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Visual Art

State of the art



YEAR IN VISUAL ART Maybe it’s the Mayan calendar thing. Large cycles and turnings, old giving way to new, and all that. But in thinking about 2012, I can’t help but think about big seismic shifts and changes to infrastructure that are moving large pieces of the art world around, setting adrift transformations that won’t settle down for some time.

So, at year’s end I’ve written here something more like a love letter of hopes and apprehensions for my chosen profession as it evolves into whatever comes next. For to be sure, 2012 saw the structures of the art world (whatever that term means to you) a-changing.

From the viewpoint of commerce, never before has the term “art market” seemed more apt, as the art fair circuit has seized firm control over art buying, in environments that feel much more like a Tangier spice bazaar than any kind of dispassionate white-walled arena for ideas.

But forget that old definition for an art gallery anyway. The new one for 2012 and beyond is this: a storefront for itinerant consultancies who are measuring their time until touching down in the next art fair booth.

Given that, it’s completely logical, and also disheartening, that larger numbers of Bay Area galleries truncated their hours in 2012. Why be open for more than 10 or 15 hours a week? As one gallerist told me this year, “The storefront is just for hospitality. We don’t really sell anything out of here.” Indeed, increasingly Bay Area galleries sell on the road in Miami, New York, Basel, Hong Kong, or somewhere else at one of the large art-fair conglomerations that now define the selling calendar.

For people like me, for whom wandering in and out of galleries is necessary for our peace of mind, this emerging scenario really bites. The nascent, creeping practice of keeping gallery hours only on Saturday, possibly Sunday with maybe another weekday thrown in (and you know who you are) does nothing to bridge the widening gap between the commonly held outsider perception that galleries are not for ordinary people and the dawning insider suspicion that, well, maybe galleries are not for art people either.

There has always been a divide between inside and outside the art world, but that has largely been a matter of self-identification. The insiders have always been the weirdos who bothered to care, who got geeky about the poetic language of objects and situations, tracking artists and galleries the way other people track chefs and restaurateurs. What worries me is that us weirdos are losing bandwidth in our own scene; until recently “insider” has included the art-viewing-and-talking public, and not just the art-buying class. The forming idea of what an art constituency is has rapidly shifted, and though I’m not exactly on the same page as ex-critic Dave Hickey, who very publicly “quit” the art world this year (with statements like “Art editors and critics — people like me — have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.”), I get where he’s coming from.

If the work is increasingly being shown and promoted elsewhere along a rarified travel route, what recourse are the rest of us empty-pocketed onlookers supposed to have? But all signs point to this continuing and accelerating. In 2013 we’ll see the market further consolidate around global cities and travel plans, and for local galleries, “risk-taking” will increasingly have less to do with ambitious, place-aware programming and more with stretching budgets and maximizing production to keep pace with the expanding endless summer of art fairs.

But gathering together seems to present its own risks, too. Superstorm Sandy served an ominous warning about the geographic and physical contingency of the architectures where art is both sold and guarded. This year we witnessed the mass wipeout of both artworks and small galleries caused by a single (albeit badass) storm, literally swamping the world’s highest concentration of art dealers and contemporary artworks in the hemisphere’s most important art neighborhood. Many of those galleries and artworks will not resurface. For every one David Zwirner, with his stable of well-insured, blue chip artworks, there are a dozen small galleries each with emerging artists who just lost entire seasons of work and rent.

And I can’t not mention the January suicide of Mike Kelley, a hero to me and most artists I know. His death was a somber reminder that the art world is still inhabited by, and is shelter for, troubled hearts who sometimes can’t outrun their own demons, no matter how successful or beloved they become.

Yet there’s hope too. I saw some great shows this year, in museums, in galleries and, yes, at Burning Man, where Matthew Schultz’ breathtaking Pier 2, a 250-foot, full-size pier complete with shipwrecked Spanish galleon, hit the perfect note of surreality and absolute joy. Both the Jean Paul Gaultier show at the de Young and Cindy Sherman show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reminded us that institutions can dazzle when they set their minds to it, and Ben Kinmont at SFMOMA demonstrated that even if you’re stuffed into the mezzanine reading room, you can still pack a conceptual wallop. I also loved Mark Benson’s show at Ever Gold, Liam Everett at Altman Siegel, and Brent Green at Steven Wolf, to name just a few.

