Tuesday, February 27, 2007

“6 Pack” at The LAB (SF)

Earlier this month, The LAB in San Francisco presented six compact solo shows under the title “6 Pack.” One of the artists was jammed into the entry way, and the rest were spread along the walls of the main space. That area looked uncluttered for a change, but still ungainly and decrepit. However, the show was pretty good.

I especially liked the white TV set by Matthew Cox, entitled “Static” (photo at top). The pattern on the screen is rendered in graphite.

There was a large array of photo-collages by David King, brimming with campy magic. Below are two faves (images from the artist’s website). The first is called “Lighting the Way,” and the second is “Breezes for Lila.”

Sarah Applebaum presented several of her large ink-on-paper drawings from a series she calls “Pelts.” Below is a detail of one of them (image from her website). Applebaum's other main body of work (not represented in the show, but documented on the website) is a world away from her delicate drawings, though appealing in its own extroverted way.

Sarah Bereza has created a collection of women-as-tropies in a series called “Conquests.” The style of painting could be more distinctive, but the objects as a whole have a bizarre pizzazz. Of the two examples below, the second is a self-portrait. Bereza also showed paintings of young women engaged in pillow fights, but these paled in comparison to similar but far more developed work by local artist Laura Ball.

Working in an illustrational style, Joseph Rizzo presented work that usually struck me as under-developed. But he’s capable of more interesting efforts, for example these two paintings:

The final artist was Meredith Miller, who makes photographs of obese women in an attempt to renegotiate how the women are viewed. Three examples are shown below. I found this project less compelling than the erotic self-portraits by Rachel Weeks, a local photographer who is a large woman.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Jeremy Mora at Mark Wolfe (SF)

Anywhere But Here (schoolgirl at edge of deep chasm)*

Note: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 3/23/07.

Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art (San Francisco) is presenting a solo exhibit of sculptures by young Los Angeles artist Jeremy Mora. Mora creates miniature diorama-like landscapes, and there are 53 of them on view. Some editing would have helped, but it’s a very engaging show.

Mora’s vignettes are usually views of nature, often remote spots, into which humans have intruded and left their mark. In some cases, miniature people (less than ¼-inch high) are present. In other cases, there is just some construction or paraphernalia of habitation. A few of the works depict urban infrastructure. The fabrication is meticulous.

It is probably time for a museum show of new miniatures—quite a few artists are working in this vein now.

Here is a small selection from Mora’s show:

And So We March (clowns on parade)



Graveyard (stacks of crushed automobiles)

New Beginning #2 (broken public statue on the right)

* Detail view (from gallery website)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Drawing for $50

In San Francisco on Friday night, Southern Exposure held its annual fund-raiser called the Monster Drawing Rally. I went over there for awhile, despite a slough of fatigue following a rather mild cold. Although the event took place at a different venue this year, it was the usual madhouse. Squeezing through the crowd, I encountered a young artist friend going the opposite direction, and we just looked at each other and screamed. That felt good.

For reasons that are surely not rational, it is deemed necessary to have DJs and loud music on top of HUNDREDS of people talking, or trying. One young artist whom I don’t know well, who was trying to be friendly, found it hard to converse with me because I couldn’t hear half of what she said. My hearing tends to fail me in these situations. The music was fun (“I might like you better if we slept together”), but PLEASE!

Anyway, I laughed when I overheard one guy say, “I thought they would be drawing monsters.” Actually, the monster aspect is the size of it: 100 or so artists, each drawing for an hour in shifts of 25. Each of the donated drawings was slipped into a clear plastic envelope, taped to the wall, and offered for $50. When more than one person wanted a drawing (this happened a lot), the contenders drew from a pack of cards, and the high card took the drawing.

I literally aced a graphite drawing by Eric Bodine (photo at top).

It was a feel-good evening: the generosity of the artists, the hands shooting up to bid when fresh drawings reached the wall, the happy faces, the sense of community.


