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Visual Art

The video guy


› kimberly@sfbg.com

PREVIEW The public furor set off last November by the imminent publication of onetime football star and Avis flunky O.J. Simpson’s now-quashed book, If I Did It, on the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and Ron Goldman, demonstrates how pivotal the 1995 Simpson trial was to so many, just as Newsweek‘s recent publication of details from a key chapter shows how much it continues to compel — and how tender the wounds remain on this country’s notions of race, justice, media, and celebrity. To many TV viewers overseas, the trial might have merely summed up the insanity of stateside news priorities when the World Cup telecast was interrupted for the Simpson Bronco chase, but for Kota Ezawa, who had just transferred from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) at the time of the trial, it was ripe, rich stuff.

The televised Simpson verdict announcement — documented in the snippet Ezawa reworked for his brilliant 2002 short animation The Simpson Verdict, now showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City — "was really a shock to everybody, but a very different kind of shock," Ezawa said. "It was a real kind of shock and a very strange shock because it wasn’t a bomb hitting the ground! It was just a court official saying two words, ‘Not guilty,’ and it was enough to send really huge seismic waves through the entire nation. That I find interesting — that it was so psychological, a psychological event."

Sitting at a work table scattered with paper collage scraps of fallen soldiers intended for his 2006 "The History of Photography Remix" project in a spare, white one-room studio at the corner of 16th and Mission streets, the soft-spoken, even-tempered Cologne, Germany, native in a brown hoodie seems like the last person who’d gravitate toward incendiary subject matter such as the Simpson trial. Or the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, which are paired in his 2005 animated short The Unbearable Lightness of Being. From the aforementioned pieces to 2003’s Who’s Afraid of Black, White and Grey, Ezawa’s work boils history-making spectacle down to ultraflat pop shapes and hues — adding another layer of commentary to the race cards dealt in The Simpson Verdict. Though Ezawa’s works mimic the primitive, jerky moves of South Park, they rarely make light of history’s dark corners — rather they are minimalist meditations on memorable images, sampling, quoting, recropping, and editing visual pop ephemera and masterworks culled from our collective memory’s moving-image files.

And Ezawa’s reenvisionings, or remixes, have found a growing audience, eliciting an enthusiastic review in the New York Times for his current exhibition at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. SF Cameraworks recently feted the new Nazraeli Press volume compiling Ezawa’s "The History of Photography Remix" works, and this week the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art includes the artist in its biannual Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Art Award Exhibition.

"We were all enormously impressed by his practice — its clarity and range, the distinctness of his vision," SFMOMA painting and sculpture curator Janet Bishop wrote in an e-mail. "He was a top contender from the start of the award process." As a SECA award recipient, Ezawa will show parts of "The History of Photography Remix" as well as a two-screen animation, Stereo Stolen Honeymoon, which he described as a trailer for a longer adaptation of the purloined Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee wedding and honeymoon video, which the Guggenheim Museum is in talks to show.

"The Anderson-Lee tape is really most striking for how mundane it is," Bishop continued. "It has only become iconic because of our cultural response to it. Ezawa’s piece holds a mirror to our collective obsession with every tedious detail of celebrities’ lives."

A yearlong project featuring Ezawa’s idiosyncratic, hand-drawn computer animation and aided by assistant Ryan Thayer, voice actors, and assorted interns, the Anderson-Lee piece is also one of the artist’s most overtly comic pieces: the tabloid twosome’s cartoonish lifestyle slips seamlessly into Ezawa’s format as they exchange aggro vows, stroke tats, and chat up their pooch.

"I feel that I’m in the business of making moving paintings more than I’m in the business of making videos with a beginning and an end and a kind of dramatic curve," the 37-year-old self-described "video guy" confessed across his work table. "It’s a different kind of attention that people bring to a gallery or to a museum, and in that way, it almost has to work like a painting, meaning some people will watch it for 10 seconds, some people will watch it for a minute, but it really depends on how they will get grasped or not grasped by the image."


The half-Japanese, half-German artist traces his own initial attempts at image-making to ancestors. "If you ask any artist, if they’re really honest, there will be something way, way, way back — even sometimes before you were born," he said with a small grin. The drawings of his great-grandfather Hans Gelderblom, an architect, made an impact, as did his Japanese forbears’ silk paintings and bronze vases.

As a child in rural southern Germany, Ezawa etched his own path with cartoon flip books and hand-cranked panorama boxes resembling TVs. "I think there’s one thing about the countryside that informed or really influenced me and why I am how I am now," he explained. "In the city I think even as a teenager there’s already these peer groups — sometimes it’s ethnic, the Latino kids or the Asian kids, some listen to punk music or some are really good at school or math. In the countryside it doesn’t really work like that — you’re just stuck with your age group, so one of your friends is a fantastic athlete and a piano genius, and your other friend is a borderline alcoholic heavy metal fan, and you all just converge and hang out. And so I think even today … I sometimes think I don’t have any taste, you know?"

That ability to switch from high to low, between mediums and messages, fed his work at the Düsseldorf art academy, where he tried his hand at photography and performance art before scoring an opportunity to study with Fluxus video art innovator Nam June Paik. "He wasn’t there a lot, but to me, he was a really big inspiration," recalled Ezawa, who made his first video in order to be in Paik’s class.

At first he put together "still videos that didn’t move at all": one of his first, I Want to Buy the Empire State Building, was made when the structure was actually for sale. Working pre-Photoshop, Ezawa used a graphic machine to print the title sentence along with his phone number, reproducing the words on a C-print before hanging it on the wall and videotaping it. Paik had the piece, along with other student works, shown at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. "What’s similar to the videos I make today was I didn’t think of video as this entertainment format," Ezawa said. "I thought of video more as a light box. It was really just like this illuminated image coming out of the TV."


Ezawa’s light-box reworking of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void — part of "The History of Photography Remix" — looked down from an otherwise pristine wall above us. After finishing his BFA at the SFAI and his MFA at Stanford, Ezawa began teaching at California College of the Arts. While poring through the school’s slide library for a presentation on the history of photography for an introductory media arts course, he found himself thrilled: "I thought it was almost like DJing. ‘Oh yeah, this one will be really good. Maybe I’ll play this one after this one.’ " He took the Klein image home, scanned it into his computer, made a graphic sketch over the original, and kicked off his own "History," a compendium of transparencies, slides, collages, and intaglio etchings drawing on images as disparate as Ansel Adams landscapes and the surveillance shot of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army at the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. "That kind of became the idea for the work, to make this fake history slide show," he said.

Ezawa’s strategy stirs up the familiar cauldron of copyright issues in this age of digital reproduction. "You could call it visual hip-hop," he quipped. "But you can also call it somehow ripping off." He’s had only a few "sensitive reactions" from the creators of the original images. "I had long discussions, and it all got resolved," Ezawa said. "But with the book it was like, ‘OK, if you’re making this book and you’re ripping off tens and tens of photographs, you don’t want to have 30 angry photographers sending nasty e-mails." So in an effort to avoid a Simpson-like "legal nightmare," he contacted every shooter he sampled, and "the reaction was 95 percent very positive."

The SF artist has understandably mixed, and remixed, feelings about copyright, which he describes as being "really used to protect the interests of Walt Disney [Company] as opposed to actual artists. But then I feel like events like YouTube really help everybody and also the emergence of China as an economic player in the world, where they have Dior handbags that might say ‘Djor.’ I do think copyright might not exist much longer, though maybe long enough to ruin all of our lives."

He gave a compact chuckle. But then, the artist who once sang and played keyboards along with his wife, Karla Milosevich, in the Helen Lundy Trio seems to have his own quirky handle on the problem. "You know, like any hip-hop artist or DJ, I find my ways to manage this." *


Jan. 27–April 22; call for additional programs; $7–$12.50 (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–8:45 p.m.)

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

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000



Air play


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW There is something about "The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air," the de Young Museum’s current retrospective of Ruth Asawa’s work, that initially feels a bit like a natural history museum display. The darkened space, punctuated with spotlights, showcases Asawa’s floating woven wire forms, which look like giant representations of diatoms or plankton. The shadows this installation creates are an important factor, illustrating the concepts the artist considered during their making: positive and negative space, organic growth, and continuous line. One of the first pieces greeting visitors at the entrance resembles a hanging column of ballooning onion and bell shapes. It’s made of woven aluminum and brass wire, and Asawa describes it as a test to see how large a sculpture she could create in crocheted metal wire without it collapsing from its own weight.

A nearby glass case displays sketchbook pages from her formative art-school years. On one page a sentence stands out boldly: "DRAW AIR WITH NOTHING." The lacy forms of industrial metal wire are paralleled by the pen-and-ink drawings on the walls, some of which Asawa calls "meanderings." They’re images formed in an intuitive yet mathematically exponential process — not unlike the route her lifelong career of object making and art activism has taken.

Born in Norwalk, Calif., in 1929 and raised on her parents’ vegetable farm, Asawa was one of thousands of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. At the Santa Anita racetrack camp, she had her first formal lessons in art, taught by several Walt Disney studio animators who were also interned. After the war she attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied with legendary artists and thinkers including Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. There she met the man who would become her husband and father to her six children, architect Albert Lanier.