Where art making intersects the public there were bright spots, too. I mean, sure it’s a publicity gimmick that’s in practice all over the country, but somehow Oakland Art Murmur became a thing this year, an authentically energetic collection point that now draws thousands of people to Uptown Oakland each month. And tech continues to make inroads into the decidedly old school art machine: Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Paddle8, Art.sy, and a slew of other web tools made following, researching, and funding creative projects more democratically accessible. Indeed, I’m increasingly hopeful that from tech somewhere we’ll see an antidote to the increasingly oligarchical practices that sustain the current art market. *


All reflected



VISUAL ARTS Glossy and matte stripes alternate across the walls and floor of the 941 Geary gallery in the Tenderloin, occasionally illuminated by striking reflections from the exhibition’s 10 hanging canvases. These are perfectly symmetrical morphs of traditional letter-form graffiti, each done in Easter-ready pastels, save for a black-and-white tag that takes up one enormous gallery wall.

“I just want to continue painting different visions I have,” says the creator of this immersive art experience, visual artist Ricardo “Apex” Richey. He got his start tagging the streets of San Francisco in the early 1980s, perfecting his now-revered, precise hand forms inside Muni buses and walls around the city.

“Reflected,” this new solo show, plays on the entrance into the gallery world of an art form once done covertly on exterior walls. He’s taking graffiti and, like artists before him, skewing and reimagining it. “Abstracting the notion of Apex,” he tells me.


With the current mania for street art-inspired pieces, Apex has been able to make a career of his work. He capitalizes on the legions of graff-nerd followers on his social networks, and his drive to refract and skew the recognizable shape of graffiti in endless ways. The 941 Geary show was inspired by an iPhone app that allowed him to mirror pre-existing works. After speaking with Justin Giarla, founder of 941 and the rest of the White Walls family of urban art galleries, the two decided the idea merited more exploration.

But during the same week “Reflection” opened, Apex’s personal life was morphing as well. After three years in an epic factory-cum-studio on Market and Sixth Street, his building was sold and he was out. Goodbye to its 13-foot ceilings and the rotating, 10-foot high windows that look out on Market.


And goodbye to the museum he’d been curating upstairs on the roof, where SF street artists Chez and Neon had contributed massive works, among others. Painted vegetation by muralist Mona Caron curled to the sun in a piece one could nearly see from Trailhead, the pop-up cafe down the street in the Renoir Hotel whose back wall, by chance, is graced by a collaboration mural done by Caron and Apex.

If you wander around the Mid-Market neighborhood, it’s not hard to see that Apex spends his nights working in a neighborhood studio. He’s certainly left his mark. The first piece in the area was Yerba Buena Liquors’ sign, years ago. Since then he’s painted all over the place. The corner of Turk, Mason, and Market Streets is graced by a super-burner of his, a phrase coined to describe his pieces that use hundreds of hues of aerosol.

“I would love to stay there,” he tells me at his new FiDi day job (more on that in a sec.) “In that regard, this is kind of sad.” But Apex knew he was in the studio and roof space on borrowed time — rumors had swirled since he first moved in that the building was for sale. He sees the “gradient” of real estate prices, that Sixth Street was an anomaly in a ridiculously expensive city to live in.

“On one hand it sucks, on the other, I understand it. Overall, it’s better for the city.” He’s looking for a new space anywhere in the “industrial band” that loops between his old studio and Potrero Hill, hoping to get lucky with one of the city’s few remaining industrial spaces.

And, as his solo show is testament, he’s not letting the forced move stop him. That day job? He bought a coffee kiosk. The business is about him “trying to be mature,” he says, laughing as he talks about Otis Cafe, the Four Barrel-equipped stand he’s set up in the Otis Lounge nightclub entryway (25 Maiden, SF) where you can now find him weekdays from 7am to 3:30pm.

“This idea popped into my head,” he says. ‘Coffee cart, that’s a low end startup.” The Maiden Lane micro-‘hood lacks designer coffee, and on the day I visit, new regulars are already lining up.