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.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Presentation Aesthetics at the de Young (SF)

On a recent visit to the new de Young Museum, I revisited many works of art with pleasure (more on that in a later posting) but also paid attention to how well the architecture and the installations served the art.

The new building, designed by architectural stars Herzog and de Meuron, was a politically thorny and very expensive proposition. It has won renown for its marvelous exterior and even for visitor treats such as the panoramic view of San Francisco from the tower. However, along with many art lovers, I have found many galleries not up to snuff as art environments, in matters of architecture as well as installation. Visual clutter is practically a theme of the museum. I would like to note some of the problems.

A group of 10 landscape murals by Gottardo Piazzoni (1972-1945) found a place at the de Young after San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum decided to remove them from a civic building that became the Asian’s new home. The removal, restoration, and new installation cost a million dollars, according to the Asian Museum, which paid the bill. So these works are not chopped liver.

The murals look splendidly calm in their new setting except for an assortment of visual clutter. The worst gaffe is that, in front of each panel, a black iron bar has been installed for protection. I would not be entirely surprised to walk in and find a bicycle locked to one of them. The bars cut right in front of each panel. (See photos above and below.) They ought to be removed, but the problem is how to protect the paintings in a room that is designed to be an “event room,” where crowds of people and outside caterers occasionally hold sway. I am sure there is a solution, but it’s not clear that the museum is moving toward one.

Another annoyance is that, at the north end of the room, the murals must compete with gilded donor lists (photo below).

Some huge air grates contribute further visual clamor (photo below).

These grates are everywhere. In the examples below, they are in front of paintings by Frank Lobdell and Sam Francis.

In the museum's main lobby, a number of Joan Mitchell paintings are currently installed. Consider the clutter surrounding this diptych from 1992:

In one gallery, a sculpture by Doris Salcedo has been placed (dumped?) next to a large installation by Cornelia Parker. The two works have a thematic relationship, but the Salcedo work is diminished by this juxtaposition. To make matters worse, Salcedo's work—part of a series referencing the catastrophic humanitarian situation in her home country of Columbia—is trivialized by nearby signage (see photo below).

The supreme instance of insensitive placement is the Cornelia Parker. Entitled “Anti-Mass,” this work was created from the charred remains of a Black Southern Baptist church that had been destroyed by an arsonist. The installation is jammed up against one wall in a gallery that contains a variety of work, including Bruce Nauman's sardonic neon, "Double Poke in the Eye II," and a comically sexy sculpture by Rachael Neubauer. Parker's work also shares visual space with the same exit door and signs that form a backdrop for the Salcedo. (See photos below at at the top.) In 2005-06, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts devoted a huge gallery to an exhibition of two Parker works from the church series, a memorable presentation that the de Young might have learned from.

Kala at YBCA (SF)

Note: This exhibit closes on 4/1/07.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is honoring Kala Art Institute (Berkeley) with an exhibition of 25 artists who have been in residence at Kala over the years. It's a worthwhile show, although the selection by YBCA curators is uneven. Not included are some former Kala artists who are more interesting than some of those picked for the show. Since YBCA has a “no photos” rule, this posting will be skimpy on visuals.

From Taro Hattori comes the latest installment in his “Beaut Brute” series of terrorist weaponry imagined as Mod/Minimalist consumer products. This time he has made a portable case that includes a cell phone and iPod, for the killer on the go. There are a couple of empty slots in the case, making you wonder what weapons had been there and how they were used. Below is a general view; at the top, a close-up of a grenade. (The images are from the artist’s website).

On a monitor in a hallway, Eunjung Hwang’s digital animation, “Fabulous Creatures and Bestial Delights,” is a hit. It’s funny, a bit morbid, and very skillful. A couple of stills are shown below (taken from the artist’s website).

