Volume 43 Number 22-

February 25 – March 3, 2009

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A search for patterns in the light – and dark

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A search for patterns in the light — and in the dark

ENIGMATIC: TREVOR PAGLEN AND THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN

Trevor Paglen’s section of the 2008 SECA Art Award exhibition is somewhat centrally located — you have to pass through it to get to Jordan Kantor’s room, as well as to a small room containing pieces by all four awardees. This positioning resonates, for Paglen is nothing if not conscious of maps and their meanings, and his contributions have visual connections to the other three artists. The dizzying, multicolored swirls of Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass, a c-print from 2008, aren’t far from Tauba Auerbach’s post-op art graphics. The night skies in Paglen’s photography aren’t far from the deep blues and flaring lights of Kantor’s 2008 oil-on-canvas Untitled (lens flare), where the painted camera effects are also suggestive of one of Kantor’s Paglenesque earlier subjects, the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Such ties are helpful, because the flagrantly governmental subject matter and complicatedly political perspectives of Paglen’s work make it too easy to downplay or ignore its artistic facets. The white spots of 2008’s PARCAE Constellation in Draco (Naval Ocean Surveillance System, USA 160) are a photo-corollary to those found in Bruce Conner’s lovely late-era ink drawings. (Like Paglen, the late Conner kept his eye on activities the U.S. hides in plain sight, and that awareness adds undercurrents to works of his that might otherwise be coded as purely spiritual.) When Paglen, from a mile away, uses a long-lens camera to uncover the ambiguous activities of an unmarked 737 in a black spot in Las Vegas, I’m reminded of the telescopic images of cruelty at the end of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1957 Salò. But unlike Pasolini, Paglen is far from being in full charge of the staging, so his seductive images can only blurrily hint at barbarism or sinister motive.

"Photography — and this is especially true after September 11 — is a performance," Paglen told Thomas Keenan in an Aperture article from last year. "To photograph is to exercise the right to photograph. Nowadays, people get locked up for photographing the Brooklyn Bridge." Paglen’s pictures are the most successful portion of his SECA contribution — his presentation of emblematic Pentagon patches, while provocative and even aesthetically playful, raises (much like William E. Jones’ so-called 2007 film Tearoom) problems of authorship. By looking up at the sky and revealing that it’s looking back down at us, Paglen creates a grounded answer to the work of aerial photographers such as Michael Light, whose visions reorient one’s perspective. Paglen isn’t out to make you see clearly. He wants you to look deeper. And wonder. (Johnny Ray Huston)

For a review of Trevor Paglen’s new book, Blank Spots on the Map (Dutton), see Lit, page 42.

HER EMPIRE OF SIGNS: NOT-SO-RANDOM NOTES ON TAUBA AUERBACH

Tauba Auerbach is shaking up her spin-off sphere of the so-called Mission School with optical investigations into that interzone between the figurative and abstract, representational systems and what they communicate, order and chaos. This Bay Area native — at 27, the youngest of the current SECA Award winners — was likewise shaken to the core as an eight-year-old during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. "Actually I was at gymnastic class on Judah Street and on the uneven bars," she recalls by phone from New York City, where she now resides. "I was swinging from the low bar to the high bar when it just moved away from me and I fell. It was absolute chaos. Adults screaming conflicting instructions to us. I saw the windows bow in and out, and I remember driving home over the hill and seeing smoke and thinking our house was gone."

The memory bubbles up — as vivid and close to the surface as Auerbach’s perusal of chance and broken glass, Shatter II (2008), in the SECA exhibition — while she talks about her latest project: a piece for the Exploratorium’s "Geometry Playground," which opens in September. The title sounds like a perfect fit: a brain-teasing sense of play underlies many of Auerbach’s projects, including the design of new mathematical symbols for Cambridge University logician Byron Cook’s research into computer science’s famed termination, or halting, problem. "I think there are shortcomings in any coding system," she muses. "Binary is so interesting because the components are so limited…. Every time you want ambiguity in a binary system, you have to simulate it."

Auerbach’s darting intelligence peels off in many directions, much like her eye-boggling patterns. The artist’s old day job, in which she learned the lost art of sign painting at New Bohemia Signs in the Mission District, dovetails with her witty, abstracted deconstructions — or explosions — of writing and semaphore systems, assorted alphabets, Morse code, and eye charts. Two such 2006 works, The Whole Alphabet, From the Center Out, Digital V and …VI, which layer letters drawn from a digital clock, are on display at SFMOMA.