For Apex, the kiosk is just product of a creative mind. “I feel very blessed, fortunate,” he muses. “Like, I’m an idea person. Painting, art allows me to get the most of those ideas to come to light.” The Otis Cafe sandwich board and cart bear Apex’s signature loops of color — a new home in the downtown area for the artist himself.


Through Jan. 5

941 Geary, SF

(415) 931-2500



An icon’s icons



VISUAL ART The new Jasper Johns retrospective currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opens not with his seminal 1955 painting Flag, but with one much less well known from 1956, a painted object titled Canvas. That work is made from a wood stretcher frame and canvas panel turned around to face the wall, the entire back of the thing covered in gray encaustic. Above it on the wall is a quotation from Johns, “I’ve always considered myself a very literal artist.”

This greeting at the show’s entrance is meant to tell you two things: that you may not be seeing all the most iconic works by one of the world’s most famous living artists, and that you’ll want to take this one slowly, since you’re going to be presented with a methodical review of Johns’ handling of artworks as objects. The central narrative of this excellent show — comprising some 90-plus works, some new and never before exhibited — is Johns’ continuing inquiry into the relationship between what an artwork is as an object and what it depicts.

The first two galleries are dedicated to Johns’ Numbers works, which bookend his nearly 60-year career. The numbers stand in for the other early works, the flag and target paintings that made him an immediate star in the late 1950s and announced the arrival of the post-Abstract Expressionist era. The room is framed by a high key oil painting titled 0 through 9 (pun probably intended), in which a stack of superimposed numerals competes with loud bursts of brushed color. Also in the same room is 1959’s White Numbers, a large relief grid of ordered numerals painted in very thick white encaustic. That impasto grid, texture and all, recurs in a cast bronze wall work from 2005, and a silver sculpture from 2008. Likewise, 0 through 9 is shown also as a charcoal drawing, a lithograph, and a lead relief.

The thing about numbers, of course, is the same about targets or flags. Namely, a painting of a flag is in fact a flag (distinct from how, say, a painting of a tree is not actually a tree). Letting this sink in and acknowledging that Johns is interested in the literal facts (pun intended here, too) of painting and sculpture helps frame how you encounter the rest of the works on display. From start to finish of the show, Johns’ works slowly build in visual and textual intricacy, but tend to circle around this same main refrain.

Johns wants you to understand the complex objects he’s creating, but that doesn’t mean he’ll make it easy. Proceeding by a kind of diffracted metonymy, the various components in Johns’ artworks are both meant to be exactly whatever they are, and also to stand in for a set of other things that also might have been included. This is made explicit in the way Johns mulls over compositions, and transmutes them across media, recasting — sometimes literally — a work in different iterations. Compounding this self-reflexivity, you’ll find statements once proposed as standalone artworks recur later as motifs or referents.

In other hands, this activity might be inexcusably hermetic or academic, but in Johns’ best works the effect is to establish at once both a harmonic resonance between concepts and a continual scrutiny of his own conclusions. For example, in the 1970s-80s Crosshatch paintings, you notice that same numerical grid from 20 years prior, this time reintroduced as the underlying compositional structure of works like Usuyuki (1979-81) or Scent (1973-74). Or, beginning with his 80s Seasons series and continuing to his new Shrinky Dink and Bushbaby images, entire compositions from past works are miniaturized and sampled in new ones, in a highly complex virtualization that juxtaposes metonymy with metaphor. When it works it is astonishing.

It’s axiomatic that an artist will return to established precepts over the course or her career, but few have done so with the explicitness of Johns, who uses his own process as fodder for new deconstructions and assemblages. That the show contains several new works and two new series suggests that Johns, now 82, is not done yet. *


Through Feb. 3


151 Third St., SF





Marie Bourget’s arabesque paintings take from tile work and ceramics and combine them with translations of Walt Whitman to lovely effect. Through Nov. 22, Johansson Projects, 2300 Telegraph, Oakl; www.johanssonprojects.com


Pitt’s painted wooden sculptures recall both Jonathan Lasker and Richard Tuttle. And that ain’t a bad thing. Through Dec. 8, Eli Ridgway Gallery, 172 Minna, SF; www.eliridgway.com


Sagerman’s paintings reimagine Georges Seurat’s pointillism as luminous color field paintings. Through Dec. 22, Brian Gross Fine Art, 49 Geary, Fifth Flr., SF; www.briangrossfineart.com

Don’t blink


FALL ARTS If there’s such a thing as seasonal themes in the art world, then we’re about to see the summer of performance art gradually give way to the autumn of geography. Look for big institutional shows and smaller gallery projects that present ideas about places and spaces. To that point, this roundup starts with two exhibits that should get you out of the city.


