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Visual Art

“Drama and Desire: Japanese Painting from the Floating World 1690-1850”


REVIEW Drawn almost entirely drawn from the near-mint-condition holdings of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, "Drama and Desire: Japanese Painting from the Floating World 1690–1850" is an exhilarating survey of early modern Japan and the sumptuous — and often costly — pleasures that were available to the upper echelon of its newly solidified class system.

One can follow the contextual trail laid down by the show and take in the long view of history inscribed with brush and natural pigments: the relocation of Japan’s capital to Edo (now Tokyo); the establishment of Yoshiwara, the city’s licensed pleasure quarters; the development of Kabuki and sumo; and most important, the rise of an urban, largely male merchant class who kept this floating world afloat. It is a panorama laid out in the pair of large folding screens of Hishikawa Moronobu (1681–84), both studies in hierarchical contrast between the more lowly teahouses and higher-class brothels and their characters: a starring courtesan, enfolded in thickly brocaded kimonos as battle-ready as any armored samurai, surrounded by her retinue of clients, servants, and geisha, and male customers shamefully covering their faces with their fans so they’re not recognized by rivals. The real drama of these ukiyo-e is in their details, such as in the way Katsushika Hokusai dapples the collar of young woman’s inner kimono with mica to evoke a luminescent cherry-blossom pattern in Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (1805). Seen from behind, her face framed by a small oval mirror, this gazing beauty is only partially regarding herself. She also seems to be taking stock of the viewer while taking pleasure in being looked at. But surely the pleasure is all ours. (Matt Sussman)

DRAMA AND DESIRE: JAPANESE PAINTINGS FROM THE FLOATING WORLD 1690–1850 Through May 4. Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Thurs. until 9 p.m.). $10 ($5 Thurs. after 5 p.m.), $7 students, $6 for 12 to 17, free for 11 and under. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, SF. (415) 581-3500

“From San Francisco to Silicon Valley”


REVIEW The camera loves San Francisco. Weather, light, hills, and landmarks all make it primary fodder for photographers, too many of whom hew to the postcard views. Known for his architectural documentation of the industrial outer rings of Europe’s cities, Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico came to the Bay Area to capture its transitional developments: Silicon Valley and the San Francisco of strange buildings and telephone wires. No Victorians or trolley cars here, which means that many viewers may recognize the city as they know it: construction, do-not-enter road signs, and a distant skyline; sunbathers in Dolores Park rather than the Golden Gate’s majesty; Verizon Wireless billboards; and the 76 gas station globe. A conventional picture of the Marin Headlands drifting in fog is interrupted by the foregrounding of high-rise apartments. A stunning landscape photo taken from Twin Peaks revels in the incongruities of our still-beautiful city, with grassy California hills overlaying the low-slung Sunset and Castro, and Market Street forming a V with a long afternoon shadow.

"From San Francisco to Silicon Valley" also includes a plethora of freeway shots, which makes sense, given the show’s title. Basilico shoots both the silent underpasses and the blurred velocity of downtown-bound cars. As we transition to the valley, the highways provide the visual link. Instead of giving way to a rising crowd of buildings, the roads beget alien corporate campuses and manicured exurbia. Basilico the architect gleefully frames the garish structures and sprawling sameness that define much of the Silicon Valley landscape, though his best portraits include counterpoint evocations of California nature. On the same floor of the museum, in "Picturing Modernity," Carleton E. Watkins’s photograph The Golden Gate from Telegraph Hill (circa 1868) presents San Francisco as a hungry upstart. More than 100 years later, Basilico’s shot of roughshod development in the hills outside San Jose tells a similar story.

FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO SILICON VALLEY Through June 15. Mon.–Tues. and Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m.; $7–$12.50 (free first Tues.). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF. (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

Madonna, Wilde, and bears — oh my!


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REVIEW The International Bear Rendezvous has come and gone, but a few stragglers searching for a good time can still be found in "Bear Hunting," James Gobel’s series of lush and faintly melancholy portraits. Attired in flannels, suspenders, and trendy band T-shirts, Gobel’s burly and bearded imagined subjects might appear uncannily familiar to regulars of the Eagle or the Lone Star, or to certain segments of BUTT magazine’s readership.

But while their clothing scans along contemporary gay subcultural lines — which these days seems to overlap with the dress sense of male hipsters — Gobel poses them in the mannered body language of the 19th-century aesthete. Eyes slyly cocked, paused by some combination of antique architectural details — a velvet curtain, a divan, a newel post, flocked wallpaper — each bear holds aloft a flickering candle, as if he’s studied Cindy Sherman’s anonymous, imperiled heroines alongside Oscar Wilde’s famously photographed languid contrapposto.

Not that the supersaturated royal purples, peacock blues, and John Deere greens or the acrylic, yarn, and wool felt textures of Gobel’s marquetry need more illumination. His canvases almost pop off the wall. But the bears appear to remain oblivious to their rainbow-colored surroundings. Like Ingrid Bergman in Gas Light (1944) or Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940), they seem trapped in a haunted house in which something isn’t quite right and the past lingers on like a killer hangover. In Holding Tenderly to What Remains, the subject reveals a "Madonna Live at Coachella" T-shirt beneath his Pendleton. The title, in combination with the shirt, immediately underscores the nostalgia industry driven by and marketed to the pink dollar, in which subcultures — yes, even bears — become marketing demographics.

The question that Gobel’s portraits stop short of answering is, what happens when the flame goes out? *


Through March 29

Tues.–Fri., 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m., free

Marx Zavattero Gallery

77 Geary, SF

(415) 627-9111


Lee Friedlander’s lively American necrologies


REVIEW Throughout Lee Friedlander’s 50-year oeuvre, much of which is now on display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the photographer has been lauded for his liveliness, optimism, and mobility. Yet his paean to modern Americana often resembles monochrome memento mori. Taken as a whole, Friedlander’s work has always seemed driven to two poles: the ephemeral and the haunting.

Heavily impressed by the avant-naturalism of European photographers Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as the post–World War II experimentalism of Robert Frank, Friedlander staked his claim at a moment in the 1950s when the photograph transcended the moribund category of journalistic tool and became its own art form. Modeling much of his working method around Cartier-Bresson’s so-called decisive moment, Friedlander’s timeless images still have a striking past tense about them. Now ossified on film, these thousand microcosmic moments, captured throughout the 1960s and ’70s, seem like lively obituaries.

While Friedlander first made a name for himself as a contractor for Atlantic Records — where he shot such musicians as Ornette Coleman — he was never a celebrity photographer. In fact, his most intriguing work resulted from a personal obsession with traveling and shooting the country, crisscrossing between New York and his home state of Washington. And so the images of nocturnal motel rooms, cycloptic TV sets, and storefront tessellations conjure the American dynamism and dread of Vladimir Nabokov or David Lynch. The plethora of windows and mirrors in his street photography admit countless apertures through which to see his subjects. But Friedlander’s playful sense of humor always appears just within the clutches of something inexplicably sinister — like the cartoonish shadows that often hover into his frame. Though his more recent work — in portraiture, nudes, and particularly in nature — may suffer slightly from the inevitable cooling of youth’s ambition, Friedlander’s baroque attention to detail and depth of field are unmatched. This is a definitive exhibition on one of America’s most ingenious, albeit conflicted, photographers.


Through May 18

Mon.–Tues., Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m.

$7–$12.50, free for members and 12 and under

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000


The Bewitching Mary Blair Project


REVIEW Beginning in 1940 and continuing through the ’60s, Mary Blair was a key contributor to the Disney aesthetic. As one of Walt Disney’s right hands, she was responsible for the design of both the It’s a Small World and Alice in Wonderland rides at Disneyland, as well as numerous large-scale tile murals that adorned the exteriors of Tomorrowland and still grace the lobby of the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort in Florida. Not only is her work part of the Disney canon but she also created illustrations for the classic children’s Little Golden Books. Illustrative artifacts of Blair’s life and concept art for her now-legendary amusement park architecture are all part of "The Art and Flair of Mary Blair."

The Cartoon Art Museum exhibit includes a representative sample of Blair’s illustrative range. From the announcement of the birth of her son to a cigarette advertisement, her distinct sense of color and design inevitably indicate the era in which they were produced. And in its innocent nostalgia — most clearly displayed in the stylized gouache sketches made during her South American travels — Blair’s work simultaneously projects an idealistic view of the future.

In her plan for the exterior of It’s a Small World, she combines squares, triangles, and diamonds with overlapping fields of color to shape a complex geometric composition. The patchwork quality of the surface closely resembles the fabric designs of one of Blair’s modernist contemporaries, Ray Eames, who also recognized the intricacies and the simplicity of both natural and built environments. Composed of the world’s most recognized landmarks, Blair’s condensed multi-cityscape is less representative than it is abstract: its Eiffel Tower resembles a geodesic slice.