Penetrating glances into chaos and change yielded Auerbach’s largest pieces — the 2008 Crumple paintings — in which she crumpled paper, photographed the results, and then translated the creases onto canvas with halftone printing and paint carefully applied by hand. The folds materialize as one steps further back — and break down into dizzying pixels close up. Multiple entry points exist down this rabbit hole, first carved out by Op artist Bridget Riley. But as with Auerbach’s 2008 Static chromogenic prints, which saw her looking for randomness in analog TV static, the hidden spectrums and other visual tricks are rendered with an elegance a scientist would appreciate. (Kimberly Chun)

NEGATIVE LIGHT: BEYOND THE CANDID CAMERA WITH JORDAN KANTOR

In Jordan Kantor’s paintings, meaning is candid. When the word "candid" entered the English language in the 17th century, it was closer to its Latin roots, meaning "bright," "light," "radiant," "glow," or "white," with whiteness symbolizing purity and sincerity. Later, as the word approached then copulated with the critical language of photography — that crazy new field of "light writing" initially accused of everything from demonic possession to being a potential assassin of traditional visual arts like painting — "candid" gave birth to its common usage today, meaning "frank," "blunt," "severe," a harsh snapshot, brutally honest vision. So severity in art became intertwined with truth.

Kantor’s local gallery, Ratio 3, with its emphasis on projects’ overall coherence, is a welcome home to his current trajectory. His pieces for the SECA Art Award exhibition are alive with many truths at once, their spaces equally negative and positive. The three Untitled (lens flare) paintings and Untitled (HD lens flare), all from 2008, make you step back, only to feel as if your are standing closer than before. Untitled (Surgery) (2006–07) and Untitled (Eclipse) (2008) glow with negative light. This work is in stride with Kantor’s participation in important group shows at Galeria Luisa Strina in São Paolo ("This Is Not a Void," 2008) and New York’s Lombard-Freid Projects ("Image Processor," 2007) that dealt with our unstable relationship with images. It confirms that he is a photographer who just happens to use paint. I see aspects of Linda Connor’s slow, large exposures here, as well as Cindy Sherman’s foxes-in-the-headlights humans.

Kantor isn’t hardened by academia, though he has a PhD from Harvard and teaches at California College of the Arts. The brilliant candidness in his pictures is tied to an aesthetic understanding of human desires and scientific pursuits, but also to a humanistic refusal to be neutral. If you spend enough time with his work, you start to see that it is candid in its celebration, not just in its criticism. It reminds me of the ending to poet James Wright’s "A Christmas Greeting," from Shall We Gather at the River (1963), where the dead and the living ask the same questions: "Charlie, I don’t know what to say to you," the poet pines to someone he might have known or just imagined, "Except Good Evening, Greetings, and Good Night, / God Bless Us Every One. Your grave is white. / What are you doing here?" (Ari Messer)

She’s a magic woman

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SECA ART AWARDS




› a&eletters@sfbg.com

There is a lot of play going on in the work of Desirée Holman. As evinced by the handmade masks, props, and costumes that populate her multimedia pieces — a family therapy workshop comprised of dolls in 2002’s Art as Therapy; a clan of Bigfoot-like sapiens in 2005’s Troglodyte; and most recently, the estranged visages of television’s Huxtable and Conner families in The Magic Window — an anarchic "let’s raid the dress-up box" impulse is often her guiding force. Family sitcoms, pop cultural junk food, and mediated existence in a thoroughly televised culture are her source materials.

From Cindy Sherman’s faux film stills and prosthetic body part augmentations to Paul McCarthy’s return-of-the-repressed performances using all manner of foodstuffs and costume shop detritus, the act of playing dress-up has its art-historical precedents. While Holman’s work superficially brings Sherman and McCarthy to mind (the influence of the former is certainly apparent in 2006’s Bucolic Life, where she plays mother and wife to a mannequin family within a series of supposedly candid snapshots), her art is not as routinely fixated on confronting the viewer with the grotesque and abject.

"I can see why people would find my work creepy, but I don’t see it that way," laughs Holman over the phone. Judging from the opening night crowd’s response to The Magic Window — which takes pride of place at the SECA Art Award show — the most common response to Holman’s work seems to be nervous laughter. But when Roseanne Conner resembles Leatherface, it’s not hard to see why.