After college Asawa studied in Toluca, Mexico, where she learned to crochet baskets. She pushed this traditional craft into the realm of fine art during the 1950s. Her work was chosen to represent the United States in the 1955 São Paolo Biennial, and soon after the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired her work for its collection. However, in the Bay Area, where she has lived since the ’50s, Asawa has remained relatively unknown.


At the de Young the viewer traipses past Asawa’s complex, bundled copper-wire tumbleweed puffs; wiry snowflake configurations; spongy Möbius strips; plump, electroplated copper, cactilike works; and graphically bold, obsessive-compulsive-esque lithographs and drawings. Some of these date to the late ’90s, but nonetheless, we are really wandering in a realm of late-modernist works. So by today’s postmodernist and post-postmodernist values, Asawa’s pieces don’t readily leap into a contemporary critical arena. They are, for the most part, graceful and avoid the taint of macramé kitsch, although a subtle whiff of hippie-era flavoring does hover over the exhibition. Yet before one judges her art by today’s standards, let’s look at why she merits a retrospective.

This is not Asawa’s first overview: the Oakland Museum of California held one in 2002. One dramatic mandala sculpture on display — Wintermass, from the late ’60s — is similar to the bronze gracing the front entrance to the Oakland Museum. And this isn’t the only Asawa piece available for free viewing in the Bay Area — she is far more ubiquitous than many locals realize. Over the days following my visit to the de Young exhibition, I stumbled upon several of her public works — many of which in no way resemble the art chosen for the show. Rather, they seem to be created by an almost evil twin. Asawa’s public objects generally tend to land in a goofier, now quaint public-art aesthetic. The list includes that tourist mecca mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square, the sea lion statue (generally hidden under climbing children) at Pier 39, the whimsical San Francisco landscape fountain outside the Grand Hyatt San Francisco at Union Square, the pair of occasionally functioning giant origami fountains in Japantown — and the steel origami doughnut fountain (titled Aurora) near the Gap’s Embarcadero headquarters. She also helped with the design of Children’s Fairyland in Oakland and more recently a San Jose memorial dedicated to the Japanese American internment.


Asawa was a public sculptor to be reckoned with during city upgrades in the 1970s and ’80s. She was also the force who created the revolutionary Alvarado School summer art workshops in the early ’70s. She spearheaded the creation of San Francisco’s School of the Arts High School and actively served on both state and city art boards. This exhibit includes photo documentation by Asawa’s close chum Imogen Cunningham of her early work and bohemianlike family life. Asawa saw little difference between making art and teaching it to children, which could easily make her one of the godmothers of the social practice genre. The format in which Asawa chose to display her objects early on could also make her something of a forebear of installation artists.

In a period in which homespun crafts and the DIY joys of creation — think ReadyMade magazine — are so prevalent, an appreciation of Ruth Asawa is a timely thing. Captured in the wonderfully dated 1978 documentary by Robert Snyder that’s screening at the exhibition, Asawa declares that "a line can go anywhere" and talks of the importance of being like a bulb planted in soil: she should always be growing while here on earth. Much like that enormous New England mushroom discovered expanding for miles underneath the soil, Asawa planted herself here and flourished quietly, germinating an idealistic sense of the importance of art in the community — something I hope never grows out of style. *


Through Jan. 28

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

De Young Museum

Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., SF

(415) 750-3614



They rule — and drool


› a&eletters@sfbg.com
REVIEW It may sound like a toast at a wedding reception, but in order to have some measure of success in a collaborative project, there has to be an agreement between the parties involving respect, patience, and a dose of humor. The opposite would be when a couple filing for divorce cites “irreconcilable differences.” For the collaborative art team leonardogillesfleur (Leonardo Giacomuzzo and Gilles-fleur Boutry), this phrase is also the clever title of their recent body of work currently on exhibit at Catharine Clark Gallery. The title plays on the struggle to create collaboratively and points to the sometimes fruitless results in pushing idealistic — or just plain romantic — notions. Paired with this work is “Action Series,” a grouping of videotaped performances that touch on a similar vein.
The team graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2004 with MFAs from the New Genres Department. And it shows. Upon entering the gallery, you are confronted with a candy-apple red contraption: a push-me-pull-you Fiat, a car with two front ends seamlessly melded together to create a vehicle that can drive in two directions. It has two steering wheels, two front windows, no back seat, and a propensity for going in circles. The car isn’t real, but the photos and schematic layouts are convincing enough. On close investigation, you can see that the car is actually an altered toy and leonardogillesfleur altered its photograph. This is something children would happily invent with crayons.
The pair have also included a recording of their own childlike car sounds, which emits vrrrroommms from a corner in the gallery, near the large-scale photo of the car, One Way or Another Puzzle. The vehicle sits waiting, parked on cobblestones, with the pair walking toward it, dressed in matching exercise gear — ready for action. But the action they get, as shown in one photo of the car after it’s made donuts (“Going in Circles”), is likely to prove frustrating. A real object the team made prior to this two-way Fiat is a bicycle with two handlebars and two seats. Unlike on a tandem cycle, a third wheel in the center has the riders facing away from each other and forever pedaling hard to try and go their direction instead of their partner’s. These objects are visual puns and teeter on the edge of dadaism but fall more directly in the realm of conceptualism, the kind taught at a clown college — smart but also smart-ass.
In the next room video monitors on the walls and a large projection in a small theater loop the staged photolike performances of “Action Series.” Leonardogillesfleur are playing with the idea of holding a moment, markedly a special occasion, for as long as they can. Akin to a freeze-frame kiss at the end of a sappy movie, Myself as a Fountain highlights the team seconds before they go into a passionate lip-lock. They stand outside in some city park, amid the sound of cars and dogs barking — with heavy strings of drool pouring from their mouths. In all these videos — including one with the painfully cold setting of a blizzard, in which the couple hold a waving-at-the-camera pose — the title includes the length of time the subjects endured these attempts to hold on to the moment. In the loop in which a birthday cake’s candles melt down while awaiting a puff of air from Boutry’s mouth, friends wobble and work to hold their poses in the background. The time reads “8:42.” Family and friends actually suffered it out as we do when enduring each other’s company for too long. In these video pieces leonardogillesfleur capture the clear sense of futility in preserving a moment that didn’t happen the way it was imagined. The duo are fortunate in their pairing: they have figured out how to mix their multimedia works with just enough humor to hold viewers’ attention, yet leaving them open to the works’ harder messages.<\!s>SFBG

Through Fri/22
Wed.–<\d>Fri., 10:30 a.m.–<\d>5:30 p.m.
Catharine Clark Gallery
49 Geary, second floor, SF
(415) 399-1439

Looking up


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

In late 2006 several major art-market events — record-breaking auctions and 14 Miami Beach art fairs — provided a bracing contrast to a slew of exhibitions concerned with the immaterial, experiential, mystical, and social. These instances clearly illustrate the exciting, age-old tensions between the thrill of commerce and the quest for artistic integrity.
In November a Christie’s sale of impressionist and modern art yielded nearly half a billion dollars. A good chunk of that auction money was laid down for recovered Nazi art loot, a noble corrective yet one rooted in economic conditions, not necessarily philosophical or penitential ones. Big money seems to obliterate the pure intentions of art, though record price tags do have a way of speaking to a broader audience.
Meanwhile, the fanfare and brisk sales at the recent Miami art fairs — Art Basel Miami and satellite events — attest to a healthy market and, hopefully, the ability for artists to forge self-sustaining careers, not to mention allow San Francisco galleries to expose their wares to international collectors. In her heartening reportage on the Miami fairs, New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted how the events level the field of information and offer a platform for market resistance, pointing out artists who conceptually dare collectors through assaulting video and purposeful repetition of mundane imagery.
Much like the rest of the economy, flush with stock market upticks and the national budget’s creative accounting, art sales are solid, similar to those in the so-called go-go 1980s. Part of the thrill of the boom is the anxiety of a crash lurking in the future. So how does a thriving market — and all the commercialism that goes with it — affect the creation of new art and its reflection of contemporary culture?
In 2006 you didn’t have to look far to find examples of artists aiming to tackle our collective anxieties, either politically or spiritually, through their quest to envision the intangible. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s current Anselm Kiefer show, “Heaven and Earth,” embodies that idea as it surveys a German artist whose paintings are informed by alchemy, mythology, and Jewish mysticism. Kiefer makes large works addressing even bigger themes. He also has firm political convictions — he has consistently refused to enter the United States in protest against George W. Bush’s policies. It’s worth noting that Kiefer’s work hasn’t exactly seemed fashionable in recent years. Is his appearance now coincidence or zeitgeist?
“Heaven” inhabits the same gallery space that hosted “Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint,” a sprawling exhibition as steeped in the artist’s celebrity and sex appeal as it was in Shinto references and other lofty themes. A hushed, almost religious vibe pervaded the proceedings as viewers looked up at the video monitors in quiet awe — or perhaps disbelief. Both Barney and Kiefer are comfortably blue chip, and their work sells even when they strive for deeper meaning.
A new strain of alternative art is being fostered at Southern Exposure, which this year put an emphasis on social interaction and artwork that unfolds in public places. Packard Jennings’s lottery tickets, available in local corner stores, offer scratch-off prizes to feed the mind, not the bank account, and Neighborhood Public Radio’s broadcasts traffic in community and dialogue. These programs have been driven by a seismic upgrade and the need to work off-site, but the thrust of the gallery’s program also revealed that bias in its actual building.
Taking on a more conventional gallery form was “Ghosts in the Machine,” the inaugural show in SF Camerawork’s impressive new space. Curator David Spalding expanded on the topic of shared history to suggest a sense of cultural haunting by unresolved past actions — those related to the Vietnam War, suicide bombings, and US racial tensions. The range of work was serious — and very much engaged in a yearning for art with staying power.
Mexico City curator Magali Arriola’s “Prophets of Deceit” at CCA Wattis Institute for the Contemporary Arts probed the troubling charisma of cult leaders like Jim Jones, as well as the persuasive qualities of cinema. It was a disturbing counterpoint to the wispy “Cosmic Wonder” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which included artists who, according to their press literature, “explore trance, ‘alternative’ realities, and the psyche.” While a major curatorial misfire that raised serious questions about the YBCA’s programming choices, “Cosmic Wonder” nonetheless points to interest in and tension between otherworldly themes and art world trends. The show, organized by neophyte curator Betty Nguyen, included young gallery darlings — a fair number of whom likely partied themselves into altered states in Miami Beach. It all goes to prove: there are multiple roads to artistic, financial, and spiritual enlightenment. SFBG