Through March 18

Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

Cartoon Art Museum

655 Mission, SF


(415) 227-8666, www.cartoonart.org

“Low Life Slow Life: Part One”


REVIEW "Low Life Slow Life: Part One" is a self-curated portrait of the artist Paul McCarthy as a young man told with a few of his favorite things. It’s a very personal exhibit, much of it culled from the archives of a now-grown enfant terrible, and lays out a canny narrative about artistic influence that throws the viewer more than a few MacGuffins.

Before McCarthy fully developed his taboo-vioutf8g aesthetic — which found its most abject expression in his foodstuff- and prosthesis-filled performance pieces of the 1970s and ’80s — he was a Utah painting student whose first steps in using his body as a medium were guided by the action-based events of artists such as Allan Kaprow, Kazuo Shiraga, and Yves Klein. A first edition of Kaprow’s canon-making Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings (H.N. Abrams) is on display here, alongside paintings, photographs, sculptures, and printed matter by or related to several of the artists included in the 1966 volume.

Much of what McCarthy has chosen would slot neatly into the syllabus for one of the art history classes he now teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles. Which is to say that he is aware of how institutions inevitably shape an artist’s time on Earth into a career, placing it within a historical context in relation to and often as a reaction against other artists. McCarthy’s piss take on these sorts of creative genealogies starts with Dada collagist John Heartfield’s swastika-shaped Tannenbaum (1934), then jumps 30-odd years to Joseph Beuys’s 1962 sculpture made with fallen pine needles, whose brown color is shared by McCarthy’s dead Xmas tree and bric-a-brac pileup (2007). The trees’ tinder skeletons look like the survivors of a pillow fight on a paintball range. Wisely, McCarthy leaves other works out of such daisy chains of facetious art history scholarship. Mike Henderson’s giant, ghoulish oils Nonviolence and Castration (1968) stand alone as apocalyptic visions of the dark underside of American life. I wonder if they remind McCarthy of his salad days of stuffing Barbies up his ass while besmirched with ketchup. (Matt Sussman)

LOW LIFE SLOW LIFE: PART ONE Through April 12. Tues. and Thurs., 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Wed. and Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, 1111 Eighth St., SF. (415) 551-9210, www.wattis.org

Double talk


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PREVIEW I approached a meeting with Gilbert and George, the joined-at-the-hip-since-the-late-1960s so-called living sculpture, with some trepidation. How does one interact with such a well-honed identity in a way that resembles a real conversation? How do you talk to a work of art?

Thankfully, the pair are a burnished public entity with manners — and demeanors that may seem a bit canned but not exactly insincere. They wear their trademark suits: Gilbert, 65, the shorter, Italian-born half, in gray tweed, and George, 66, the slightly ruddy-skinned, bespectacled Brit, in beige. Their time-honored uniform sets them apart, though at the same time they could be ordinary insurance salesman: these suits don’t seem like designer artifacts. The only hint at a subversive side are matching ties with splotches suggestive of some body fluid or another. The artists are warm and friendly, like real people, like a pair of eccentric uncles. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that they’re not particularly quirky, theatrical, or difficult to engage. Then again, a 40-year life and art partnership can result in a comfortable public face.

They give me a tour of their in-progress de Young Museum show. Even without much lighting, a magisterial, pop art stained-glass-window effect is apparent. The pieces are huge and colorful and address urban conditions, religious hegemony, and boys, boys, boys. There’s barely a female figure to be seen in these galleries not long ago inhabited by Vivienne Westwood.

"Gilbert and George" is a reduced version of the Gilbert and George retrospective presented at the Tate Modern last year: "It was four times bigger," Gilbert states. (He seems to be the practical sort, frequently pointing to facts while George philosophizes.) Apparently, it was the largest such show the British museum has ever presented. A working model of the gallery is a key part of their process in plotting out their exhibition, and there’s one on a table with tiny, hand-drawn versions of the expansive pieces on the wall. "We do all of this ourselves," Gilbert announces, referring to the layout, although more than once he makes that claim in terms of the production of their work. The tinted photo-collage work used to be done by traditional photographic and hands-on graphic arts techniques, though they shifted to working on the computer in 2001. "But you can’t tell the difference," he boasts.

Among the first things they tell me is that a piece from 2005 titled Was Jesus Heterosexual? was edited out of the show’s United States tour by the Brooklyn Museum for its religious content — not a shock given that was the site of the 1999 "Sensation" controversy that involved another generation of English artists and Christian icons. "All the American journalists in London say, ‘How uptight you British are,’ when it’s really the other way around," George says wryly. I get the impression they enjoy the ruckus, as their work regularly generates lively debate: for example, their big pictures of turds, including a panoramic one on view here.

It comes as no surprise, then, that they’re tickled by double entendres and randy references. Pointing to a typically large-scale work with the term spunk in the lower right corner, George expresses concern that it may not make sense here: "Do Americans even know that word? What is it here, jism?" I wonder if this is a playful, flattering ploy, as he speaks as if these were obscure terms, like I’m in on the secret. In a similar spirit, he asks me to identify a fuzzy gray image, instantly recognizable as a crab. "And not the kind you get at Fisherman’s Wharf," Gilbert giddily interjects. As they make repeated references to a kind of authenticity — "We photograph everything ourselves," they say — I ask where they got the subject. "Same place you would," George lobs back quickly.

That comment is more than a characteristic bon mot. Though Gilbert and George are not exactly ordinary characters, their subjects are as elemental as piss, shit, and blood — not to mention bottles of booze — which inform some of the earlier works seen here. These elements’ associations are hardly rarefied topics. As we’ve worked our way backward, we end up at a wall of small black-and-white photos of the pair posing together beneath trees in 1971. "We were so young and innocent," George confesses, revealing that beneath the bolder proclamations of their work, there’s even some love.


Through May 18

Tues.–Thurs. and Sat.–Sun., 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.; Fri., 9:30 a.m.–8:45 p.m.; $6–$10 (free first Tues.)

De Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive

Golden Gate Park, SF

(415) 750-3614


Bent empire


REVIEW Holy glowing gonads! That’s what popped into my head — as my eyes popped out — when I entered the second room of the de Young Museum’s gorgeous "Gilbert and George" exhibition, which encompasses 30 years and 65 pieces of the British duo’s video, graphic, and two-dimensional sculpture work. There, two neon-explosive series of four humongous photomontages — Death Hope Life Fear (1984) and Shitty Naked Human World (1994) — are hung directly opposite each other, tugging the viewer into a phosphorescent hallway of actual shit and roses.

The first quadripartite series is peppered with the pair’s customary images of ethnically diverse underage hustlers, English roses, and collaged ziggurats of the artists themselves, magically combined to suggest all that was evil and delicious about the Thatcherite ’80s. The second, famously, floats giant turds against a backdrop of luminescent color and naked shots of the artists’ ass cracks and shriveled penises. Both sets are gloriously naughty, and when I caught a glimpse of prim society matron Dee Dee Wilsey standing perplexed beneath World‘s giant ball of flying crap, I almost lost it.

The rest of the exhibit goes on like this: feces fly, sperm spurts, blood boils, men and boys bare all, and enough sacred cows are roasted to fill a few Sizzler menus. And always, the deadpan artists peek through the mayhem like two chipped teacups adrift on a postcolonial ocean of desire. Even though Gilbert was born in Italy, the inseparable pair, with their matching worsted suits, impeccable manners, and sexually coy public personae, are so very British. Surely they’re commenting, from their tidy little studio in Spitalfields, East London, on the wreck and temptations of empire?

The show’s first room, dedicated to the artists’ early graphic work, contains some excellent aesthetic tingles but mostly concerns itself visually with a rote investigation of the possibilities of red, white, and black. You can sense Gilbert and George limiting their palette to a trio of fussy tones perhaps to excuse their content, fairly outré for the ’70s fine art world: spray-painted penis graffiti (1978’s The Penis), sticky puns on orientalism (1974’s Cherry Blossom No. 1), and other furtive steps into the realm of rebellious hyperinfantilism they would soon make their own.

It was during this nascent period that Gilbert and George developed their singular style: mixing multiple photographs of themselves with those of their immediate environs to make a single image, then blowing it up enormously and subdividing it into a grid of framed panels hung flush with one another, like a stained-glass window of perfect squares. As their artistic journey progressed and as the show winds through the basement galleries, their pictures burst with clashing tints and increasingly weirder experiments with displaced symmetry.

Various themes — ’80s youth-culture fetishism (for hipsters infatuated with fluorescent leg warmers, this is the show of the century), the tormented and fashionable spiritual journeys of the ’90s, a pungent streak of antipapism, and more than a few dips into pedophilia — are given the scatological Manic Panic rainbow treatment. Then the 2006 Terror pictures arrive, made in response to the London bus bombings, and the palette recollapses into a stunned black, red, and white, the English roses become torturous thorns, and pilfered headlines like "Police Quiz Bomb Suspect’s Father" are scrawled across each panel. So maybe there are limits?