Barry McGee Arguably the most famous and influential visual artist to emerge from the Bay Area in the last few decades, McGee is getting the mid-career survey treatment at the Berkeley Art Museum. His activist-leaning work pulls from graffiti, comics, sign painting, and hobo art, usually in ways that interrupt and transform the spaces where they’re installed. The exhibition promises a broad retrospective sampling from early work to new projects, and if for some reason you haven’t already heard of Barry McGee, this is your chance to get up to speed. Through Dec. 9; bampfa.berkeley.edu

ZERO1: Seeking Silicon Valley ZERO1, the Silicon Valley-based (and funded) art and tech biennial, is curated this year to showcase international perspectives on place and placelessness in the post-Internet world. Over 150 artists from 13 countries will participate. Take heart, commute-averse, projects will be hosted at venues throughout (and in the sky above) the Bay Area. Among those, Nelly Ban Hayoun’s space opera music video penned by Bruce Sterling and performed by NASA employees; ISHKY’s Pi in the Sky, which utilizes skywriting planes to remind you of what comes after 3.14; and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive pirate radio station. Sept. 12-Dec. 8; www.zero1biennial.org

Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art Comparing six global cities that are important regional cultural centers but not global art commerce centers, Six Lines of Flight brings together progressive artists from San Francisco; Beirut, Lebanon; Cali, Columbia; Cluj, Romania; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and Tangier, Morocco. If it’s as good as I hope, the exhibition will showcase possible models for social art making that bridge regional and transnational identities. Sept. 15-Dec. 31; www.sfmoma.org.

re(collection) In the wake of the March 2011 tsunami that devastated northern Japan, volunteers and cleanup workers salvaged and preserved more than 750,000 family snapshots and photos, a community performance both defiant and touching. Some of those photos make up this exhibition, alongside collaborations and new work by Mark Baugh-Sasaki, Ariel Goldberg, Mayumi Hamanaka, Taro Hattori, Sean McFarland, Kari Orvik, and Kelli Yon. Sept. 12-Nov. 3; www.theintersection.org

Guy Overfelt: Blacklight I confess. I’m sending you on a blind date to Guy Overfelt’s October show. I have no idea what he has planned, but if recent work — which usually involves burning rubber, inflating stuff, and performance — is any indicator, the 2012 SECA nominee will not disappoint. Oct. 6-Nov. 3; www.evergoldgallery.com

The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg Dazzling, funny, and unsettling, “The Parade” combines kaleidoscopic, person-sized bird sculptures with five stop-motion animated films by Djurberg featuring ingenious synchronized soundtracks scored by Berg. I caught this in a rush at the New Museum in New York; can’t wait to spend more time with it here. Oct. 12-Jan. 27; www.ybca.org

Liam Everett Liam Everett’s lovely and haunting minimal abstract paintings usually incorporate alcohol, paint, and salt to distress and age unstretched canvases, making vibrant palimpsests and riffing on color field painting and installation work. Nov. 1-Dec. 22, www.altmansiegel.com

Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye Elder statesman of the American post-war period and pop art master sees a new major retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Organized with Johns and spanning the last 60 years, this latest survey of Johns’ work will include 85 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures, many of them from Bay Area collections. Nov. 3-Feb. 3; www.sfmoma.org

Cheeseburger wolfpack



FALL ARTS In a workshop far north, in the wilds of Portland, a man creates wooden monsters. But they’re gorgeous, these beasts: vertigo-inducing whorls of eyes and mouths and thousands of pin feathers. So entrancing are the works of artist A.J. Fosik that you want to trip and fall into the maw of one of his riotously colorful works, preferably while on whatever drug their maker was partaking in when he laboriously cobbled them together. (perhaps also while listening to Mastodon.) Fosik will bring the wolfpack south to Guerrero Gallery for a show beginning Nov. 10.