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan (Penguin)
•Phil Collins, dünya dinlemiyor, SF Museum of Modern Art
•Andrea Bowers, “Nothing Is Neutral,” Redcat, Los Angeles
•Tavares Strachan, “Where We Are Is Always Miles Away,” Luggage Store
Battle in Heaven, directed by Carlos Reygadas
This Book Will Save Your Life, A.M. Homes (Viking)
Maquilopolis, directed by Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre
•Julia Christensen’s www.BigBoxReuse.com
•Takeshi Murata, “Silver Equinox,” Ratio 3
•Kathryn Spence, “Objects and Drawings,” Stephen Wirtz Gallery

All that heaven and earth allow


(To read Marke B.’s take on Anselm Kiefer, “Crash and Burn,” click here.)

REVIEW Recently, in an Amish schoolhouse shooting, five girls were killed and five wounded by a man who was “angry with God” and haunted by thoughts of molestation.
One girl escaped. In the earliest versions of the story, nine-year-old Emma Fisher simply snuck out. It was later said that she misunderstood the shooter’s instructions in English and thought she was supposed to leave. A more recent variation has Emma hearing one of the schoolteachers’ helpers say to her, “Now would be a good time to run,” as the shooter messed with the window blinds. But the helper says she didn’t speak, and some Amish are suggesting the voice was an angel’s.
If that angel’s voice — poised at the edge of bloodshed, salvation narratives, and sociopathic dreams — had instead taken its ephemeral sound waves and rolled them around in clay, lead, ash, burned wood, India ink, and stars, the result would look much like the show “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth” now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Kiefer is not interested in salvation, he says, but he wants you to see angels: angels with their wings weighed down with lead, angels in the form of flaming books, angels spiraling up and down between the heavens and earth. Kiefer isn’t angry with God — he wants to identify with a god whose creations and destructions dwarf mere human emotions. His massive works and their equally massive subject matter reveal Kiefer as a size queen in active defiance of the art world’s ongoing love affair with the bonbon. Nobody’s precious obsessions or daily life is represented here, unless it is the daily life of an all-encompassing godhead in the midst of cyclical death and rebirth. Is that interesting? It is gorgeous. Kiefer passes the acid test. His love of texture and pattern creates enough Rorschach blots of darkness and light to keep even the most ADD of us visually interested — never mind the titles, with their names of gods, stars, and emotional states. Osiris and Isis (1985–<\d>87), for example, contains porcelain shards enmeshed in its vast canvas, referencing a myth of fragmentation and a jokey half-assed attempt to cobble together the various parts of the sundered deity with circuitry and wires. Kiefer’s vocabulary is that of alchemy, hermeticism, and gnosticism, with a particular emphasis on the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Although kabbalah has been inseparable from western esotericism for centuries, Kiefer’s investigation takes on an added resonance. A German artist born in 1945, he has throughout his career addressed the wounds left by the 20th century’s most famous sociopaths. With gestures as slight as the introduction of a propeller onto a vast canvas in a work titled The Hierarchy of Angels (1985–<\d>87), Kiefer acknowledges and comments on his nation’s monstrous history. In work addressing the Jewish poet Paul Célan, he acknowledges the degree to which the Nazi dream of molesting the globe efficiently removed not only the mysteries and symbols of a people once integral to German cultural life but the people themselves.
Trafficking in the cosmic raises questions of whether it is necessarily apolitical, ahistorical, or irony free. It isn’t. Novelist Jean Rhys wrote that before she could even read she imagined that God was a book: “Sometimes it was a large book standing upright and half open, and I could see the print inside but it made no sense to me.” Kiefer seems to have shared that fantasy and reproduced it as multiple books: huge circular standing books full of star maps; crumpled, distorted books like crippled angels; charred and flaming books. All are filled with indecipherable but oddly familiar writing of lead, dried plants, clay, or copper wire. Vaporous patterns emerge, like imprints left by the dead, even in the utter blackness of seven burlap books whose hieroglyphics consist of oil, charcoal, and glue in Cauterization of the Rural District of Buchen (1975).
The schoolhouse Fisher escaped from was torn down; there is no hopeless memorial there now, just an empty field. Kiefer’s hellish earth is burned, scarred, frozen, scorched — just like ours. Maybe not so much like ours, his blackened ground is fertile and regenerating and has reached the nigredo stage in an alchemical process leading toward something fabulous. Imagining that the destruction of the planet has led or will lead to a kind of regeneration is a kind of mental escape from the sociopaths currently molesting the globe and maybe even a necessary one. On the other hand, maybe now would be a good time to run. Despite his preoccupation with stars, Kiefer isn’t ready to pack up the spaceship yet. Giving the title Faith, Hope, Love (1976) to a dense, dark, entangled work composed of ash, seeds, and ink may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but Kiefer’s humor is rarely human scale. “Wherever you go, there you are” is the angelic message of his Milky Ways and charred landscapes, which are always also internal states.<\!s>SFBG
Through Jan. 21, 2007
Fri.–<\d>Tues., 11 a.m.–<\d>5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–<\d>8:45 p.m.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF
$7–<\d>$12.50 (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–<\d>8:45 p.m.)
(415) 357-4000

Crash and burn


To read Stephen Beachy’s take on Anselm Kiefer, “All That Heaven and Earth Allow,” click here.)

REVIEW You could go into “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth” looking for a rush of monumental drama and cosmic philosophizing, for German guilt writ large, and for abnormal feats of technical skill. Or you could go in looking, as I did, for laughs.
Well, not laughs exactly, but at least a little humor. Would it be too much to ask, amid all the clumps of blond hay representing Jewish hair, split-open staircases leading into Rosicrucian limbo, and stick-thin pogrom graves shaped like ancient runes on Kiefer’s canvases — not to mention the literal deadweight of his giant lead sculptures — for an occasional wry smile to shine through? The artist’s work as presented here is the endgame embodiment of Sturm und Drang — thunderous metaphors crashing into lightning-streaked enormity — but once the viewer’s sheer awe wears off and there’s only beauty to contend with, Kiefer begins to look like a bit of a one-trick pony. (How to make a Kiefer: Stick an M-80 up Joseph Beuys’s ass. Explode onto nearest 15-foot canvas. Add a pair of antlers, scratch “Holy Ghost” and some numerals onto a clump of painted birch bark, and voilà — instant mysticism.)
So besides the blockbuster romanticism and genius overlay of German postwar themes onto the work of that other wizard of industrial spirituality, Antoni Tàpies, what else is there? Certainly not subtlety — for a small dose of that in the same key, rent Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire. But lack of subtlety may be a symptom of the grand themes Kiefer saddles himself with. It must be tough to be a German artist. Props to Kiefer for confronting the nightmares of his country’s past and throwing them in our faces. And props again for exerting superhuman artistic strength to create vibrant icons of arcane spirituality.
But those two impulses aren’t always compatible. In fact, they’re pretty antagonistic (wasn’t it the whole superhuman ideology thing that led to the Holocaust?), and what we’re left with is an innate contradiction that tears Kiefer’s grandiose postures apart without the humane buzz of resonance that such contradictions launch in other artists’ works. In attempting to synthesize the entire world into an “as above, so below” set of equations (every point in heaven has a monument on earth) while trying to reconcile with his country’s ghosts, Kiefer paints himself into a melodramatic corner. The empty gothic building with flames running along its wooden floor in his painting Quaternity (1973) could be the brick-making factory of his youth, could be the Jew-burning furnaces of the Bible, could be Bergen-Belsen, could be Valhalla, could be hell, could be heaven. Guess what? It’s all of those. But not much more.
To avoid such results, other German artists have opened up their metaphoric palette to include either humor (Sigmar Polke’s daffy takes on Germany’s garish postwar commercial culture) or sly abstraction (Gerhard Richter’s Lesende manages to trump all of Kiefer’s stabs at spirituality by painstakingly rendering a shaft of light falling on a reading girl’s neck). Current wunderkind Neo Rauch does both in his ’50s sci fi–<\d>meets–<\d>Diego Velázquez canvases. Comparing artists by nationality is lame — and maybe one of Kiefer’s points is that art offers no way out — but c’mon, man, could he be more stereotypically heavy German?
Here and there, Kiefer does deliver some insightful chuckles. Those dried sunflower seeds raining down on a gouache vortex could be a play on Vincent van Gogh. The lethal-looking sculptures of enormous books fanned out and standing on their spines might be a nod to Richard Serra (sure enough, Serra’s Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift [1969, 1995], which looks like what would happen if one of those books fell down, is at the end of the exhibition). That broken motherboard at the top of a ziggurat is kind of funny. So is the smashed toilet bowl signifying the biblical breaking of the vessels.
All mildly amusing, but nothing compared to the moment when, while taking notes near a ginormous lead-plated canvas, I was told by a security guard that I couldn’t use a pen in the galleries. Too risky near the art, he said, and handed me a pencil. Sure, pencils are made of graphite now, but I still fell out over the irony. Which spurred me to consider that maybe Kiefer’s having the last laugh after all — the crowds thronging his show had been breathing in lead dust the whole time. The afterlife may be nearer than we think.