“Lautrec in Leather: Chuck Arnett and the San Francisco Scene”


REVIEW The clean-cut man in the portrait looks straight ahead with knowing eyes, his leather jacket open — an invitation, perhaps? — revealing a muscular torso and chest, on which is tattooed a purple butterfly. The painting’s mix of leather and a little lace sums up much of the art and life of Chuck Arnett, a habitué and documenter of the leather bar scene during gay liberation’s golden age in the 1960s through the late ’70s.

The majority of Arnett’s work was inspired by and made for the bars and back rooms he frequented. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are unapologetically front and center, a potent mix reflected in styles that veer wildly from rough sketches of men fucking in bathhouses to carefully executed psychedelic oils. The surviving fragments and photos of Arnett’s large-scale painted murals for the original Stud, the Tool Box, and the Detour — and related ephemera like patchwork wall hangings of tanned scraps instructing "Eat It!" — not only tell the story of Arnett’s transformation from Southern ballet sissy to acid-dropping public-sex advocate but also illustrate the radical changes the gay community underwent between The Wild One (1953), Stonewall, and Harvey Milk’s murder.

Arnett’s national coming-out as a painter arrived when Life included a photograph of his Tool Box mural in its landmark 1964 spread "Homosexuality in America": the bar’s leather-clad denizens mirrored Arnett’s black-and-white swathe of butch fauna. Five years later Arnett would quote himself in a massive Day-Glo mural for the Stud — sadly, reproduced in photo only: a panorama in which Marlon Brando clones warp into a cosmic chessboard dominated by an American Indian and a Sahasrara chakra. In a corner of the piece one surviving component is an appropriately phallic biker, whose badge says what could have served as Arnett’s maxim: "Freak Freely."

LAUTREC IN LEATHER: CHUCK ARNETT AND THE SAN FRANCISCO SCENE Through April 26. Tues.–Sat., 1–5 p.m. GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission, no. 300, SF. (415) 777-5455, www.glbthistory.org

“Enter the Center”


REVIEW Full disclosure would take up the full piece, so I’ll just say that in spite of knowing both David Wilson and Frank Lyon well as friends, I’m hardly alone in counting them as two of the Bay Area’s most celebratory and engaging young creators. They’ve largely steered their efforts away from the typical venues that comprise San Francisco’s music-art coordinates thus far, especially in their periodic outdoor music gatherings. A eucalyptus grove in Berkeley, old military tunnels overlooking the Pacific, a comfy crater — all have been transformed into communicative commons under the purview of Ribbons Productions, Wilson and Lyon’s encapsuutf8g entity for performances, small-press books, a blog par excellence, and now their premier SF exhibition, "Enter the Center."

The show — comfortably and spaciously laid out in the Eleanor Harwood Gallery — is a new turn for Ribbons in its expansion beyond direct collaborations, although both artists’ solo contributions echo Ribbons’ overarching ethos involving landscape, temporality, and process. Wilson’s billowy pencil drawings of Contra Costa hills and decorative collections of seeds, fruits, and other fibrous materials possess a persistent attentiveness and loose-limbed appreciation: his gigantic HEAL landscape unfolds over several record-sleeve panels, gently nudging viewers toward an equation of space and time. Lyon’s entrancing collages pose as hats, capes, and tree stumps. Beyond these preoccupying surfaces, the pieces function as windows onto emotional reckoning and magnificent obsession. The exhibit also showcases a new book, which arrives with a DVD including a generous helping of Ship songs — Wilson and Lyon’s music duo, one of the Guardian‘s picks for its class of 2007 — performed in treetops. Finally, it wouldn’t be Ribbons without communion: the second of two special concerts is scheduled at the gallery for Feb. 9 and highlights recent Guardian cover model Arp, a new Brendan Fowler (BARR) project, and Pocahaunted.

ENTER THE CENTER Through Sat/9. Thurs.–Sat., 1–5 p.m. Eleanor Harwood Gallery, 1295 Alabama, SF. (415) 867-7770, www.eleanorharwood.com

“Pablo Guardiola”


REVIEW Although, on entering Little Tree Gallery, it seems that Pablo Guardiola’s show consists of only seven photographs, that small collection forms the crux of a multidimensional presentation. The images have slight subjects and document the finite and the ephemeral. In Much More Than a Brand of Crackers, a Beer, a Malt Beverage and a Legendary Taino Leader (2007), a bottle cap is captured after being flung onto an asphalt surface. It isn’t until later, when one has progressed through the slightly wavering line of neighboring photos, that the bottle cap from that photograph reappears, wedged against a power outlet in the corner of the gallery. The cap from a Malta Hatuey, as referenced in the title, bears multiple meanings, alluding not only to one of the first indigenous national heroes of Cuba but also to the yeasty, fizzy drink from that country. Similarly, in Untitled (2007), Guardiola makes the two-dimensional 3-D: the postcard used to announce the exhibit is presented tacked to a coordinating blue lath surface.

These types of dualities continue throughout the show, both in the process of the artist’s production — captured in his photographs — and in his seemingly chance yet obviously staged and sculptural documentations. In one image, a sign reading Estetica refers in Spanish to beauticians while also making an indirect allusion to the theory of aesthetics. Another photo shows what appears to be a simple grease stain on a paper bag. With closer inspection, it resembles the silhouette of a world map.

The simplicity of form and composition — and the equally plain presentation — proves deceptive yet captivating. As hinted at by the title of the single sculptural piece in the exhibit displayed without a related photograph, Some Ideas Should Be Kept Warm (2007), Guardiola’s work reveals an immediate, minimal beauty even as the subtle complexity of each photograph leads to further rumination.

PABLO GUARDIOLA Through Feb. 16. Wed.–Sat., noon–6 p.m.; and by appointment. Little Tree Gallery, 3412 22nd St., SF. (415) 643-4929, www.littletreegallery.com

Home is where the art is


Margaret Tedesco is often on the move. She’s created flip books, directed plays, narrated films — before neo-benshi events became popular locally — and put together art shows at roving venues in Southern California and San Francisco. Especially because of her curatorial experience connecting and moving between different art forms at sites such as New Langton Arts, it’s great to see Tedesco bringing the movement home, in more than one sense, at [2nd floor projects], a vital new artist-run space inside her Mission apartment.

SFBG What motivated you to start [2nd floor projects], and what do you like about it now?

MARGARET TEDESCO I’ve always enjoyed the surprise element. It’s been interesting to see my living space transform. You see the work and have an idea of how it might be, but its different when it arrives — when you step into the room. I have an ongoing relationship with this place. I’ve lived here for 12 years.

I get to act on my own volition now — I don’t need to check in with anybody. I’m not interested in art-world prerequisites. I’m a self-taught artist, and it feels very natural for me to create a space like this for people.

SFBG How have you selected the artists you have shown to date?

MT Some have been a part of group shows but never really had a [solo] presence. I’m not looking to be a dealer or looking for trends or to rep people. I want to put work out there and see what other people think. With George and Mike [Kuchar], for example, a number of people who’ve gone to the show knew they made paintings or drawings, but others were completely surprised. Some didn’t even know George has a brother!

The Kuchars are dear to my heart because film is a big part of my work. I’ve known of them for many years — I can’t even name the years — and have had the treat of seeing George every Friday while working at the San Francisco Art Institute. When I invited George, he’d just been asked by Bruce Hainley to do a show at Casey Kaplan in New York. I asked him whom he’d like to show with, and he told me his brother was moving back to town.

Kuchar coup


› johnny@sfbg.com

The drawings and paintings of George and Mike Kuchar are brightly colored, bosomy, and bulbous bouquets of bodacious flesh. Those bountiful breasts belong to women in George’s 1962 painting Voodoo Ceremony and in his 1977 Missionary Attack, in which a topless lady sporting an octopus skirt threatens to spear another wearing tiger skin pants and leather boots. But in Mike’s art the big bazookas belong to men. Margaret Tedesco, whose [2nd floor projects] space is presenting work by the Kuchar brothers, says one local filmmaker who recently visited her gallery compared the nipples of the men in Mike’s drawings to pacifiers.

The counterlogic of that observation is perfect, even if the nipples of a man in Mike’s Gay Heart Throbs, No. 3 also look like flying saucers. In that acrylic painting a guy in black leather holds a gift of flowers behind his perky buttocks as he talks to a young blond buck busting out of his tied-up shirt and cutoff shorts like a male Dolly Parton — or like a country version of George and Mike’s fellow underground filmmaker Peter Berlin.