However palpable, unease is just a surface response to Holman’s rough-hewn masks and bodysuits. As fellow Guardian critic Glen Helfand noted in an Artforum review of Troglodyte, the empty costumes of the piece’s hirsute, apelike creatures "still channel our evolutionary connection to them" — a connection underscored by videos and photographs of the costumed creatures smoking cigarettes and dancing. No matter how funny or scary we find the ape family, we remain inescapably tied to them. Holman’s art teases out these strange channels and treats them as invitations to play along.

This invitation to connect beyond familiar comfort zones — even if, as viewers, we are frequently stuck, costumeless, on the outside looking in — is what animates The Magic Window, a project originally conceived for and shown at SF’s Silverman Gallery, which is showing work by Holman this April. Comprised of a three-channel video on one wall and colored pencil drawings on the wall opposite, The Magic Window takes its title from a 1939 ad campaign used to sell early, primitive TV sets to American consumers. But the name could just as easily be applied to the sculptural masks worn by Holman and her cast.

The video starts off with parallel narratives loosely modeled after incidents from Roseanne and The Cosby Show, and ends with both families leaving their respective screens to visit each other’s homes/sets. For a finale, the two clans come together for a center-screen psychedelic dance-off set in a purely virtual space where everyone glows with a green-screen aura. (This aura effect is rendered beautifully through tensile wisps in Holman’s delicate drawings). In other hands, the Huxtables and Conners would be mined for parodic laughs or used for nastier ends (see McCarthy’s and Mike Kelley’s assault on family life in their 1992 video Heidi), but Holman has a deep affection for her source material. "I personally like both television shows, which were really progressive for their time," she says. "And I really wanted to look at the similarities between the two families."

Holman’s collaborative fantasy union — in which one of television’s most popular, white, middle-class families gets down with its first-ever affluent, upper-middle class African American kin — could not resonate more with our country’s current political moment. The Huxtables are now, in a sense, the First Family, and the notion of a "post-racial America" has never had greater currency or been as thoroughly debated. To wit, Holman recently revealed in an interview with the blog Future Shipwreck that she created the masks for The Magic Window by attempting to combine the facial characteristics of her cast members with those of the actors who portrayed the characters on television.

In light of the recent election and current events, Holman has, understandably, been thinking a lot about The Magic Window. "On the one hand, [it presents] a critique of reenacting something that is already a fiction," she says, when asked about the piece. Then, as if channeling the zeitgeist on cue, she continues, "But on the other hand — and more powerful for me — are the acts of hope that these families act out in the video."

SECA ART AWARD EXHIBITION: TAUBA AUERBACH, DESIRÉE HOLMAN, JORDAN KANTOR, AND TREVOR PAGLEN

Through May 10; $12.50 adults, $8 seniors, $7 students (free for 12 and under)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000

www.sfmoma.org

The SECA art awards

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SECA, SECA now. Behold a free-floating netherworld where masked versions of Roseanne Barr and Bill Cosby boogie down together. Stare for one last time into the static of the soon-extinct analog TV to see what patterns emerge. Take an x-ray of Manet. Spy on government secret agents. Peep through the Guardian’s viewfinder at the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art’s biennial award exhibition devoted to Bay Area creators.

The 21st installment of the SECA Art Awards brings the strongest overall group of awardees in some time, four individuals — Tauba Auerbach, Desirée Holman, Jordan Kantor, and Trevor Paglen — whose contributions form a unified vision that’s been missing from the exhibition of late. You might not know it from reading the somewhat contentious artist discussion at the close of the exhibition’s booklet (where Auerbach’s plainspoken interjections are refreshing), but it’s easy to form a chain of symbolic connections that spans from one end of the exhibition to the other.

Holman is this issue’s cover star, partly because her recent playful representations of TV’s first families have proven refreshingly prescient regarding the national identification with (if not of) Barack Obama. And partly because it’s time to put a weird mask on the front of the newspaper. It’s a pleasure to present Matt Sussman’s take on Holman’s drawing-and video installation The Magic Window — no one could better identify the "Soft Pink Missy" beat of its heart. Elsewhere, Kimberly Chun gets systematic with Auerbach, Ari Messer scopes out the camera candor of Kantor’s paintings, and I map the photographic investigations of Trevor Paglen. Let’s take a look.

Mask maker, mask maker

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The 21st installment of the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art’s biennial award exhibition is upon us! Check out this round’s honored artists, featured in the stories below.