Fits and housing starts


› a&eletters@sfbg.com
REVIEW There’s a new multistory condo complex rising on a sliver of SoMa between the freeway and the Caltrain tracks. It’s on one of those heretofore undesirable plots that stood vacant for decades, holding their own as a weedy buffer zone between transportation and industry. I wonder if the contractors are using a new high-tech glass that, in the space of a faux bay window, will neutralize the din of traffic. Who’d want to live there?
San Francisco is an urban area, don’t you know. But the way space here is quickly filling in with homes is reflective of a broader condition of (until recently) a healthy real estate market and the resulting sprawl. It’s something I experience when visiting family in unapologetically suburban Southern California. Just outside my old neighborhood, with streets named to invoke the American Revolution — Freedom Drive, Liberty Bell Road — were oak-shaded dry creek beds where I headed for adolescent escapes. Those once-wooded areas have been shaped into fields of roomy new houses in an unspecific Mediterranean stucco style. The arteries there are named after trees — Spruce Drive, Cedar Lane — that I don’t recall being indigenous. Is it progress or loss?
California denizens cannot avoid the quandaries of safe, “affordable” homes and the problematic environmental effects of building auto-centric communities far from any sort of civic center. The state then makes a fitting geographical framing device for a small but notable exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. “Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl” brings together a couple dozen artists who picture a half century of development in photographs, painting, video, and sculpture, revealing the allure and shortcomings of suburbia.
While compact and high density rather than sprawling and homogenous, “Suburban Escape” manages to address numerous social and cultural concerns, the first of which is the literal, almost sculptural creation of suburbs. At the start curator Ann Wolfe shows us distant views of cookie-cutter homes. The first piece is William Garnett’s grid of six black-and-white aerial photographs documenting the 1950 construction of the Lakewood, a Southern California community that from above looks like fields of housing starts that sprouted into a grid of cubelike buildings. They’re a perfect complement to Robert Isaacs’s 1968 photograph Ticky Tacky Houses in Daly City, an equally geometric composition that inspires waves of comfort and revulsion. The uniformity looks appealingly orderly from a distance, but the idea of living in houses so similar and close together is another concern altogether, something fraught with unsustainable foundations, not to mention nosy neighbors.
Suburbia is rife with ambivalent vibes, and they are noted throughout the show. Bill Owens’s photo of a Fourth of July block party expresses a cul-de-sac comfort zone and clean, new neighborliness. And yet, the picture also conveys the psychic isolation of spacious lots. Just one photo from Owens’s 1970s-era Suburbia series isn’t enough to convey his vision, although this picture speaks volumes.
Mimicking the physical structure of housing tracts, a number of the artists work in series. Freshly Painted Houses, a grid of small 1991 color photos by Jeff Brouws, shows the Daly City neighborhood where the artist grew up during the 1960s. The cheerful exterior schemes reflect the influx of Asian American immigrants who, the artist states in the exhibition catalog (which includes an expanded, more convincing range of works than the museum presentation), painted their houses in more vibrant colors than did most of “middle class mainstream America.” The piece adds a welcome layer of social context to architecturally insignificant structures.
John Divola’s provocative series Los Angeles International Airport Noise Abatement Zone, House Removal Grid, Present (1975, 2005) is one of those frighteningly irresistible before-and-after projects. It shows a collection of doomed dwellings that were in the sonic path of LAX and the empty lots after the buildings were razed. Shot in a relatively short time span in the 1970s and printed only recently, the pairings suggest the aftermath of a smart bomb that vaporizes only stucco-faced structures. All that remains are a flat landscape, stoic palm and cypress trees, and the occasional pathway to a nonexistent front door. Next to these, Free House (2003), an acrylic work by Deborah Oropallo, addresses the surprising disposability of suburban buildings with images of boarded-up toy houses — literal model homes — inspired by Berkeley structures that were worth less than the land they were erected on.
That same cheap, serial construction of houses is noted in Mark Campbell’s sculpture Maximum Density (2000), a low platform covered with hundreds of tiny honey-hued rubber homes. At once seemingly organically formed and a highly constructed board game, Campbell’s project is difficult not to touch yet equally difficult to reconcile. Similarly, Destroyed Houses (1999–2004), a series of 30 collage paintings by Jeff Gillette, is a gleeful deconstruction of real estate advertisements set against bucolic landscapes. Like a willful child pulling wings off flies, the artist here has devious fun destroying unaffordable homes — and the pervasive dream of owning one.SFBG
Through March 4, 2007
San Jose Museum of Art
110 S. Market, San Jose
Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
(408) 294-2787

Goldies Visual Art winner Chris Duncan


Artist Chris Duncan came to Northern California for the Tahoe powder — and to get away from his routine in Delaware and his native New Jersey of catching hardcore shows every weekend and doing absolutely nothing else with his life. Duncan recalls he and a friend “snowboarded for a season, and it was rad and it was horrible at the same time. Every night it was the same party with the same 40 guys and three girls, so I started to stay in and draw.”
Since then, that need to draw a line between the fun but perhaps meaningless life of nightly parties and his own creative urges has led Duncan to San Francisco, where he moved in 1996 and spent the next years working, skateboarding, and attending California College of the Arts, where he began to find direction, to chart his own personal map to the color theory of Mark Rothko and Josef Albers, and to dip into sacred geometry, string theory, Eastern philosophies, and increasingly, simple nonfigurative forms. In his current work temporal strings converge, intersect, and radiate above needle-nose pyramids, shooting off across ceilings and traversing rooms. Flat works are stitched with ragged stars or painted with dark rays that explode above kaleidoscopic ziggurats.
“For me, it’s about dealing with being fully overwhelmed by humans, to be perfectly honest,” confesses Duncan, 32, kicking back in his tidy wood box of an Oakland studio, off the downtown-area railroad tracks. Dressed head to toe in black, tattoos crawling up his neck and down his arms to hands that jerk to punctuate a point, the artist is far from slick, but he exudes an amiable earnestness raving about his young daughter, Aya-mea Mourning. “I’m also completely amazed by people. People are fantastic and can do such great things. Look how far we’ve come — and the mirror image of that is look at what we’ve done.”
What has Duncan done? Perhaps he’s captured the zeitgeist, one that’s both physical and ethereal, give or take a planet. His SF gallerist Gregory Lind says, “Chris Duncan’s laboriously rendered works on paper and his intricate string sculptures seek to combine the spiritual with the scientific, which is compelling to me in this kind of dark period we find ourselves in today.”
Whether the artist’s pieces trace strings of energy or ecstatic explosions in some acid-laced map room, he’s found a way to tap some sort of fuel source for his numerous projects, including his striking grab bag of an art zine, Hot and Cold, in which he and Griffin McPartland showcase artists like Matt O’Brien, Chris Pew, and Jen Smith. They took a page from their own periodical to produce a catalog for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ 2005 exhibit “The Zine UnBound: Kults, Werewolves and Sarcastic Hippies.” Duncan has also curated exhibits as part of Keepsake Society, a site he maintains with ex-girlfriend Aki Raymer, and he is editing an anthology of “my first punk show” stories for AK Press.
“When I got older and found art making, I found a spot to do the things I saw happening as a teenager, with what all my friends were doing,” he says. “I began making zines and started curating, and in terms of how active and how DIY everything was in that [East Coast hardcore] scene, I found a place to put that to use when I got a little older. And this is the perfect city for that — there are so many examples of people doing it. It’s a nice blanket to be under.”
And speaking of blankets: Duncan will be stitching together a cosmic ray–embellished quilt of sorts in memory of his recently deceased 99-year-old great-grandmother for his forthcoming show at Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York City. Much like a handmade, toy- and goodie-bundled, affordable and accessible limited-edition art zine, the project embodies an aesthetic Duncan embraces. “We just totally outdo the last thing we did and totally overwhelm people. Things don’t exist like that anymore,” explains the artist. “Everything’s so not made by hand and so not giving in a way. I think with a little energy you can give a lot, and I think that’s really important.” (Kimberly Chun)