Early on in the poignant and pungent memoir Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool (Zanja Press, 1997), George writes that his and Mike’s interest in art began when their mother gave them paper and pencils and told them to have fun. Though their materials have since switched to film, video, watercolor, marker, and acrylic, the fun remains: without even trying, Tedesco’s show is a rebuff to the unfortunate abundance of contemporary art spaces, big and small, that have lost a sense of pleasure. Both George’s commercial art schooling — which included a spell spent drawing the weather on television, detailed wonderfully in Reflections — and Mike’s commissioned work for gay publications like Manscape and First Hand possess great humor, as well as perspectives so distinct that they might reach out and playfully nipple-tweak one’s assumptions about female and male beauty.

"I don’t care too much for macho," Mike tells the poet and novelist Eileen Myles in a short essay Myles wrote for the [2nd floor projects] show. "I like cuddly; sweetness." That warmth radiates from pen-and-ink pieces such as the idyllic Beefcake BC, in which, as Myles notes, a man rides a brontosaurus as if it were a surfboard. In the G-rated Triassic Terror a tyrannosaur and a pterodactyl wreak havoc, but there are emotional undercurrents in Jungle Jeopardy, in which one Tarzan rescues another who is Christlike in his pain.

Taking a different comic book tack, George renders mythic creatures such as Bigfoot (who has pendulous pecs, of course) and the Jersey Devil. Like his twin brother, though, he’s not afraid to try a little tenderness. From 1976, Jon is subtly in thrall to the hills and valleys of its subject’s nude backside. The acrylic-on-canvas Bocko (1970) complements and perhaps predates Joe Brainard’s wonderful oil portraits of his boyfriend Kenward Elmslie’s whippet Whippoorwill — even if George’s beloved Bocko weren’t an Alsatian, he would still make an ideal cover star for J.R. Ackerley’s classic 1956 book My Dog Tulip (Random House). Add these once-hidden treasures to Bruce Conner’s assemblages and ink works and to the lively circles of Manny Farber’s paintings, and you have the seeds for a lively survey dedicated to art by Bay Area filmmakers and critics.


Through Feb. 24

For details go to projects2ndfloor.blogspot.com

Video Mutants: Guiding light


>Click here to view some Kalup Linzy vids

A phone interview is a routine aspect of writing an article, but there’s a uniquely rich comedic irony to conducting a phone interview with Kalup Linzy. Since 2001, Linzy has been making soap operatic short videos in which a host of characters, most played by himself, converse by phone. In Conversations Wit De Children IV: Play Wit De Churen (2005), for example, one of Linzy’s personae, or churen, budding art star Katonya, is fired via phone by her boss — then dumped via phone by her boyfriend when he finds out she lost her job.

"I grew up watching soap operas," Linzy says when asked about the soapy underpinnings of pieces such as Da Young and Da Mess (2005), As Da Art World Might Turn (2006), and the installments of his All My Churen series. "I was raised by my grandmother, but it goes back to my great-grandmother — she used to listen to Guiding Light on the radio. When it switched over to TV she was going deaf, but somehow she would sit and watch soap operas all day long. We couldn’t turn the channel, and if we were playing and went to one of our aunt’s houses down the street, the same soap opera would be on. [The soaps] sort of inspired me to act and write. They struck that chord in me."

Whether set in the South or the Manhattan art world, Linzy’s videos dig deep, past the generic surfaces found in Springfield, Pine Valley, Genoa City, or any other fictional TV town. Cumulatively, his recurrent video presentations of phone conversations satirize social power plays — and unexpectedly create and illustrate familial and romantic bonds. Like the filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, though in a less languid manner, Linzy is capable of lacing his affection for the soaps’ dramatic pleasures with sharp referential observation: Da Young and Da Mess features a shot of Linzy’s woebegone character Taiwan that updates Édouard Manet’s Olympia, for example.

Linzy has stolen the show at a number of New York group exhibitions, and he’s represented by a gallery in Manhattan, Taxter and Spengemann. But his work and creative identity extend beyond traditional art spaces via YouTube, an official Web site, and two different MySpace accounts. Collectively, they present video excerpts, performance clips, and songs. One highlight on Linzy’s Web site is a clip of him (as Taiwan) at New York’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center performing the gospel-inflected dirge "Asshole," accompanied only by keyboard. "Asshole, asshole, asshole, why’d you do this to me?" Taiwan bellows in the chorus, his blunt question arriving with gut-busting comic impact after a melancholy and poetic intro. As the song goes on, Taiwan shifts the focus to his body, wondering, "Why did my asshole fuck it up for my soul?"

Returning to the subject of rich ironies — or in this case paradoxes — none other than Modern Painting magazine published perhaps the most incisive recent piece about new waves of video art activity. Author Michael Wang uses work by Linzy and this week’s Super Ego star Ryan Trecartin to assert that queerness is perhaps the preeminent form of postmodernism; his opening salvo suggests that the old dialectical relationship between experimental video and commercial television has effectively exploded in the Internet era. Considering this, it’s hard not to note similarities or connections between the outrageously popular — or perhaps antipopular — gay YouTube phenom Chris Crocker (see Trash, page 24) and figures such as Jonathan Caouette, Trecartin, and Linzy. Crocker’s housebound, familial acting out forms dozens of tiny sequels to Caouette’s performative diary feature Tarnation (2004). When Crocker asks "What’s your tea?" he might as well be wishing he were on a party line with a character from one of Linzy’s videos.

More evocatively, the helium-high and macho-low voices of the characters in Linzy’s videos are similar, though not of a piece, with the manic munchkin voices of the Day-Glo "streaming creatures" (to use the Jack Smith–inspired title of Wang’s article) who cavort through videos by Trecartin; and like Trecartin’s art, though again in a more casual manner, Linzy’s has strong connections to club culture. In fact, Linzy’s currently working on a project that, framed by original and dance versions of "Asshole," translates Taiwan’s misadventures, as well as a scathingly funny cameo by Labisha, another Linzy alter ego, into songs.

"Basically, [the album] tells the story of someone sad at home who goes out to the bar and ends up getting laid by trade and wakes up the next day with a hangover," Linzy explains with a laugh. He drops hints about a couch-potato parody of Otis Redding’s "(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay," adding that whenever he tells people he’s making a video anthology for the album, they mistakenly "ask if it’s going to be like R. Kelly."

Based on tracks such as "Melody Set Me Free," with its drag-ball life-as-an-awards-show lyric, and "SweetBerry Shuffle," with its baton passes between feisty female Labisha and depressive gay boy Taiwan, Linzy’s debut album might be an American cousin of the amazing, unjustly obscure Dislocated Genius (Get Physical, 2006) by Chelonis R. Jones. There and on singles such as the fierce "Black Sabrina" (sample lyric: "Black Sabrina never pushes or shoves / She’s a foot up your ass / She then questions why you walk so funny / And utters ‘Punk bitch’ under her rum-tinted breath"), Jones embraces and expresses a multitude of voices, transcending prejudicial diagnoses of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. (You could also draw a line from a cover version of Klymaxx’s "Cherries in the Snow" by veteran artist Vaginal Davis — like Jones, an American expat living in Germany — to "Asshole." Or, in return, from Linzy’s videos to "Gossips," a scandalously hilarious YouTube excerpt from Davis’s most recent show, Cheap Blacky.)

Betty Davis, Dorothy Moore, and Dionne Warwick are just three of the ladies of song who’ve provided Linzy with inspiration recently. Though some of his recent video projects — especially the offhandedly brilliant black-and-white linguistic mystery The Pursuit of Gay (Happiness) — have lampooned old Hollywood, lately he’s been looking at ’80s music videos when he isn’t visualizing his music. "Back then the medium was new to [bands and video makers]," he says. "They were excited and it came across, even though some of the videos are cheesy." Today Linzy represents a new wave of audio and video excitement — hold the cheese. (Johnny Ray Huston)





>>Back to Video Mutants: The Guardian video art issue

Video Mutants: The man with the video camera


› johnny@sfbg.com

The unmistakable riff from AC/DC’s "Back in Black" blares from the dark room in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that houses Douglas Gordon’s exhibition Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from About 1992 until Now. It’s coming from Gordon’s cell phone, in the pocket of his trench coat, which he’s wearing over a leather jacket.

Gordon is a man of many layers, though as its title plainly states, Pretty Much collects his visions to date, a number of them appropriated, into a single room. There one can spend a minute or a day pondering light and dark manifestations of selfhood, taking the long view, in which the TVs buzz like sinister leftovers at an abandoned appliance store (or lights in the eye sockets of a huge skull), or opting for an extreme close-up on a piece such as 1999’s through a looking glass, in which Travis Bickle’s famous dialogue with his mirror image in Taxi Driver is endlessly fractured and reunited.