SFBG: I’ve read that your sculptures are meant to ape religious icons and the zealotry that surrounds them — is that true of this latest series?

A.J. Fosik: It is true. If religious people would stop being such colossal dickheads I would have a lot more time on my hands to pursue hobbies.

SFBG: High-falutin’ theories of faith aside, do your beasties have names, personalities?

AJF: They are characters in an archetypal sense, not in a my name is Dave sense. They are manifestations of the apparently inescapable human need to put a face to the unknowable in some sort of attempt at easing our existential angst. Ideally, I would like them to serve as inspiration to move past that way of thinking and embrace the unknowable. Sometimes [they have names], mostly they are named after the ideals of a humanity better than ours.

SFBG: Where do they live?

AJF: The same place all deities do, in your head.


SFBG: They’re so attention-grabbing — during the creation process, how do you relate to them? Do you have conversations?

AJF: I breathe life into them through their nostrils. Each piece receives a command written on parchment and rolled up, which is then placed in their mouths and compels them to obey.

SFBG: How long does a standard piece take you to make?

AJF: It takes a few splinters per hand and a couple of thousand pin nails.

SFBG: If you could engineer your beasts to perform a mechanical function, what would it be? You can say “eat people.”

AJF: I would like them to be able to take a precision slice from the part of the brain of every thick-skulled mouth breather that is responsible for holding onto the idea of faith as a virtue. Either by tooth or by claw they could slowly replace the justifications of so much hatred and replace them with the urgency of this life. Or they could regurgitate cheeseburgers to order.

SFBG: Your work is incredibly detailed. Why so elaborate?

AJF: If I stop working then I have to drink. When I start drinking, out come the wolves. It’s a safety measure. Also, DMT.

SFBG: Does anyone out there have a wall of Fosik pieces, like a psychedelic version of one of those wild imperialist British hunters?

AJF: If it does exist then I am insulted that my invitation has failed to materialize. If you’re reading this I can bring booze and firearms on short notice.

SFBG: Describe where you’d most like to see one of your works installed.

AJF: That’s sort of an odd thing at the moment. It really doesn’t seem to matter as much where the physical piece ends up, its real life is on Tumblrs and blogs or wherever else. If they don’t have teeth there they haven’t really lived.


Nov 10-Dec 8

Guerrero Gallery

2700 19th St., SF

(415) 400-5168


Lens flair



VISUAL ART Cindy Sherman is nearly always described as a groundbreaking postmodern photographer and pioneer. The mostly excellent, just-the-hits traveling retrospective currently visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is carefully curated to justify that praise. All the high points of Sherman’s prolific career are here, and her virtuosic scrambling of photographic conventions and assumptions are shown in high relief. As an act of institutional pedagogy, it’s certainly effective if not exactly revelatory.

Luckily for us, in pairing her retrospective with the “Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media” group show across the hall, SFMOMA makes interesting work of recasting Sherman as primarily a performance artist who utilizes photography as a tool. “Stage Presence” curator Rudolf Frieling’s scruffy show fashions a strong lens through which to see Sherman’s work from new angles, and if you bounce from one show to the other you’ll see undercurrents drawn out by that context.

>>Drag artists re-enact Cindy Sherman portraits: view our “Tastes of Cindy” photo essay

The retrospective leads off with “Untitled Film Stills,” Sherman’s breakout 1980 series of 69 images, presented together in the show’s first gallery. These black and white photos, staged and composed to resemble European film promotion stills, show Sherman in costume and makeup inhabiting dozens of distinct, recognizable tropes and types. These are not self portraits, and understanding that point is a kind of prerequisite for digging beneath Sherman’s body of work. Although she appears in every image, Sherman is an actor playing a role. Or more precisely, she’s performing the act of recreating herself and slipping between multiple roles.

Completed when Sherman was 26, “Untitled Film Stills” sets out the major themes she would follow for the next 30-plus years: fascination with media and film, deliberate manipulation of photographic conventions, ability to stitch together and swap out identities like costumes, a flair for storytelling, and a complicated allegiance with the characters she invents.