Goldies Visual Art winner Yoon Lee


A good photograph captures an instant of life within a fraction of city space. The oft-awesome paintings of Yoon Lee — on display earlier this year in a solo show at the Luggage Store — condense seconds, days, and weeks of urban life into images of striking movement and color. Blurs from passing cars; a person glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye; the liquid shifts of Vampire Princess Miyu anime dreamscapes on a TV screen — these are a few of the everyday materials within Lee’s alchemy. Glimpsed as scaled-down versions on a computer screen, her pieces seem purely digital or neo-geo, but in person there is no doubt that her paintings are the result of a lengthy, meditative, and labor-intensive process.
“I know some artists who take a whole year to produce one piece, and I’m not up to that point,” Lee says over hot drinks at Farley’s on Potrero Hill. Her comic strip T-shirt and black leather motorcycle jacket reflect the mix of commercial color and rougher, real-life currents within her paintings. “My 8-feet-by-20-feet scale works usually take about six months. I start gathering images in my head and take photos. I make little sketches. I take things from comic books, newspapers, anything — I’m just an image scavenger.”
From there, Lee uses Illustrator or Photoshop to play with images and forms. “I use it as a mixing board to bring everything together and then edit, real fast,” she says, adding with a laugh, “in the old days you had to use canary paper and transparencies, then mess up and start all over again.” Actually, Lee’s “real fast” edits can last a month or two, but they are indeed quick in comparison to her painting process, a complex, kinetic, and at times astonishingly layered use of Golden acrylics. It’s there that she transmutes her gadget-fiend tendencies and love of shiny plastics into work that swirls with fierce ambivalence about those aspects of modern life and more.
For Lee, the frustration that comes from trying to translate computer compositions into flesh-and-blood paintings isn’t just worthwhile — it’s exactly what she’s seeking. “Sometimes I have to really invent a new process,” she says. “Every time I do a piece there’s something completely different I have to introduce or change so I can produce an effect that’s similar to the original sketch.” That kind of challenge has led Lee through many areas of study (philosophy and computer science, to name two) and fields of employment (she’s sold cars), though all the while she’s never lost focus on painting.
Someday a writer might explore and explain why op art has played such a major role in San Francisco art at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. Though Lee is part of an upcoming exhibition of San Francisco artists in Leipzig, Germany, curated by “Pierogi” Joe Amrhein, it’s debatable whether she is even influenced by the legacy of Sol LeWitt — or has a kinship with the LeWitt-loving Mission School artists who favor certain rainbow gradations. If her work shares some of their color schemes, its scale and sense of movement explode into a realm apart from the smaller cubic formations and prisms associated with recent Bay Area art. A casual viewer might note as much action as in a Jackson Pollock painting, a kid on the street might recognize an accidental kinship with graffiti. The artist herself names Julie Mehretu and Benjamin Edwards as partial guides.
Lee’s art is slick — but only in a literal sense. To put it another, more paradoxical way, her paintings are deceptively slick on the surface. Beneath the attractive gloss, that shininess that she enjoys and wants to share, are layers that you can get lost in — that is, when you aren’t arrested by the intensity of her observation. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Goldies Visual Art winner Tim Sullivan


In his most recent San Francisco exhibition, at the cozy Little Tree Gallery in the Mission, Tim Sullivan managed to reanimate the late blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield. Mind you, he did it with a low-tech visual effect — a full-color glossy of the actress attached to a flat-screen monitor, a shifting blue sky visible through little almond-shaped slits in the eyes of the photograph. But the mixture of sublime pop (the elaborate media construct of Mansfield) with an almost metaphysical art reference is a key movement in Sullivan’s appealing photography, video, and sculpture. His work is an enticing combination of funky but effective tricks, sophisticated references, and an appreciation of comedic white-trash aesthetics.
Sullivan’s work often contains gracious nods to other artists. He’s made a hilariously perverse video-sculpture homage to Bruce Nauman’s mid-1960s Self-Portrait as a Fountain and devoted an entire exhibition at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery to the influential Dutch-born conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who toyed with a sad-sack persona and disappeared mysteriously while attempting to cross the Atlantic alone in a 13-foot boat. Sullivan, a striking figure with pale blond hair and dark horn-rim glasses, often appears in his own work, using self-portraiture to tangentially channel his artistic forebears. While there may be something postmodern about this strategy, you don’t have to know about contemporary art history to be captivated by his visual magic. For instance, you need only know about the 1960s-style power of Herb Alpert to appreciate Sullivan’s remake of the classic Whipped Cream and Other Delights album cover. Sullivan plays the babe, slathered in foam.
He’s also made a life-size horizontal photograph of himself seemingly levitating just above the floor against a backdrop of fabulously chintzy flecked wallpaper. It’s in lush color — the artist wears a crimson T-shirt, a color he favors, perhaps for its theatricality. The image appears at a key spot in an opening gallery in the California Biennial, a timely survey of 31 West Coast artists organized by the Orange County Museum of Art (through Dec. 31), and it’s had the effect of giving Sullivan, a San Francisco Art Institute grad, wider recognition — he reports that he sold out an edition of the photograph, and he doesn’t even have gallery representation. He was singled out in the Los Angeles Times’ review of the show, which dubbed him a purveyor of high-spirited “do-it-yourself special effects art.”
The OC show also includes a hilarious video called Magic Carpet Ride, a piece made at a Fisherman’s Wharf souvenir stand. In it Sullivan and his former teacher, the filmmaker (and Goldie Lifetime Achievement winner) George Kuchar, cavort on a roller coaster gondola. The pair exude goofball charm as they whiz over the Golden Gate Bridge past friendly drag queens. Kuchar is an instructive reference, as Sullivan also seems to dream in Technicolor. They also collaborated on a theatricalized reenactment of Chris Burden’s Shoot, the politicized 1971 gallery performance in which the Southern California conceptualist artist was shot in the arm with a pistol. The Sullivan-Kuchar version is set against an amber-hued commercial photomural of a tropical sunset. As a child of the Midwest, Sullivan expresses a continuing appreciation for and bemusement with the California dream. In another recent piece, he’s made fluorescent matchbooks emblazoned with regionally significant incendiary song titles, “California Dreaming” and “Running with the Devil” among them. This guy’s on fire. (Glen Helfand)