After we’ve stepped outside the exhibition, Gordon chooses to focus on the relationship between 1998’s Blue (which brings new meaning to the phrase finger-fucking) and the stretch of his famous 24 Hour Psycho in which Norman Bates notices a fly on his hand. He’d just noticed it while leaving Pretty Much‘s "moving encyclopedia" of his works and decides it’s time to "fabricate a relationship" between the two images. I show my recently scarred left hand to Gordon to trigger some image association, since disembodied hands star in a number of his video works, as well as in Feature Film, his 1999 portrait of James Conlon conducting Bernard Hermann’s score for Vertigo. Ordering Red Hook at noon, he shares a story about a bone-splintering skateboard wipeout.

Other visual triggers shed a few more sparks. I pull out an old hardcover copy of Otto Preminger’s autobiography Preminger (Doubleday, 1977) because Gordon’s 1999 piece Left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right is built from Whirlpool, Preminger’s 1949 echo of 1944’s classic Laura. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so), the book and its superb Saul Bass cover design trigger Gordon to talk, in a roundabout way, about directors other than Preminger.

"When I got off the plane, I got a message that Gus Van Sant has been trying to reach me," he says. "I met [Van Sant] once before. He’d just released [his 1998 remake of] Psycho and I had just finished editing Left is right, so I’d been stuck in a strobe environment for two weeks. The last day I’d finished editing it, I took my girlfriend to see Psycho. Because I’d just been bombarded by thousands of strobed images, I couldn’t handle it. I fainted at least three times. When I met him, he asked what I thought, and I said, ‘I really enjoyed it.’ I was lying through my teeth! So I have a confession to make to him."

I pull out one last visual trigger, an old snapshot a friend took of My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda J. Butcher. "That’s the same guitar as mine — I just bought a Fender Mustang!" Gordon enthuses, noting that the group is re-forming. My Bloody Valentine’s re-formation arrives a few years after the group’s Kevin Shields worked as the noise consultant for Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s masterful portrait of the soccer legend. Zidane‘s upcoming one-week run at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will allow people to see just how crucial Shields’s contribution — which makes crowd noise into something truly hallucinatory — is to a masterpiece of modern cinema.

"Our generation experienced film in bed, mediated through TV," Gordon says. "That’s a huge difference from deconstructing it mechanically in a film academy or art school. For us the deconstruction was social.

"The first time I came to San Francisco, in 1994 or 1995, I was searching for stag movies that had been transferred onto tape," Gordon continues. "Now it’s all online. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about it, but there was something special about making a physical pilgrimage to get [images]. The dissemination of ideas today is not necessarily media based. For my generation and for younger people it’s a tsunami — you cannot beat it back."


Through Feb, 24, 2008, $7–$12.50

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000



Feb. 1–7, $8–$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

(415) 978-2787


J-pop sucker punch


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Visceral reactions are the last thing one might expect from the perversely brilliant "© Murakami," Takashi Murakami’s well-publicized survey exhibition at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. The telling copyright symbol that precedes the artist’s name in the exhibition title fits the cool, post-Warholian corporate-style control he exerts over his art and his identity. The Japanese but globally recognized artist is the kingpin of tweaked J-pop, a genre associated with plastic Hello Kitty cute, and he’s the CEO of his own brand and studio-factory, Kaikai Kiki Co., from which he produces his paintings, sculptures, products, and films, as well as promotes other Japanese artists who work in the manga-inspired vein he has dubbed Super Flat.

Yet despite the surface gloss in the sprawling exhibition of nearly 100 works — and throngs of viewers — I repeatedly experienced powerful gut reactions to a spectacle that is less interesting for any specific painting, sculpture, or animation than for functioning in totality as a well-burnished plastic mirror of a world driven by glittering global capitalism. The overall picture, not to mention the feeling that accompanies it, is surprisingly haunting.

I first felt the kick in a room wallpapered with Murakami’s densely patterned 2003 Flower (Superflat) and fitted with equally floral paintings and a plastic spherical sculpture. The deceptively cheerful motif is smiley face rams flower power, their collision erupting in fields of multicolored daisies with superwide grins. The room’s bright shades and perky promises are totally alluring — for about 30 seconds. Then it’s apparent these are more carnivorous plants than Todd Oldham–designed FTD bouquets. The sheer force of all of that glee hits you with the psychic equivalent of an ate-all-your-Halloween-candy stomachache. It’s potently repellent in a way that signals effective, not necessarily likable art making. As with the überfriendly, consumerist sculptures of Jeff Koons — an artist Murakami cites as an influence — viewers experience either love or hate and often neglect to note the power of the feeling.

Murakami, though, is more familiar to and apparently adored by a broad audience that doesn’t ordinarily imbibe contemporary art, his popularity perhaps due to the mass production of many of his objects and images, which are available internationally in Louis Vuitton shops, knockoff stalls, and affordable, hip outlets such as Giant Robot. Nearly 16,000 people saw the show in its first week, a record that prompted MOCA to craft a media release touting the stars of film and fashion who attended the opening festivities: Angelica Huston, Casey Affleck, Christina Ricci, Cindy Crawford, Courtney Love, Dita Von Teese, Naomi Campbell, Ellen DeGeneres, and Portia de Rossi. There were artists in the house as well — Ed Ruscha and Robert Graham are the only ones listed in the release — but the celebrity roster does much to tip Murakami’s balance of high and low culture to sea level.

I experienced a second and more powerful gut reaction, a true frisson, inside the show’s infamous, fully operational Louis Vuitton boutique, a project leveraging Murakami’s successful multicolore collaboration with the luxury brand. Perched on a mezzanine above the cartoon mushroom sculptures and a giant metal Murakami self-portrait as a stylized Buddha, the shop is a gleaming white box with projected designs animating its exterior, an object positioned inside the show as a participatory installation. That is, you have to pay museum admission to enter the establishment. And once I did, I felt a sense of the uncanny. Bathed in the fluorescence of display case light, I found myself in an alternate universe where people happily, without a shred of irony, shelled out nearly a grand for handbags of a new Murakami LV design available exclusively at MOCA, inspiring international shoppers to make a trip to an art museum for their label fix. This brilliant gesture makes viewers complicit in the act of fervent consumption. Like it or not, we are the subject, the Duchampian readymades, in this setting, and the conceit works brilliantly.

We may view the consumer frenzy as Western, but according to reporter Dana Thomas’s luxury-brand exposé, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (Penguin, 2007), nearly 40 percent of Japanese citizens own a Vuitton product, for complex reasons: "By wearing and carrying luxury goods covered with logos, the Japanese are able to identify themselves in socioeconomic terms as well as conform to social mores. It’s as if they are branding themselves." The latter sentiment perfectly pegs the "©" before Murakami’s name in this exhibit’s title, but the former points to the superficial Nipponphilia that has stateside audiences lapping up his art’s toylike qualities without always noting his references to Japan’s cultural context: Murakami’s work has much to do with a postwar condition of defeat and a subsequent sense of infantilism due to the United States military presence. Shopping is a component of that complicated mix, as well as a global phenomenon.

Elsewhere hipsters with various incomes and more manga-fied tastes were equally implicated in shopping as they formed a queue to enter the lower-priced former bookstore heaped with more affordable but equally coveted Murakami brand items. Many of the T-shirts, toys, etc., are also displayed in spotlighted niches in a dimly lit installation in the show, a room that plays like a mausoleum for discontinued tchotchkes. It is a solemn space at odds with the toyness of most of the objects inside.

Murakami cooked up more corporeal pop for yet another space: a screening room carpeted with a characteristic motif where the packed house of adults sat like kids ready for cartoons. Three films were shown, including the animated video for Kanye West’s "Good Morning," off Graduation (Roc-A-Fella, 2007), and an odd clip from an in-production live-action feature about an impotent gangster. Most memorable, though, was the first in a series of animated adventures of the Murakami characters Kai Kai and Kiki in which the screeching childlike creatures zip through a narrative involving watermelons the size of planets and human shit that makes them grow. Everyone poops, Murakami duly notes, and everyone buys. Like it or not, he captures our basic instincts and biological imperatives with surprising truthfulness. Bring your wallet.


Through Feb. 11, $5–$8

Mon. and Fri., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

Geffen Contemporary

Museum of Contemporary Art

152 N. Central, Los Angeles


Staying power


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Looking back at the Bay Area art scene in 2007 affirms our perennial difficulty in holding on to ambitious players. It’s an oft-repeated story. Given San Francisco’s commitment to nonprofit and alternative models over commercial ones and the high cost of living, artists find it easier to start off than to build their careers here. Since the art world in general has been buoyed by brisk sales, art fairs, and biennials, the Bay Area’s condition applies as much to high-profile curators, dealers, and administrators as to artists.