And about those pictures. As both photographer and model for her images, Sherman appropriates, tweaks, and ultimately tries to outrun established photographic idioms. At the heart of these single-frame performances, Sherman couches the act of slipping into character within familiar conventions of portrait work — series formats include publicity stills (“Untitled Film Stills”); centerfolds (her 1981 work commissioned for and then scrapped by Artforum magazine); classical portrait painting (over represented, frankly, in this show); headshots (here, from 2000); and large-scale society portraits (from 2008). By turns creepy, gaudy, lurid, ugly, garish, and exhilarating, her photographs put up a testy fight to keep you from instantly or casually objectifying the woman or man — usually woman — in the image.

While each tableau is meant to show a persona, it’s also meant to keep you at distance. Her facial expressions throughout are steely, usually blank-ish, and they project thin personalities that reveal only slivers of the people behind them. Across series she repeats the same narrative beat in her work, namely a moment of resistance in her characters to being fully captured on film. She’s rubber and you’re glue. Your gaze bounces off her and sticks to you.

Still, don’t be fooled by what may seem to be sarcasm — she is emphatic and earnest about the complications of photography’s lies, and by extension about the sum of ways we can possibly present ourselves to each other. One of the main reasons art historians love Sherman’s work is that she injects complicated arguments into the trajectory of identity and liberation theory. In her work, you see traces of an adaptable, slippery identity that represents itself only by wearing and exchanging costumes and masks. The self in Sherman’s work is an actor that acts, and never leaves the stage. It’s not that mastery of appearances allows for the actual presentation of the real, it’s that appearances are the only thing there is. There is no presentation of the real, only the constructed reality of the presentation.

Viewed together with “Stage Presence,” Sherman’s work fills in for performance artists you might find oddly absent across the hall. She stands in for both Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, as well as Bruce Nauman. All the same concerns that those artists (yes, male) are known for — forces played out in the body by abjection, failed desire, absurdity, and the grotesque — abound in her work. In this context it’s hard not to see both commentary on and participation with those artists in her clowns, fashion, and grotesque series. This angle is made most explicit by her work of the last dozen or so years. Less referential to film, her headshots and society portraits since the late 1990s include more plausible, abject characters whose constructed lives and identities are in various states of decay.

For another day or two, Sherman’s photographs can be seen in contrast with the exuberant Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective at the De Young Museum (closing August 19). In some ways Sherman is the yang to Gaultier’s yin, both addressing the slippery nature of identity and the performance of norms through the clothes and apparatuses of presentation. Highly recommended.


Through Oct. 8, $11-$18

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF



Off the walls



VISUAL ART As the Cindy Sherman retrospective draws huge crowds to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s fourth floor, visitors will find it the gateway drug par excellence for a neighboring show just a few steps away. Taking in Sherman’s frozen drag — in which visual art harnesses performance as both subject and tactic — is already to broach the invigorating dialogue underway in “Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media.”

>>Drag artists re-enact Cindy Sherman portraits: view our “Tastes of Cindy” photo essay

The eclectic group show, curated by SFMOMA’s Rudolf Frieling, gathers choice pieces from the museum’s collection, plus some vital loans, to consider the increasing role of theatricality as theme and strategy in contemporary art since the 1980s.

It further includes a “live art” component courtesy of the museum’s curator of public programs, Frank Smigiel — a weekly performance series that continues through Labor Day weekend in a commissioned space adjacent to the gallery, a lush little jewel box of a theater-cinema designed by Bay Area artist Tucker Nichols. This week’s performance piece is a highly anticipated appearance by Los Angeles-based troupe My Barbarian: Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, a raucous, multi-layered work that figures the American financial system as a garishly absurd spectacle of waste. (In addition to this site-specific series, a performance finale takes place October 4 in the museum’s atrium: Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions, a choreographed choral work for 20 women of color.)

Whether live or otherwise, the bridging of the visual and performing arts in “Stage Presence” encompasses a truly wide range of work. Highlights include some fascinating projected pieces on view in one or another of the floor’s darkened recesses — each one furnished with a glass window allowing visual access from the gallery proper, whether or not one wants to venture into the screening room.