Pop lives


› johnny@sfbg.com
REVIEW There are different doors through which one can enter dunya dinlemiyor (the world won’t listen), a 2005 video installation by British artist Phil Collins. One can chart the many passages that lead from Collins’s work to the music of the Smiths, whose vocalist Morrissey chose an image from Andy Warhol’s Trash to adorn the cover of the group’s second attempt at creating a proper first album. In turn, those doors lead to Warhol’s earlier screen tests, which Collins deliberately invokes through dunya dinlemiyor’s song-length portraits of Smiths fans in Istanbul. These connections form more than one circuit — in fact, they do more than a figure eight. Even when out of fashion, pop art has a three-degrees-of-Warhol relationship to contemporary art. Is it really so extraordinary?
In this case the answer is yes. Whereas Warhol’s screen tests are powered by the egos of his superstars and other art movers and makers, Collins’s portraits shock through their anonymity and most of all, their unexpected emotional profundity. “15 minutes of shame,” reads the T-shirt of one of the two girls who sing “Panic” at the beginning of dunya dinlemiyor’s karaoke box versions of the songs that make up The World Won’t Listen, a 1987 Rough Trade compilation from the Smiths’ last year of creative life. The time-based phrase plays off both an oft-repeated — and garbled — Warhol quote and an early Morrissey lyric. But most of dunya dinlemiyor bypasses such referentiality to lay bare the perhaps singular universality of Smiths songs.
There are some other knowing nudges early on, as when a young man performs “Ask” in the manner of 1983–84 Morrissey, shirt unbuttoned and flowers sprouting from his ass pocket. Even in this pantomime or imitation, the gender liberation of Smiths songs — the way in which Morrissey-worship has allowed straight and gay men to enact or express unconventional forms of masculinity — is apparent. But this liberation takes an even more revelatory form with some of Collins’s female subjects. Their performances engage with and bloom from the lyrics in a manner quite different from the traditional courtship roles when female fans respond to words written by a man.
The most joyous, spine-tingling example has to be a pair of girls who hold hands while duetting on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Here, the substitution of someone else in the Morrissey role works wonders. Absent the frontperson’s overbearing persona, the music takes flight in unexpected directions. Using generic vacation-spot photos as a backdrop, Collins separates these Smiths fans from any stereotypes viewers might attach to Turkey. The closest thing to a culturally specific Old World reference is the twist of a woman’s muezzin prayer-wail approach to the finale of “Rubber Ring,” with its “Don’t forget the songs” litany.
The best door through which to enter dunya dinlemiyor is that provided by Collins, a simple passage surrounded by the flypapered advertisements that attracted his collaborators. This show is the absolute opposite of American Idol. Its most haunting and sublime interpretation has to be “Asleep,” sung by a young man with fresh scars on his forehead. His face is framed in extreme close-up in a manner that admires his beauty and aches to reach out to him, as if Carl Theodor Dreyer were lusting for Maria Falconetti. The Smiths have inspired no shortage of books, movies, and music, but this might be the best response to their songbook I’ve encountered.
In “Neopopular Demand,” Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou takes a rather more acidic view of popular music and Warhol’s pop legacy, specifically the decadent Interview years. His large paintings depicting himself as a magazine cover star were partly inspired by the almost action-figure aspect of 50 Cent’s rise to rap fame. Which is to say, Pecou’s work is both a response to 50’s exaggeration of a hip-hop hypermasculine bravado (a front that toys with and embraces caricature) and a commentary on the enthusiasm with which American culture consumes thug routines. Don’t get it twisted: Pecou loves hip-hop. He just doesn’t worship it.
The presence of imitation Jean-Michel Basquiat chalk scribbles at the edges and sometimes centers of Pecou’s paintings brings recent art history into the equation — in a manner that taunts potentially clueless buyers. Pecou possesses a post-Basquiat dandified flair (as with another compelling artist, Kehinde Wiley, it manifests in self-portraiture) and a skepticism that can only come from viewing the fatal footsteps of such a talent. He is in the process of making a film about his own self-creation as an art and media star, an endeavor that isn’t as revealing about his bright future as the edges of his canvases. That is where handsome paint renderings of magazine photos and fonts give way to shades of white that more than hint there are many other areas that he wants to explore. After painting himself into commercial boxes, Pecou leaves a space open so that he might perform a Harry Houdini–like escape. SFBG
Through Jan. 21, 2007
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF
$7–$12 (free first Tuesdays; half price Thursdays after 6 p.m.)
(415) 357-4000
Through Nov. 20
Michael Martin Galleries
101 Townsend, suite 207, SF
(415) 543-1550
To read an interview with Fahamu Pecou, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.

The soul stirrers


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The set is modestly spare, a disheveled if not quite ramshackle affair, being the basement studio of an imaginary low-watt radio station run by a solitary disc jockey (Peter Newton) with a thing for Japanese culture, an anguished relation to the American scene, and an insomniac disposition. But just as the deepest truths can rise immaculately from the muffled vibrations of a scratchy old blues record, so does Bay Area playwright Gary Aylesworth’s new play See That My Grave Is Kept Clean slyly and unassumingly sound nothing less than the soul-stirring chords and discords of an embattled American imagination.
The play’s DJ-everyman, sitting at his desk and console in a kimono, his samurai sword on one side, his classic blues discs on the other, coos into the microphone to whomever might be listening to the evening’s program. Caught between suicidal despair and a desire for revitalization, he’s fending off the highly bankable depression of a Prozac nation with the ameliorative properties of Japanese rice balls. He’s also bent on finding a little truth amid the “tsunami of propaganda” that characterizes the society outside. To this latter end, he’s got the classic recordings from the Anthology of American Folk Music on heavy rotation, markers of another era of American depression — marvelous songs Newton and Aylesworth actually perform live (including the song borrowed for the play’s title) in lilting harmonies to their own musical accompaniment.
But our DJ sets some archival interviews spinning too, in counter-rotation to one another, as it were. The other characters (played by Aylesworth, acting out the interviews the DJ intersperses throughout the program) are two formidable contemporaries and spiritual adversaries of the mid-20th century: Edward Bernays and Harry Smith. The juxtaposing of these two figures, polar extremes yet both highly influential in the economic and cultural spheres, becomes the motive propelling Aylesworth’s deceptively casual, humorous, melodious, and intriguing new play.
Bernays, considered a father of the public relations industry (“public relations” being a phrase he coined to substitute for the tarnished term “propaganda”), was by the 1920s and for decades afterward the much sought-after guru of ballyhoo. He sold everything from cigarettes to presidents to a bloody US-backed coup in Central America on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Bernays was also (not incidentally) the nephew of Sigmund Freud, whose ideas he put to pioneering use in the realm of what he called “the engineering of consent.”
On the other side of the stage (and every other important extreme) is Harry Smith, the play’s prickly patron saint. A character too protean and idiosyncratic for a neat label, Smith was among other things an experimental filmmaker and the musicologist who compiled the legendary multivolume Anthology of American Folk Music, recordings largely made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Originally issued on the Folkways label in 1952, it was so influential in the folk music revival and beyond that Bob Dylan (our DJ reminds us) once boasted that he would not have existed but for Harry Smith. Along the way, the play broaches Smith’s other passions as a jazz enthusiast, painter, and even a record producer (he recorded the Fugs’ debut album in 1965, which leads to the story recounted in the play of how he came to be consulted on the best way to levitate the Pentagon as part of a famous 1967 antiwar action).
Aylesworth plays the nonagenarian Bernays with a high, rasping voice and a set of repetitive, almost cartoonlike gestures that (along with a tendency for the “taped” interview to slow down and speed up at odd, sometimes telling moments) poke fun at the self-congratulatory figure. Bernays is a man so far from shy about bragging of his connections and achievements that he unconsciously paints an entirely grim view of modern society with the cheeriest of dispositions. By contrast, Smith (played with equal facility and a slightly hyperbolic, wry affect) has a cantankerous air about him. While forthcoming enough, he casts back a knowingly cautious, skeptical, even sarcastic tone to his various interviewers.
Here are two spiritual fathers, you might say, of the 20th-century United States, whose diametrically opposed outlooks constitute and reflect something like a metaphysical rift in the culture at large. Blended with Aylesworth’s simple yet choice staging, the acute and droll performances, and the laid-back but excellent renditions of selections from the Anthology, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean approaches its themes with a charm all the more forceful for being quirky and understated.
And if our DJ channels the despair of the age, it’s clear that despair cuts two ways too. It leads either to the acquiescence and metaphysical poverty of Bernays-style fables of freedom and plenty or to the awakened, agitated thought, action, and social conscience of a Harry Smith, which seeks nothing in the end more than the obliteration of myth and the reanimation of the senses. With its rousing good humor and a shrewd theatrical assurance whose crystalline simplicity resonates with far-reaching themes, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean gives eloquent voice to the restless rebel wide awake beneath the glossy, manufactured surface of the American dream. SFBG
Through Sun/27
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Traveling Jewish Theatre
470 Florida, SF
$15–$20 (Thurs., pay what you can)
(415) 831-1943

Big bang


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REVIEW Near the end of “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman’s woozy celebration of the universe contained within, he asks, “Do I contradict myself?” then responds to his own query, “Very well, then, I contradict myself.” This is followed by the oft-cited parenthetical thought, “I am large — I contain multitudes,” a sentiment that has been variously expressed in art since Whitman did so at the turn of the 20th century. “Cosmic Wonder,” a group exhibition featuring more than 20 emerging and established artists and an artists collective, offers a new take on Whitman’s lines as well as on one of the other overarching themes of the poem: the complexity of the American identity.
The heart of “Cosmic Wonder” revolves around the soul — more specifically, around a 21st-century reading of spirituality and our current relationship with the natural world. Threaded throughout are propositions toward articuutf8g the self within the context of an increasingly chaotic society that’s split between the built environment (manufactured slabs of concrete and acres of glass, metal, and plastic) and the myriad holes (some might call them black) within cyberspace. In the exhibition introduction, guest curator Betty Nguyen writes that among other things, “Cosmic Wonder” is about the “relationship of the individual to the multitude.” The contemporary “I” contains multitudinous parts; the song of the self is a dissonant dirge in multiple echo chambers; the largess of self is refracted across numerous surfaces. How to find oneself in this fractured landscape?
The black-and-white DVD projection Untitled (Silver) by Takeshi Murata (whose Monster Movie was part of “The Zine Unbound” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last year) is more of a kinetic painting than a video — the aesthetic is that of a painterly pixilation made of swooping gestures, as if an invisible brush is drawing the action. A woman moves through an indiscernible landscape, her figure dissolving between the abstract and wholly recognizable. Set to a squishy electronic soundtrack composed by Robert Beatty and Ellen Mollé, it suggests the ways identity morphs as we move through real and virtual time, shape-shifting in order to adapt to whichever environment we’re in. A stream of pixels trails the woman’s figure, as if she’s leaving programming code and bits of herself behind as she wends her way through a so-called meatland (as cybergeeks refer to life off-line) and cyberspace.
Shrines abound in various forms: Yukinori Maeda’s Eclipse/Eclipse Weeping Rock floor installation; Paper Rad’s wall-mounted installation consisting of hundreds of paintings and drawings and four DVDs; Mark Borthwick’s photographs, drawings, and performance environment Is My Nature My Only Way; and a giant mandalalike site-specific wall painting by Hisham Bharoocha. Spend a little time in the main gallery and it becomes difficult to determine what could be considered a shrine and what’s straight-up installation, especially in the context of the remainder of the show. Although taking cues from religious configurations, these shrines embody a more current vision of how to access the divine. What is offered can be seen as a sort of shrine reclamation project that eschews any particular religious doctrine in favor of celebrating those things that strike a more universal chord (inasmuch as anything can be considered universal in this age of political and religious partisanship). At the end of one of the videos serving as the centerpiece of the work by Paper Rad (a collective hailing from Pittsburgh, Penn., and Northampton, Mass.), the voice-over narration asks for a “nonexclusive real prayer” to put to rest a robot battle involving the U2 iPod, Adam Sandler, and … I forget what else. The point is it would be nice to think a “nonexclusive real prayer” could be said to help resolve some of the conflicts currently raging around the world.
Nature’s beauty is championed through chosen material (Jose Alvarez’s sculptural paintings made of mineral crystals and seashells), content (Doug Aitken’s geometrically reconfigured landscape horizon lines), and intent (Mike Paré’s illustrations of blissed-out festivalgoers and ritual-inventing skateboarders). Arik Moonhawk Roper’s animation Lazarian Forest is a darker and perhaps more accurate depiction of our current relationship with nature. Set to a squawking, increasingly agitated soundtrack, a strange flower blooms in stop-motion stages. Leaves unfurl skyward, a bulb sprouts from its stem, and the music reaches a crescendo as the bulb slowly cracks open to reveal a green human skull — the simultaneous celebration and destruction of nature encapsulated. Very well, then, we contradict ourselves. SFBG
Through Nov. 5
Tues.–Wed. and Fri.–Sun., noon–5 p.m.; Thurs., noon–8 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-ARTS