Curatorial flux is particularly apparent. Madeleine Grynsztejn, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture since 2000, recently announced her new position as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. René de Guzman left his post as director of visual arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to become senior curator at the Oakland Museum of California. Daniell Cornell, currently the director of contemporary art projects and curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will become the deputy director for art and senior curator at the Palm Springs Art Museum, while the Berkeley Art Museum — which is embarking on a capital campaign for a new building — saw senior curator Constance Lewallen and director Kevin Consey leave for various reasons. This means there are a number of key positions that, when filled, will change the directions of these important venues. Or will they? Such turnovers have happened before, and frankly, institutions rarely undergo radical makeovers.

In 2007 new curators began or continued their programs. In May, Liz Thomas, the Matrix curator at BAM, began her first slate of shows with Allison Smith’s participatory, craftsperson-based Notion Nanny project, Rosalind Nashashibi’s film installation, and Tomás Saraceno’s current "suspended environment" (through Feb. 17), revealing a solid and diverse range of emerging international practices. This curator’s strategy is to build slowly rather than open with a bang.

The program moves at a faster and flashier clip at California College of the Arts’ Wattis Institute, where in fall 2007 curator Jens Hoffman began his first season of programming with a sporty graphic identity and high-concept group shows. These include "Pioneers," a nod to Bay Area mavericks from gold rush groundbreakers to conceptualists; "Passengers," a long-term, rotating round-robin show; and "Apocalypse Now" (through Jan. 26), a political "attack" he curated with international biennial-favorite artist duo Allora and Calzadilla. The pair’s works were also highlighted as the main fall exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries, which are programmed by curator Hou Hanru. Hou’s exhibits started in fall 2006, and in 2007 they included "World Factory," a two-part group show that boisterously explored conditions of global capitalism in various media while serving as a test ground for the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, which he also organized. Hoffman and Hou are key figures in an international circuit of curators that also includes SFAI dean Okwui Enwezor, and the three simultaneously work on projects here and abroad. (Full disclosure: I teach at both of the aforementioned schools.)

It’s been difficult, though, to gauge these projects’ impact on the doggedly localized Bay Area art scene — or how their curators will take to the regional climate. Such curatorial presence has provided an opportunity for a larger number of artists and other curators to pass through the region, and it’s offered platforms for provocative group shows that are rarely staged in museums around here. The bottom line, though, is that in the present model of international art, change is driven by the marketplace, and these institutional spaces exist outside the commercial gallery arena that makes certain cities more visible art hubs than others.

There was, however, movement in the local commercial realm. Catherine Clark broke from 49 Geary to open a Chelsea-style space in the shadow of SFMOMA. Ratio 3 unveiled a surprisingly large and cannily designed new space near 14th and Valencia streets, not far from Jack Hanley Gallery’s two spots on Valencia (another recently debuted in New York) and Southern Exposure’s just-opened second temporary site. Combined with other galleries nearby — Intersection for the Arts, Needles and Pens, Adobe Books, etc. — the neighborhood could be turning into a destination alternative to the exhibition spaces on the first block of Geary. The Dogpatch neighborhood shows promise of becoming another art zone with the ambitious Silverman, Ping Pong, and Ampersand galleries, which have all been staging interesting shows, though the area is still a bit under the radar.

All said, we’re at a transitional moment, and forward thinking seems in order. The year ahead offers huge potential for new faces, directions, and already scheduled programs at many of the aforementioned venues. I’m anticipating the Gilbert and George show at the de Young Museum, Lee Friedlander at SFMOMA, and a Paul McCarthy project at the Wattis, as well as the 2008 openings of the California Academy of Sciences and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. All provide plenty reason to stick around. *


The following exhibitions, events, and films enthralled me with their winning combinations of joy, originality, and serious subtext.

Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Ten Chi, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

The Book of Shadows," Fraenkel Gallery

Liz Larner’s lecture, San Francisco Art Institute

"© Murakami," Geffen Contemporary, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Mitzi Pederson’s "Unlet Me Go," Ratio 3

Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird

"A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s," Berkeley Art Museum

“Rudolf Stingel” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Unknown Forces installation, REDCAT, Los Angeles, and his film Syndromes and a Century

Canadian astronaut


› marke@sfbg.com

REVIEW Kids are bored. They’re hanging on the sidewalk outside a nightclub, splashed in sick amber light. Many of the usual suspects are here: the skinny postgoth chick in golden heels, the stereotypical Russian-looking muffin top trapped on a crappy date, the about-to-ralph dude in an untucked striped Oxford, some rasta hoppers, a hipster gal in rave flats and a trucker cap. Most are smoking and none look happy, except maybe the tranny-licious blond who’s about to skate the cover, glimpsed in the doorway flirting with the bouncers. She looks as fake as the rest of the scene.

I mean, what club is this? Yes, the breakdown of rigid nightlife subcultures has accelerated in recent years (no one can be only one thing in the Internet age) but these kids — part Marina, part Mission, part Oakland, part imaginary — would never traffic the same joint, let alone one that looks like a cheap storefront with Styrofoam gargoyles over the door, a tacky wrought-iron gate, and, oh yeah, a hilariously retro surveillance camera trained on them. Gross. Or paradise?

When I heard the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is displaying Vancouver-born photographer Jeff Wall’s gigantic In Front of a Nightclub (2006) as part of its retrospective of the artist’s three-decade career, my little ivory feet got tingly. Not just because I live in Clubland, but also because I trust Wall to get it right. Most club photographers have reeled back from Nan Goldin’s tear-jerking parties of grief in the ’80s to grease those spinning Warhol wheels again, dazzled by outsize personalities, druggy outfits, and pantomimed omnisexuality. But Wall’s a major artist with his own agenda, which looks so hard at the mundane, the normal, and the pointless that it often shoots right through into revelation. The humdrum apocalypse of a bad night out in a parallel universe fits perfectly. The picture is sensational.

This is a nice time for a Wall retrospective, mostly because his monumental intelligence — which ranges far beyond nightlife — provides a nifty alternative to both the tawdry macho "heroism" of the Matthew Barney–Damien Hirst–Jeff Koons art world establishment bonanzas and the current indie scene’s seemingly endless slide into infantilism and abnegation. No quilts made of dryer lint, deliberately embarrassing emotional outbursts, or snaps of naked skater chums for Wall. No scaling atria with Björk in tow either.

That doesn’t mean Wall lacks hipster cred: his first exhibited picture, 1978’s The Destroyed Room, provided the cover art and title for Sonic Youth’s 2007 collection of B-sides. But the Édouard Manet–like social commentary of Wall’s gorgeously staged scenes — a Cops-worthy outdoor argument in a run-down tract-home neighborhood, day laborers posed on a "cash corner" under flabbergasting winter skies, open-sore industrial operations in the pristine Canadian wilderness, an asshole mocking an Asian man while his girlfriend squints in the sun — and an eye that combines William Eggleston’s rough-and-tumble photographic haphazardness with the natty mannerism of ’70s photorealist painting seem revelatory, if a tad safe, in these times of numbed, numbing self-projection.

Trained in art history and drenched in way too much theory, the 60-year-old Wall works on a grand scale. His typical Cibachrome prints are several feet across, mounted on light boxes — an idea he ripped off from bus shelter advertising — and full of compositional winks at old masters and references to dense sociological notions. Much of this work heretically clings to the old-fangled notion of transcendence, that even the most mundane things, if examined closely enough, can send the metaphorical mind — the soul — soaring into space. Sure, he’s not above filling a grave in a Jewish cemetery with fluorescent pink sea urchins (Flooded Grave [1998–2000]), packing an entire basement ceiling with burned-out lightbulbs (After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue [2001]), or reimagining a platoon of slaughtered Russian soldiers in Afghanistan chatting as their innards spill out (Dead Troops Talk [1992]). Those are the kinds of blockbuster photoconceptualist images that made him famous and provide instant shivers to first-time viewers.

The real metaphysics come in Wall’s luminescent details, when he’s in hyperreal mode. He’s like a Martian poet, glossing the earthly everyday with a cosmic eeriness. In Insomnia (1994), possibly the most tweaked-out photograph ever, an empty plastic bottle of dish soap, under flickering kitchen lights, resembles a beckoning angel. A tiny octopus flopped onto a kid’s school desk, in An Octopus (1990), somehow summons all the horror in the world. Filthy linoleum roils biblically under a discarded mop in Diagonal Composition No. 3 (2000). And in Sunken Area (1996), the white vinyl siding of a trashy house morphs into abstraction, its glowing lines swooning into the room. It made me dizzy, and I had to sit down. *


Through Jan. 27, 2008

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF
Mon.–Tues. and Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m.; $7–<\d>$12.50 (free first Tues.)

(415) 357-4000

Graf legend


On Aug. 15, on what would have been the late Mike "DREAM" Francisco’s 38th birthday, his old-school graffiti pal SPIE ONE honored his slain partner in the best way he knew how: by creating new street art, on 24th Street between Capp and Lilac in the Mission.

