-Century Jewish Romanian poet Paul Celan. The list goes on.

You also need to come to terms with the work’s uningratiating, even abrasive, visual qualities. Several glass cases contain large burlap books with pages covered by charred material. There are huge books, and a fighter plane, made of lead sheeting, whose color hovers between oppressiveness and luminosity. Throughout the paintings, the colors tend to be melancholy and sour. There are charred areas, and streaks that resemble grease and oil. Even the whites can look poisonous. Materials such as clay, straw, and shattered porcelain, and sheets of lead are incorporated, along with sculptural devices and wire—even a circuit board in one case. The painted surfaces are cracked, flaking, and otherwise distressed. (Kiefer leaves his paintings outdoors for long periods to achieve a weathered effect.) Most of the paintings contain scraps of German text—words and names written in Kiefer's stiff, old-school handwriting.

(There are exceptions to the grim palette. One early painting, which depicts a man in the woods holding a torch, resembles the work of Peter Doig! And in recent years, after relocating to the south of France, Kiefer has introduced flower images into some work.)

All of this—the towering scale, the implied footnotes, the defiance of beauty—is too much for some viewers, even some critics. They respond with barbed words: bombastic, pompous, ponderous, theatrical, cerebral, remote.

The complaints are all true, sometimes. Even in this highly selective show, there are works that misfire. Some are overblown; some are annoying literal. Too often, the subject and composition cannot redeem the desolate palette.

But when Kiefer succeeds, you can be riveted by the imagery and the materiality of the work even before your intellect can start to unravel it. You can feel your thoughts expanding suddenly, and hugely, to take in Kiefer’s drama of fate. Throughout the exhibit there are extraordinary moments. In repeated viewings, the best work retains a breath-taking impact.

Even the learned background of Kiefer’s work is not so great an obstacle as it may appear. It’s possible to understand a good deal just by looking at the work in an unhurried way. Much of the imagery is part of common experience: fire, snakes, storms, ruined landscapes, old books, war planes and ships, star charts. And Kiefer has emphasized the primacy of the images. In the monograph that accompanies the show, he says that he doesn’t read as much as people seem to think. He says, “I read enough to capture images. I read until the story becomes an image. Then I stop reading.”

It’s possible to feel that Kiefer’s work, despite its stubborn air of anachronism, is actually close to certain realities in a world that’s at war again. In a recent interview, he said “I don’t believe in History as an upwards progression” (Anselm Kiefer: Merkaba, 2006). What Kiefer depicts is the failure of the Enlightenment project. However, his investigations of pre-Enlightenment thought don't offer a path forward. They can only suggest that we need to ponder where we are going.

I couldn't secure good quality images for most of the exhibition, so I include only the following:
Top of posting: “Melancholia” (painting) 2004, image from Hirshhorn Museum.
Middle of posting: “Meteoriten (Meteorites)” 1998/2005, my own clandestine snapshot.
End of posting: “Melancholia” (sculpture) 1990-91, image from SFMOMA.