A present from the past


› johnny@sfbg.com
One of us is wearing green short-sleeved Lacoste, the other blue short-sleeved Sergio Tacchini. We’ve looked around his apartment, where he’s leaving behind one shoebox-size tranquil bedroom — he’s now restlessly moving his belongings between two larger sun-drenched spaces. He jokingly calls one a massage room and the other a museum and talks about the patterns of shadows through his windows — how there’s a shadow that looks like a dancing lady, and how the window that faces a church is both peaceful and a passage to a fantasy about priests. Then we walk down the 37-step staircase onto 23rd Street, and Colter Jacobsen and I start talking about his art.
One of Jacobsen’s first shows took place in the exact spot we’ve just left behind. “Woods in the Watchers,” featuring pencil renderings of nudes and seminude photos Jacobsen found at the shop known as the Magazine (on Larkin), was presented in and around his bedroom. “The funny thing is what instigated the whole project was Friendster,” he says as we begin an uphill trek. “I was obsessed with it for two weeks and just started seeing everybody as a personal page — as if when they were looking at you, they were clicking on you. It was kind of fucked up. My response was that I wanted something more tactile. The idea eventually came to be one-hour timed drawings of guys wearing watches.”
We pass a couple on a stairway taking pictures of each other — the man is shooting video, the woman taking digital snapshots. Jacobsen remarks that one irony of the “Watchers” drawings, which uncover a bygone snail mail universe of intimate connections, is that they’re back on the Internet, via the Web site of local press Suspect Thoughts. I say they remind me a bit of the late artist and writer Joe Brainard’s casually hot drawings for the book gAy BCs. “[Brainard’s] stuff is amazing, it’s intimidating to me,” says Jacobsen. “It’s gestural and quick. I use a mechanical pencil and just thinking about approaching a piece of paper without a pencil scares me a little.”
If so, he has little reason for apprehension. In “Watchers” and especially in a recent group exhibition at White Columns in New York (where New York Times critic Roberta Smith singled him out for praise), and now in “Your Future,” a show at Four Star Video’s attic space, Jacobsen displays a talent for drawing images in a low-key way that can still saturate the banal with potent emotion — a truly rare ability these days.
A Mormon upbringing and contemplative community college time in San Diego, where he took a single class on color, light, and theory three times, are a few extreme shorthand examples of what led Jacobsen to San Francisco and his current work. He counts fellow artist Donal Mosher and the writers Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian as friendly influences; in fact, he’s created a gridlike piece charting Bellamy’s and Killian’s use of color in their fiction. “From reading their writing and not knowing what’s fiction and what’s real, I’ve gone on all these mind trips,” Jacobsen admits, as we cross paths with a woman using her cell phone like a loudspeaker. “One time on the Fourth of July I totally thought they were going to kill me.”
Jacobsen’s favorite course at the SF Art Institute was a creative writing class taught by Bellamy. There, he wrote a story — O Rings, about a blind girl obsessed with the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion — that has somewhat eerily prefigured his current art and life. He’s worked at Lighthouse for the Blind and currently is a caregiver and driver for the blind and disabled.
The walk up 24th Street has led us to Grand View Avenue, where the view is indeed grand. As we climb the coiled freeway overpass, Jacobsen talks about the “memory drawings” featured in both the show at White Columns and in the current Four Star Video show in San Francisco. “When I try to find a photo to draw from — which takes a long time — it’s like me trying to predict what I’ll be meditating on for the next couple of weeks,” he says. “I don’t take it lightly, and it’s often related to something personal.”
The element of prediction might be what Jacobsen is referring to when he says that these drawings stemming from old photos “are about the future.” In Four Star Video’s attic, Jacobsen has painted the titular words of the show over a newspaper obit page and fixed it to the corner of a wall so it can also read “Our Future.” This melancholy verging on morbidity spills from some drawings, especially a truly great one of a waterfront snapshot that uses a film-frame crosscutting technique to convey romantic heartbreak.
The show’s staircase climb to a heavenly Four Star “Future” is typical of Jacobsen’s casual yet concise use of place, and there are many elements at play, some so understated that a viewer who isn’t attentive might not even notice. Two papier-mâché teardrops hide in a corner, near the store’s rare DVDs of Salo and Lilya 4-Ever. (Images are often presented in twos and fours and eights: “Eight is my favorite number,” says Jacobsen. “It’s like two circles or two eyes.”) A pair of found-object mock columns stand next to the store’s shelving units. In a practice that updates pop art chestnuts to the current moment, Jacobsen — who first used the technique while reeling from being “totally blind” about a guy he was in love with — uses Wite-Out to cover up most of Peanuts and other strips (including his least favorite, Family Circus) in a way that reveals the wartime aggression and tension seething beneath.
Though he uses newspaper “funnies,” Jacobsen refers to these works as his “Saddies.” “I just wanted to show what I was seeing,” he says as we travel back down 24th Street past some children. Another irony: This newspaper is a space to discuss the deathly element within Jacobsen’s use of newspapers as found material. “My friend Tariq [Alvi] sees paper as death, because he once saw a mummy and the quality of its skin was like paper,” Jacobsen says when I mention the current bicoastal interest in works — especially drawings — on found or old documents.
As we near the end of our stroll, I ask Jacobsen about another walk, one in which he led a group of people — half of them blindfolded and the other half accompanying those wearing blindfolds — during a Sunday evening this June. The walk spanned from one Mission laundromat to another and included Jacobsen’s discussion of the visual theories of physicist Joseph Plateau, who went blind from staring at the sun. The choice of the event’s landmarks stemmed partly from the laundry lectures of Portland-based artist Sam Gould of Red76 and partly from Plateau’s interest in bubbles. “Does that all relate somehow?” Jacobsen asks as he explains it. “I have trouble figuring out how one thing connects to the next.”
“Usually, where I start [with a project] is where I’m stupid or ignorant — which can be anywhere, really,” he admits with a laugh, after saying that he even counted the number of steps — 313 and 168 — between the two laundromats and the walk’s starting point. Right around then, we reach those 37 steps that lead back up to his apartment, the same staircase that Jacobsen’s friend and musical collaborator Tomo (of Hey Willpower and Tussle) climbs, carrying a column, in a drawing within the Four Star Video show. When I say that the staircase’s red steps are just two short of matching a certain famous 39 Steps, Jacobsen says Alfred Hitchcock is one of his favorite filmmakers. It’s funny how one thing connects to the next — and often beautiful when Jacobsen renders the connections. SFBG
Through July 31
Daily, noon to 10 p.m.
Attic, Four Star Video
1521 18th St., SF
(415) 826-2900

Catch some rays


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Damn, it’s been hard to stay focused since the rain stopped. So many beers in the park to enjoy and so many great shows to see. Here are a few you should catch in between bike rides and slosh ball games.
Gregory Euclid’s work must be seen in person, because no photos can do it justice. He’s showing at White Walls through June, with Anthony Yankovic III and Teodor Dumitrescu, who are also amazing. Next door, the Shooting Gallery just opened its annual erotic show, where one can ogle boobies and butts in painted and photo forms. If you’re in the Lower Haight area, be sure to stop into Upper Playground’s gallery, Fifty24sf, where Japanese artists Kami and Sasu are showing. So good! Weston Teruya is one of my favorite artists in the city. He’s part of a group show at Patricia Sweetow that’s running through July 15. Combine your love of bikes, art, and booze with an evening ride down to 111 Minna Gallery for a cocktail and the group show that’s up now. Henry Lewis and Tara Foley rule it so good now! Smile time. SFBG
Through June 30
White Walls
835 Larkin, SF
(415) 931-1500
Through July 3
Shooting Gallery
839 Larkin, SF
(415) 931-8035
Through July 2
248 Fillmore, SF
(415) 252-0144, ext. 4
With Michele Carlson, Susan Chen, Katie Lewis, Weston Teruya, and Jamie Vasta
Through July 15
Patricia Sweetow Gallery
49 Geary, fourth floor, SF
(415) 788-5126
With Tom Allen, Jamie Dorfman, Tara Lisa Foley, Wednesday Kirwan, Henry Lewis, Jack Long, Yosuke Ueno, and Amanda Wachob
Through July 1
111 Minna Gallery
111 Minna, SF
(415) 974-1719
John Trippe publishes the online zine Fecal Face at www.fecalface.com.