The SECA art awards: Bay Area artistic energy times four
By Johnny Ray Huston

She’s a magic woman: Try to understand – the play is the thing in Desiree Holman’s masked wonderlands
By Matt Sussman

A search for patterns in the light – and dark: Trevor Paglen, Tauba Auerbach, and Jordan Kanter
By Johnny Ray Huston, Kimberly Chun, and Ari Messer

SEX SF Feb 27

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Hard Knox Cafe

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› paulr@sfbg.com

The password for 2009 so far seems to be "hard," as in hard times, hard luck, hard cheese. To this list we might also add Hard Knox Café, whose time has come, though it’s never really gone. By this I mean that when you can go into a place and pay $10 for three pieces of good fried chicken and two substantial side dishes, along with a complimentary cornbread muffin, chances are you’ll be back, regardless of Wall Street weather. And who needs dessert when Stella Artois on tap is just $3.50?

The ironist (a.k.a. yours truly) finds plenty to like at Hard Knox Café beyond the fried chicken and the Stella. There’s the fact that such a value-driven spot should have opened a decade ago, at the golden crest of the Clinton boom, and gone on thriving across 10 topsy-turvy (mostly turvy) years, only to find itself perfectly positioned — and named — for what we can hope will be a new era of value. (A second, and larger, venue opened last summer on outer Clement Street.) There’s also the fact that a restaurant serving American comfort-Southern-soul food should be operated by a Vietnamese family, the Huas.

But maybe that isn’t ironic at all. Maybe it’s just American. And even for confirmed ironists, non-irony has its attractions. Hard Knox’s interior design, of a roadhouse, is quietly witty, with wall panels of corrugated steel (shades of the original Straits Café!), floors of distressed wood, and booths upholstered in red vinyl. The crowd, like the neighborhood, is mixed: young and old, working class and tech-geek, people at a round table deep in conversation over piles of chicken bones while others wait just inside the front door for takeout.

It’s not hard to see why the food has such broad appeal. If you could only have one meal a day, you’d want something from Hard Knox. No, it isn’t fancy; the only foam you’ll find here is the head on your Stella. But it does have that mom-is-cooking authenticity. Everything tastes good. And the portions are big. You will not leave hungry.

We did have a slight salting issue with the beef short ribs (at $13 one of the pricier items on the menu). The meat, on its bracelets of bone, was fabulously tender but timid, like a pale partygoer clutching a plastic cup in a lonely corner, waiting to be teased out. Sprinkling salt on awkward party guests isn’t necessarily a winning strategy, but it does have a way of bringing beef to life — beef, which, even more than television, asks so little and gives so much.

The crusty fried chicken suffered from no such underseasoning: the coating was adequately seasoned, and the meat was tender, juicy, and flavorful. But we aren’t talking about Cajun or otherwise spicy fried chicken; the batter was crisp more than tasty, and while this had the virtue of letting the chicken taste like chicken — and I like the taste of chicken — it also didn’t set off any spice fireworks. Of course, none were promised.

At least as appealing as the big plates of protein are the side dishes. In fact you could make a meal of these, a kind of Southern-comfort tapas dinner. You get your pick of two with each main dish, but you can get them à la carte for $3 each, which isn’t bad at all.

The lack of glamour in the sides is almost glamorous. We were particularly taken with the stewed cabbage, the mere name of which stirred unholy memories from childhood, when "stewed" could only mean "boiled to death." And stinky! Like the reek of old shoes. But this cabbage — green, cut into thick shreds — had been gently handled; it was a little more tender than stir-fried versions, and very subtly scented with, perhaps, some bacon, fatback, or salt pork. Cabbage once filled me with fear and loathing, but I could eat Hard Knox’s version … well, maybe not every day, but often.

Mac and cheese was tasty if slightly gummy. Collard greens are underappreciated outside the South; they are among the tastier greens on their own, and when zipped up, as here, with garlic and a touch of vinegar, they can become almost addictive. Comparably underappreciated (and perhaps almost unknown) beyond the South are black-eyed peas, with their distinctive two-tone look and near-gritty texture; Hard Knox serves them with short-grain white rice, and if you feel inclined to add a jolt of hot sauce to this mildness — not a bad idea — a bottle of Crystal is sure to be near at hand.

Although Third Street has changed considerably in the last decade, with Muni Metro’s T-line now running down the median to relieve some of the tedium, the corridor is still industrial and can still have a sinister video-game sameness, especially at night. But finding Hard Knox Café is — dare I say? — easy. Look for the clumps of people milling around at the roadside. *

HARD KNOX CAFÉ

Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m–9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

2526 Third St., SF

(415) 648-3770

also 2448 Clement, (415) 752-3770

www.hardknoxcafe.com

Beer and wine

MC/V

Noisy

Wheelchair accessible