But it’s not just on anniversaries when SPIE thinks about DREAM, the widely respected Bay Area graffiti artist who was gunned down in the East Bay in 2000. "I think about DREAM every day. A lot of us do. It keeps me going sometimes. He was a positive spirit," SPIE said in mid-November. "And it’s pretty amazing how DREAM’s legacy just keeps growing. He has become this really important figure to a lot of youths out here who may never have even met him." That influence will inevitably grow with the publication of a comprehensive book on DREAM that SPIE and others are working on meticulously.

Like DREAM, SPIE is an integral figure in the history of Bay Area graffiti. Born and raised in San Francisco’s Excelsior–Outer Mission District, SPIE remembers the birth of graf in the city. "The graffiti really took off around ’84 in San Francisco," he recalled. That same year he started bombing, first as a solo artist and later with the crews KKW and ACT, which he joined while attending McAteer High School. "McAteer was very unique because a lot of different kids from different neighborhoods all seemed to gravitate there … from the avenues, Hunters Point," he said of the Diamond District school whose courtyard was used as a "writer’s bench." "Some kids would cut school from Lincoln or Washington and cut up there, meeting in the afternoon. We didn’t have a big fence around the school, so it was very loose to come on and off the campus." Others unexpectedly showed up too. "We knew a lot of folks that would find easy ways to escape Juvenile Hall across the street, and they’d be chilling too at the writer’s bench in their county orange, their sandals ready to run through Glen Park Canyon," SPIE said, laughing.

In 1987, when writers from all over the Bay Area converged on the Powell Street BART station for an informal graffiti meeting, SPIE first met Alameda artist DREAM, who’d already been tagging under various names for a few years. "In the book will be one of the first DREAM sketches that he ever did. It was on his court papers," SPIE said. "He just got caught when he was like 16 years old, and he was sitting in court and did a DREAM piece on the court paper!" In the two decades since that meeting, the laws against graffiti have gotten much tougher, and many youths have been tried as adults. "With just over $400 worth of damage, a kid could be arrested and prosecuted as a felon," SPIE said.

Consequently, for writers like SPIE, who requested anonymity for this story, the stakes are high when they do illegal street art. It’s a lot less stressful for him to do legit pieces like the recent city of San Francisco–sponsored mural on 24th Street between Capp and Lilac, which he did with Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth. The bright, block-long collaborative painting — which includes art by Nancy Pili, Marina Prez-Wong, and Mike Trigger — is, like much of SPIE’s work, politically charged. "Overall, it is about solidarity between communities of color and oppressed people … and a commentary on fences and borders around the world, including the Mexican-American border," SPIE explained. "The fence that goes around the parking lot gave us the basis for this theme about fences, walls, and prisons…. It’s like the gating and jailing of a community."

It’s a timely work, appearing at a moment when San Francisco and its developers seem intent on erasing its underground-art past. "They buffed everything out at China Basin and a lot of other places in the city," SPIE said, concerned about the forces that are "pushing the public artists into the far reaches of the city."

For more information on SPIE, DREAM, and the forthcoming book, go to www.dreamtdk.com.

Up against the wall


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There’s a new mural at 24th and Capp streets that does a stellar job of capturing the urban, cultural vibe of the Mission’s residents. No, not the skinny jeans–wearing, Burning Man bohemians who’ve colonized the area in recent years. I’m talking the baggy jeans–wearing Latino youths who are the inheritors of a proud local tradition of Chicano mural art. Craftily melding urban motifs, the mural celebrates their bicultural realities: lowriders cruise alongside hyphy "scrapers," pachucos and Mac Dre mingle, and graffiti lettering makes the same statement as silk-screened Brown Pride posters of the ’70s.

The work was created from July to September by members of Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth, a neighborhood-based youth leadership nonprofit serving at-risk Latino teens and young adults. The primary goal of HOMEY is violence prevention. Through art, education, and skill-building activities, the organization offers alternatives to young people growing up in a rough environment where gangbanging, drug dealing, gun violence, and incarceration are the norm.

The mural is a shining example of the numerous creative projects initiated by HOMEY to bring together young folks who might otherwise have beef or get caught up in the neighborhood’s dangerous Sureño-Norteño turf rivalry. According to HOMEY project coordinator Nancy Hernandez, the mural bolstered the organization’s other violence-prevention efforts because "young people who didn’t know each other got to know each other. People in the community who didn’t know each other got to know each other. And people were educated on a lot of things to be proud of about their culture, their history, and their neighborhood." Although a core group of teen and adult artists executed the initial planning and design for the mural, in the end more than 200 community members contributed to the painting.

The title of the piece is Solidarity: Breaking Down Barriers. Taking unity as a starting point, the artists began by brainstorming about the influences that divide people, communities, and cultures: everything from national boundaries to gang-affiliated colors. No national flags appear in the 100-foot-long painting. The United States–Mexico border wall figures prominently, snaking through the background of the mural’s central panels, but it’s juxtaposed with portrayals of intra- and interethnic alliance in the foreground. Mexican Revolucionarios, members of the United Farm Workers, and Brown Berets, all painted in sepia tones, float beneficently behind modern-day Raza activists wearing white tees and white bandanas — a purposefully neutral color worn nationwide by Latino youths during the immigrant rights rallies of May 1. In the Bay Area, many of those activists were HOMEY members.

As celebratory as the painting is, one controversial panel on its far right-hand side threatened to overshadow the entire project. It’s a portrayal of Palestinians garbed in traditional Arab kaffiyeh head scarves breaking through a concrete wall — ostensibly the Israeli West Bank security barrier. The image fits into a third-world rights vignette expressing solidarity with indigenous groups and colonized peoples.

Some members of San Francisco’s Jewish community took issue with the image, which originally included a hole in the wall in the shape of the state of Israel. Two Jewish advocacy groups, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League, brought these concerns to the San Francisco Arts Commission, the board charged with approving all public art. "We thought this one panel was disjointed from the rest of the mural," JCRC associate director Abby Michelson Porth recalls telling HOMEY and the Arts Commission at a public forum this August. "It didn’t demonstrate peaceful coexistence, which is, frankly, contrary to the theme of the work."

Rather than battle it out and fling loaded accusations of censorship and anti-Zionism at each other — which would indeed completely contradict the intent of the community-building project — the two factions engaged in a civil dialogue that turned out to be a learning experience for all. HOMEY agreed to make some changes to the imagery: the kaffiyeh shrouding one figure’s face, which the JCRC and the ADL claimed connoted terrorism, is now pulled back and worn as a simple Muslim head scarf; the wall opening now breaks into an expansive blue sky; and the branches of an olive tree now weave around the wall — a symbol of peace and a near-literal olive branch. Still, according to Porth, "It’s not the imagery that we would choose, but we recognize the muralists made significant changes and that they came far from the original design."

Hernandez is quick to point out that many Jewish San Franciscans supported the original design and that several of the artists are in fact Jewish. But she acknowledges that "when we’re painting somebody else’s culture, we have to be humble. We have to say, ‘You know what? We don’t know everything about everybody, but we do know about ourselves, and we’re trying to draw parallels between ourselves and other peoples.’<0x2009>"

To many, it may come as a surprise that the mural’s Palestinian imagery was so controversial. After all, claiming solidarity with Palestine is a common stance among San Francisco’s radical left. Nonetheless, by giving their input, the mural’s detractors wound up being collaborators on a project authored by, as it turned out, truly disparate voices in the community.


The reel world


Among the coverage of the horrific San Francisco Bay oil slick, I saw a short video of a fowl gliding through sea glimmering with petroleum. The bird maintained grace in this toxic environment, navigating marbled, paperlike swirls in the blackened water. That image had an indelibly uncomfortable beauty, the sort that occurs in Takeshi Murata’s videos, in which cinema — transferred to digital media — begins to transmogrify into something that slithers like mercury and soaks into our psyches.

His current show at the recently relocated and vastly expanded Ratio 3 gallery is centered on a new six-minute work, Escape Spirit VideoSlime, though the addition of another piece, Untitled (Pink Dot) (2006) creates a satisfying double bill. Both works feature buzzing electronic soundtracks by Robert Beatty, vivid acid-trip color schemes, and not-so-veiled references to environmentalism. Escape, the more narrative of the pair, was created with generic nature footage of chimps in the forest, while Pink Dot appropriates scenes from Rambo: First Blood. In both, Murata deconstructs the imagery. Pixels reveal their capacity to act like paint, then reconfigure into fleeting photographic images of animals, explosions, and consuming, liquefied landscapes. They evoke a morass, an underworld similar to Barbarella’s Matmos, befitting the term VideoSlime and its promise of creaming the virtual.