Mr. Big Stuff


> a&eletters@sfbg.com

America is unquestionably the land of the large. We well realize that gigantic things generate a sense of awe — along with danger — as it currently applies to presidential hubris and supersized snacks. It’s no accident that the artists who work biggest are United States residents — not to mention men: Think of James Turrell, who transformed a crater in the Arizona desert into a massive temple to natural light; Richard Serra, whose hefty steel sculptures have blocked public plazas and famously crashed through a gallery floor; Christo, whose canvases are world landmarks and entire states; and even Jeff Koons, who effectively inflated a topiary puppy to the size of a mountain. They may have international reputations (and a few peers in other countries), but there is something undeniably American in the desire to realize dreams that large. The trick is to translate that sense of awe into something more than size envy.
Matthew Barney is perhaps the first contemporary artist to translate the idea of that monumental impulse to the media age. His latest venture, “Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint,” which opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week (look for a review in these pages soon), is a sizable, career-spanning project. Like most of his work, it involves a feature-length film, and objects and images that relate to a self-invented universe, one filled with references to the human body, landscapes, and landmarks. Perhaps, as some critics have suggested, Barney’s work extends the enveloping nature of film into three-dimensional space, or synthesizes various art forms into a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk — that total, epic extravaganza of a term that’s frequently attached to Barney. Whatever it’s called, it feels like something major.
Barney’s Drawing Restraint series — which comprises performances, videos, a feature film, and drawings — is rooted in the idea of struggle, transformation, and creation. The pieces in the ongoing series reflect the artist’s changing means — the earliest of them were done with Barney attempting to make drawings on the wall while shackled with rubber tethers or jumping on a trampoline and inscribing a self-portrait on the ceiling. Drawing Restraint 14, which was recently executed at SFMOMA, involved the artist scaling the building’s tubular skylight and drawing on the curved wall. Drawing Restraint 9, as has been widely reported, costars Barney’s real-life partner Björk, was filmed on a large Japanese whaling ship and employed the full crew as extras (a primary theme of the film is Barney’s identity as an occidental — read: American — in an inscrutable Japanese culture), and was realized on a budget of nearly $5 million.
That seems an attractive sum for an artist to be working with, but not when you compare it to the costs of this country’s greatest cultural exports — Hollywood movies — or even the price of an impressionist painting at auction. It definitely pales before Damien Hirst’s recently publicized bid to make the priciest work of art ever: a diamond-encrusted skull costing some $18.8 million. If Barney could raise those kinds of funds, most likely he’d have little trouble taking his vision to a next level, be it with CGI effects or with greater amounts of his signature material, petroleum jelly.
The SFMOMA exhibition involved casting 1,600 gallons of the stuff, a relatively small amount in Barney terms, in a rectangular mold — a process that was slowed by clogged hoses and a minor rupture on the museum steps. As he did at the Guggenheim with his 2003 Cremaster Cycle exhibition, Barney easily occupies a good chunk of the museum. The show covers the whole of the fourth floor, which has, for the first time, most of its walls removed. The now-vast galleries house a few whale-sized sculptures, all illuminated with hundreds of industrial-looking lightbulbs installed by Barney’s crew. Clusters of sleek flat-screen monitors hang from the ceiling throughout. While it’s not the most expensive show that SFMOMA has mounted — recent ones involving less exotic materials have had much bigger price tags — Drawing Restraint feels deluxe, even if its most used material is cool, white plastic instead of precious stones.
Is Barney’s work gracious or self-absorbed? Is his work fueled by ego, the art market, or artistic drive? These are difficult questions, and although the Cremaster exhibition was accompanied by a telephone book–sized catalog with reams of explanatory text, it’s still difficult to know. Critic Jerry Saltz, in a review of Drawing Restraint 9, described Barney as “a mystic exploring his own inner cathedral.” It seems apt, as that religious edifice is a cavernous container in which to contemplate mystical phenomena, not to mention a form to which museums are often compared. We’re meant to enter them and be quietly wowed, whether we believe the dogma or not.
Those who have tickets to the already sold-out Barney lecture on June 23 — an example of his rock star status — will most likely come away with a sense that the artist possesses a genuine humbleness and an unerring drive to realize his vision. He thinks big, and manages to live up to his ambitions with dignity. Whatever you think of his work, you gotta admire his supersized pluck. SFBG
June 23–Sept. 17
Fri.–Tues., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.;
Thurs., 11 a.m.–>8:45 p.m.
151 Third St., SF
$7–$12.50, free for 12 and under and members (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–8:45 p.m.)
(415) 357-4000
For Drawing Restraint events, go to www.sfmoma.org

“The Man Box and Beyond”


REVIEW Postfeminism — which is not the death of feminism so much as an effort to examine how culture creates gender differences in terms of how femininity and masculinity are defined — is a good place to start when thinking about the work included in "The Man Box and Beyond." The exhibition was inspired in part by an exercise from the Oakland Men’s Project, a violence-prevention program that asks men how they feel when they’re expected to "act like a man." The 15 participants in this show approach and extend this question through a range of responses from the humorous to the serious. Perhaps the most compelling response is Hand to Hand, a large, wall-mounted installation by Ehren Tool of ceramic mugs with photo-transferred imagery and text related to war. The material is culled from different sources and represents the various ways war imagery shows up in our culture. All the mugs are unique and feature skulls, gas masks, insane quotes by President George W. Bush ("I just want you to know that when we are talking about war, we’re really talking about peace"), naked women holding assault weapons, naked men in military hats holding their cocks, people with their faces blown off, children who have been disfigured by war, and on and on. The mugs also have images of the artist, a former marine, and his family members who have served in the military. By locating himself in the crosshairs of war’s absurdity, Tool critiques himself and his identity, which has been both handed down to him and constructed by others. "People need to see this stuff with their coffee," is how Tool explained his project to me. To that end, the artist has given away 6,000 mugs — some of which have been mailed unsolicited — to politicians and other people in positions of government and corporate power. Deconstructing masculinity: one mug at a time. (Katie Kurtz)

The Man Box and Beyond Through Sat/6. Wed.–Sat., 1–6 p.m.
Closing reception Sat/6, 5–7 p.m.
The Lab, 2948 16th St., SF. (415) 864-8855, www.thelab.org

Art Picks


‘A Searing Lesson Every Girl Should Know’


Love is the object of Tami Demaree’s devotion, the axis at which everything spins, the departure point and the destination, to be won and lost and won back again. "A Searing Lesson Every Girl Should Know," the LA artist’s first major solo exhibition, gently prods love at every angle and from the point of view of the forsaken girl who is equally perplexed by, and hopeful about, love’s possibilities. Demaree teases out its attendant emotions to absurd effect using an array of materials (acrylic, glitter, neon, contact paper, googly eyes, and so on) that are often accompanied by sly and sweet slogans and puns such as "I love you like ping loves pong" and "You’re my favorite kiss of my whole life." The overall feeling is that of a nose tweak and a wink punctuated with a smirk and the occasional sucker punch that’s wrapped in a rainbow ever aching with the possibility of finding and holding on to true-blue die-for-you love. Although many artists attempt it, combining text and image is difficult to pull off and very few have the facility or intelligence to do it well. Not so Demaree. Her sincere visual and textual puns have just the right amount of irony and stop just short of being too coy. One example is painted directly on a gallery wall: "On the phone you said your love was flaming, and in my head I cheered go Flaming GO!!!" It takes a few beats before you notice the neon pink flamingo plugged into the wall next to it. If, as Cervantes wrote, love is "the greatest god and greatest pain," Demaree keeps love in the realm of greatest great, however transitory it may be. (Katie Kurtz)


Steven Wolf Fine Arts, through Jan 28, Mon.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.

49 Geary, Ste. 411, SF. (415) 263-3677, www.stevenwolffinearts.co