One of these is Charles Atlas’s Hail the New Puritan (1986), which collapses the visual and performing arts by way of a made-for-BBC faux-documentary portrait of Scottish dancer-choreographer Michael Clark, supposedly captured over the course of one monumental but half-desultory day as he and his company rehearse his New Puritan (1984). With endless interruptions and segues — and a soundtrack sharpened by ample doses of post punk’s jolly downers, the Fall (whose Mark E. Smith and Brix Smith even appear in a staged TV “interview” with Clark) — Hail the New Puritan remains a gorgeous work whose ’80s-era aesthetic (a little like Godard meets Culture Club) retains a questioning and mocking insouciance.


It’s such jubilant indifference, including toward previous standards of seriousness or taste, that has contributed to a significant turn in much new work in the 1980s. Frieling, in an email correspondence from Europe, describes it as “a moment where the historic era of performance art and conceptualism had been challenged by a more exuberant, playful, and hybrid way of working — Charles Atlas, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, or Robert Wilson [all represented in the show] being three examples from that time despite their huge differences.”

Other salient themes running through the show explore the conceptual and practical possibilities in rehearsal, reenactment, and the speech act. To this end, the installation Today Is Not a Dress Rehearsal — which repurposes video of a Judith Butler lecture and other materials from an eponymous three-day collaborative performance by Mika Tajima (with her group New Humans) and Charles Atlas in the museum’s atrium in 2009 — offers subtle food for thought amid a visual and aural repositioning of a privileged form of address.

Also intriguing along similar lines is Sharon Hayes’s restrained yet progressively enthralling four channel video work, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, & 29 (2003). In each of four television screens fixed with audio headphones, viewers see and hear the artist reciting from memory each of Patty Hearst’s four video messages to her parents while a hostage of the SLA in 1974, with prompting from an unseen audience each time she veers even slightly from the script. It becomes, especially in the era of Occupy, a resonant occasion for a collective act of remembering as well as re-presenting, re-creating, resituating, and reformulating an iconic but elusive link to a radical past.

“Rethinking formats of presentation is a key to many of the works and the whole show,” says Frieling. “We were ultimately interested in art works that stress this open process while reflecting about the conscious act of staging.” *


Through Oct. 8, $11-$18

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF



The heart in art



VISUAL ART As the old saying goes, a picture can be worth a thousand words. But a local gallery has united two separate artists stemming from Jewish and Islamic backgrounds to convey only one: peace.

In “Shalom/Salaam,” a joint exhibit running through May 26 at the Mishin Fine Arts gallery, self-proclaimed activist artist Tom Block and Afghan refugee Shokoor Khusrawy demonstrate that art can be more than a commodity, and rather a tool to dismantle cultural barriers and inspire change.

Although very distinct in their approaches, both artists hope their paintings will help foster a shared emotional experience among viewers that will ultimately lead to understanding across different peoples and beliefs.

Growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, Khusrawy’s childhood was marred by violence and destruction. Art supplies were costly and difficult to find, and a bad hip injury confined him to paint on the ground. Yet as bombs rained down outside his window, his desire to create beautiful images remained strong.

From a bustling street market scene to a shepherd herding his goats in the countryside, Khusrawy’s soft, impressionist-style paintings offer an insider’s view into everyday life of a country that usually evokes images of conflict and hardship.

“He shows the hope and beauty that can be found in the world — not the destruction,” says gallery owner Larisa Mishina. “He expresses a desire to live in peace.”

Block’s work, on the other hand, aims to ignite that desire in others. In modern portraits made of acrylic, ink, and collage on canvas, Block depicts some of the most influential mystics of medieval times — from both Jewish and Islamic traditions — that have inspired and borrowed from each other throughout the ages.

Among Block’s “Shalom/Salaam” pieces are an interpretation of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a Sufi whose work was found quoted repeatedly in Jewish writings; it sits alongside a painting of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Hasidism, whose practice was heavily influenced by Sufi doctrine.