The pieces are screened in separate stalls, yet if you stand between them they can be viewed simultaneously. Their ominous soundtracks, however, constantly blend together into somewhat overdetermined eeriness. Both are nightmarishly memorable, though the graphic quality and the recognizable but surprisingly earnest use of Stallone make Pink a somewhat stronger work. In totality, Murata’s project fits a contemporary moment in which the digital and the analog are merging in ever more complex and perhaps confusing ways. His work can be seen in context with groups such as PaperRad and a number of young artists who create neopsychedelia from Saturday-morning cartoon detritus and the comforting, rudimentary digital nature of Pac-Man. Murata has mined this territory in earlier works such as Monster Movie (2005), but what set his recent projects apart are the sophistication and complexity of the visions.

His 2006 piece Untitled (Silver) — seen in Murata’s first show at Ratio 3 and in "Cosmic Wonder" at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — is a knockout, with its metallic gray footage of horror-film star Barbara Steele floating through a well-appointed goth interior that undergoes Murata’s process of liquefaction. Silver may still be the artist’s benchmark, but these new works reveal he’s got plenty of fuel left in the continually tenuous worlds, both actual and media, that we inhabit.


Through Nov. 30

Wed.–Sat., 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; and by appointment; free

Ratio 3

1447 Stevenson, SF

(415) 821-3371


Dark sparkle


› johnny@sfbg.com

Sparkle, San Francisco, sparkle — the Bay Area is a birthplace for visions of glitter. The Cockettes weren’t averse to throwing a few antique trunks full of metallic iridescence over their song and dance routines, and the late Jerome Caja mixed glitter with nail polish and liquid eyeliner to create a bad-acid cartoon Maybelline version of Hieronymus Bosch interpreting Dante. Jamie Vasta’s use of glitter isn’t as campy as the Cockettes’ or as lurid as Caja’s, but it’s on its way to becoming just as distinctive. Vasta doesn’t merely sprinkle glitter; with a devotion that’s both painterly and sculptural, she allows it to form and dominate her images.

"Mustn’t," a show of new glitter- and stain-on-wood works by Vasta at Patricia Sweetow Gallery, proves that while her vision of gender isn’t as palsied and perverse as Caja’s, it’s still subversive. The nine works on display present unified glimpses of a forested world where a man is seduced and either tortured or murdered by a pair of sisters. Vasta has mentioned Angela Carter’s fairy-tale revisions when discussing these images, in which femininity is alluring and dominant.

Working from photographs of a trio of professional actors, Vasta creates a claustrophobic, thicketed world where the women’s gestures of affection toward each other can also be seen as vicious struggle and where a man might be dead or in thrall to a degree that will soon prove fatal. In terms of technique and approach, wood, not glitter, is Vasta’s secret weapon. These works on wood are usually set in a forest, and while Vasta sometimes uses the backdrop in a literal sense to represent branches, she’ll just as often rely on stained sections to represent sunny untamed fields. Nature and artifice are at play in works such as Cottontail, in which one of the sisters, skinning a rabbit, wears a skirt printed with proud-looking deer that are almost of a piece with the surrounding landscape.

While Vasta’s devotion to glitter is steadfast, "Mustn’t" marks a shift in subject matter away from the contemporary landscapes of her past work into a more mythic and at times precious realm, where psychology is more to the fore and references to Judith and Holofernes crop up in an elliptical fashion. As Vasta’s wholly individual command of glitter’s illusory qualities and depth — as well as its tendency to blur boundaries — has increased, her color schemes have come to flirt more with purples and violets. The thought occurs that she’s more comfortable using hues that would set off kitsch alarms if employed by a lesser artist. The one quality that connects the fantasy-based works of "Mustn’t" with Vasta’s past images of house fires, mysterious blue lights, and tornadoes is a violent air. One gets the feeling that this show is just the beginning of a longer journey through a variety of unsettling zones. *

Through Dec. 15
Tues.–Fri., 10:30 a.m.– 5:30 p.m.; Sat, 10:30 a.m.–5 p.m.; free
Patricia Sweetow Gallery

77 Geary, SF
(415) 788-5126



REVIEW In the grand scheme of things, the mission of Hamburger Eyes is an admirable one: to perpetuate the life of film-based photography, its processing, and its printing. By offering both color and black-and-white labs at their newish Photo Epicenter, they have created an outpost that caters to specific photographic practices while maintaining a distance from the rising popularity of digital technologies.

In "Android," the current exhibit in the Epicenter’s intimate entryway gallery, the photographs of Hamburger Eyes magazine editor Ray Potes pay direct homage to the history of his medium and the beauty of the high-contrast black-and-white image. Regardless of subject, his prints are consistently striking in their formal qualities. The subjects, however, compete with the technical elements of the photographs.

Potes’s photos are less about capturing and producing an image with a pleasing combination of blacks and whites than about capturing a lifestyle — or at least a snippet of one. The 100 11-by-14-inch photographs on display, all framed but hung so close together that they take on a muralistic quality, present an extensively documented world but maintain a highly edited point of view. Although the imagery hints at a photojournalistic eye, documenting the decay and inhumanity of city life, the main focus is on a youth or street culture à la Vice magazine.

In this sense, photographs of so-called crackheads and human excrement on sidewalks appear to arise from a pubescent interest in the extreme for its own sake. The arrangement of human destitution in such close proximity to images of pretty girls and topless women illustrates the artist’s range, yet the simultaneity of optimism and pessimism, created by juxtaposing such polar aspects of urban life, also seems to accentuate the growing divide in classes and a sense that the poor and drug addicted have become mere curiosities for the affluent. The photographs would have benefited from a more thoughtful installation that resolved, or simply addressed, the social issues they perhaps inadvertently conjure.

ANDROID Through Dec. 7. Hamburger Eyes Photo Epicenter, 26 Lilac, SF. (415) 550-0701, www.hamburgereyes.com

Goldie winner — Visual art: Jenifer K. Wofford


Hey framer, don’t try to frame Jenifer K. Wofford. She’ll turn that frame into a threshold. Her creative identity ricochets from teacher to student to painter to performer to director to curator with a self-determining force that exposes the mutability of such labels.

In May, Point of Departure, Wofford’s evolving series of postcard-size portraits of Filipina nurses, was a highlight (along with understated contributions by Bill Jenkins and Alicia McCarthy) of the UC Berkeley MFA show at the Berkeley Art Museum. In late July and early August, Wofford and 8 of 14 other participating Bay Area artists — including 2007 Goldie winner Michael Arcega — journeyed to Manila, the Philippines, for the first of three installments of the traveling exhibition "Galleon Trade," which she conceived and organized. (The show’s next stop will be at San Francisco’s Luggage Store, and from there it will venture to Mexico City.)

It usually takes a large institution with major funding to assemble a project of "Galleon Trade"<0x2009>‘s scope, but Wofford can not only skewer a museum’s lust for colonialist decoration (as one third of the performance mob known as Mail Order Brides and in solo pieces such as 2005’s Chicksilog) but also do the cultural exchange work that these establishments somehow fail to achieve with all of their resources. "The word that came up for all of us was serendipity," she says, discussing "Galleon Trade"<0x2009>‘s Manila manifestation, which required last-minute scrambling between the city’s thriving visual art and experimental film and video venues. "The entire time we were there, there was just one intersection after another where things fell into place."

The community goals of Wofford’s "Galleon Trade" are counterpointed by her solo art endeavors, which repeatedly tap into transitional spaces and isolated states of being. Hospitals (in Point of Departure and 2006’s drawing-video project Nurse) and motels (in 2005’s installation Motel Cucaracha) are just two liminal zones that Wofford is drawn to as if they were magnetic fields. She explores both in a manner that pinches people’s assumptions about privilege and servitude and what makes an insider or an outsider. "I’m fascinated by borders, or places where people don’t belong," she says. In fact, for her next solo show (at Southern Exposure) Wofford plans to spotlight and perhaps parodically re-create metal detectors in order to tap into their tragicomic potential. This idea takes on another facet when Wofford mentions that her "bullshit detector" goes off anytime that she reenters the art world just after teaching in high school.

"I just can’t not be inappropriate," Wofford jokes, the triple negative demonstrating her affinity for the truth that often resides in awkwardness. "Comedians of color like Dave Chappelle know that you get heard by being funny — the court jester gets to stay in the court. Also, humor can be disarming for a lot of people." This quality, partly forged through her work with fellow MOB artists Eliza Barrios and Reanne Estrada, is present whether she’s displaying the absurdist properties of the Flip-Flop on a Stick (in a hilarious video homage to a hand-fashioned bug-killing contraption she found at a market in Manila’s Quiapo District) or proving Yma Sumac will have her revenge on Hollywood. "Most of my projects have been born from some infantile Beavis and Butthead moment," Wofford goes on to confess, the pop-cult reference pinging off the gray-hoodie poses she and her sister Camille adopted for the 2006 performance-painting Woffords, Paint. "After I stop laughing, I start thinking about why I was snickering."

Where do we come from, and where the hell are we going? Wofford has a keen sense of just how impossible it is to answer those questions, which means she’s as good a person as any to follow into the future.