Lauren Davies (who works at Kala) has contributed some work from her iceberg series. Grouped tightly on a wall are half a dozen drawings and one small sculpture. Davies, known for her odd materials, has made the drawing in graphite on vinyl upholstery fabric (two images below, from the artist).

Other highlights are James Sansing’s stairwell installation, Jeff Kao’s “Better Reception” sculpture, Samantha Lautman’s penny-sized engravings of Oakland scenes, and Srdjan Loncar’s installation “Mountain and Sunset Clouds with Mother’s Shoes.”

Monday, February 19, 2007

Bill Owens at Robert Koch (SF)

Alert: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 2/24/07.

At Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco, there is a snappy little exhibit of medium-large color photographs by noted Bay Area photographer Bill Owens, under the title "Flesh." I noticed that the photos were framed using an excellent non-reflective glass. The gallery told me that the glass was sourced in Europe after the closure of the Denglas factory in the U.S. To my eye, the European glass is superior to the best grade of Denglas, which was serviceable for straight-on viewing but produced undesirable blue-green tints at an angle.

Also on view at Koch is work by Brooklyn-based photographer Christian Patterson: a series of color shots of Memphis, Tennessee, in the manner of William Eggleston.

Above and below are three favorite images from the Owens show (borrowed from the gallery website). The photo at top is called "Grill," and the reflections are part of it. The first photo below is called "Freud at the Met," referring to the Lucien Freud exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum some years ago. The third image is "Roasted Pork."

Freedom as a Tower

Freedom Tower "curtain wall" — clear views of airplanes?

In today’s New York Times, architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff attempted a last-ditch rally against the design of the Freedom Tower in Manhattan. He described the working design as “a barricaded fortress” and a “clumsy bloated form” that speaks of “paranoia.” Many other people have take similar views, but the project has moved forward. The construction of the tower’s foundations has begun. Unless New Yorkers finally stand up and shout it down, a brain-dead, 1,776-foot office building will stand beside the footprints of the destroyed WTC towers. Here are some renderings of the project (the images are from the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill website for the tower).

A general view — designed to look like a dart so it won't look like a target?

The 20-story concrete bunker base.

Harbor view — New York giving the finger to the world?

West plaza — are those gravestones along the curb?

Fascist-style lobby with big paintings — uh, where's the security?

Here's a comparison building, the Shanghai World Financial Center, with a planned height of 1,614 feet, now under construction (image from China Daily):

Jason Middlebrook at Lisa Dent (SF)

Alert: This exhibition is scheduled to close on 2/24/07.

Jason Middlebrook’s solo exhibition at Lisa Dent Gallery is a combination of sculpture, drawing, and installation. I saw it a month ago and was able to have a brief conversation with the artist, who lives in upstate New York. It’s a very crisp show and beautifully installed. But I came away feeling that I didn’t understand what Middlebrook was up to.

He applied the techniques of hobby mosaics to automobile and truck parts, all taken from types of vehicles he has owned. The results was like something you might see in an eccentric roadside attraction in the country. These fetishized objects were scattered around the main gallery terrain, where a few sprigs of silk flowers rose through cracks in the floor. In the second room, darkened for the occasion, an image of Los Angeles had been painted and collaged onto the walls—the city's night-time expanse of lights. In that space, many flowers popped up, like weeds trying to become a garden. All of this captured the eye. (Well, not the drawings so much.) But what did it mean?

Well, the flowers might be read as the stubborn resistance of nature, or the human spirit, against the crush of urbanization. The mosaics might signal the inevitable obsolescence of America's attitude toward the automobile. But these ideas and others didn't seem to unroll very far. The show resisted my effort to probe beneath its seemingly limpid surface. So, this is perhaps a show that needs to be left alone, registered with the eyes and converted to memory without any intervening analysis (the way children see).

In this spirit, I offer several photos. The one at the top shows one area of the darkened room. Below are Middlebrook's sculptures based on a muffler with pipe, a Ford truck grille, and a wheel with a whitewall tire.