Through his portraits, and an accompanying book, Block aims to tell a positive story in a narrative that is almost entirely negative, and reveal that at the core, these ancient, warring religions are very similar. “I want people to see timeless ideas in a fresh way in the hopes that there will be a change in the heart of viewers,” Block explains.

Accordingly, much of Block’s work goes beyond the gallery. By using art projects to bring awareness of global and local issues, Block has been able to raise money for nonprofit organizations and led several events, such as the first ever Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival, which brought together 400 artist from around the world and got the attention of several hundred more. A collection of his other work is also on display at the Mishin Gallery in “Working toward Beauty.”

The exhibits are Block’s first in a commercial gallery and Khusrawy’s first in the US. Both artists have only been able to present at universities, libraries, and nonprofit organizations. “Galleries have always told me to leave my ideas at the door,” Block says.

But the exhibits are also a first for Mishin Fine Arts, which boasts a collection of 30 contemporary artists from all over the world, including Italy, Spain, and Russia. Although the artists in the gallery’s existing collection all have “profound messages,” Mishina says Block and Khusrawy’s exhibits are her first real step toward creating a space for more meaningful art.

“They are both raw talents, they are very sincere in what they do, and people feel it,” Mishina notes. “This brings true value to the gallery, which we want to share with art collectors.”

Block hopes the exhibits will open the eyes of art collectors to new, profound ideas of art and what it can do. “There’s a whole movement just waiting to be galvanized,” he says. *


Through May 26

Mishin Fine Arts

445A Sutter, SF

(415) 391-6100



Cartoonist confidential


VISUAL ART Daniel Clowes draws eyes that are eerily human. Dotting the pages of his well-regarded graphic novels, they are by turns embittered, despairing, and vulnerable. So it’s fitting that the Clowes’ first major retrospective is at the Oakland Museum of California. Oakland is an underdog city, and Clowes — a longtime resident — champions underdogs.

After its Bay Area run, the exhibition will go on to major cities in the U.S. and Europe. It spans his career to date, with panels from Ghost World and Wilson, as well as work for the New York Times and the New Yorker. A book, The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, was recently published in conjunction with the show, and is already in reprint.

I recently spoke with Clowes about the dream-like experience of seeing his subconscious from 20 feet away.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Comic book art goes through cycles of popularity. Where do you think we’re at right now?

Daniel Clowes It’s always like I’m at the eye of the hurricane. I can’t see what the zeitgeist is in terms of how comics are being taken by the public, you know? The feeling that people are going to inherently dismiss comics because they’re comics seems to be evaporating. People who 20 years ago would have nothing but disdain or horror if you told them that you drew comics are now sort of interested and see that as a viable means of expression. But I can’t tell if we’re in a bubble and it’s all going to disappear, or if it’s just going to get bigger.

SFBG Do you experience your own art differently at the museum?

DC I never see my artwork from a distance. The farthest I can get from my artwork in my studio is like 10 feet at the most, and I wouldn’t even do that. And so to see it on a wall, you see it in a very different way. You see the way it works compositionally. It’s just an abstract grouping of black shapes on a page. If I were intending work to go on a wall, I would do it very differently: it would be all about making those black shapes appealing from 20 feet away. And now it’s just sort of luck if that happens or not. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m trying to do.

SFBG The panels get larger as you progress through the show from the early work to the later work. They seemed more dense with subtext but with fewer lines.

DC That’s something I’m working toward. A certain kind of efficiency. I feel like any extra line distracts from the reading of a comic. I really want the reader to feel immersed in the story. I think the reason why the artwork got bigger over the years is, when I started, I couldn’t afford the paper. I had to try to squeeze like four pages onto one big sheet of paper. Also I used to have to send my artwork to the publisher — this was all before scanning. And so, if the artwork was really big it would cost a lot more money to send and it would get bent in half in the mail.

SFBG What’s the process you go through when you draw the eyes of your characters?

DC That’s always the last thing I do on a drawing. I leave the eyes blank. And people have come over and seen my work on the drawing board and found it very disconcerting and very weird that there are these faces with no eyes. But [the eyes are] the key to the drawing. That’s by far the most important part. And the eyes have to show some humanity behind them — even if they’re very simple circles. That’s how you can tell if a character is alive or not. It’s not something you can consciously do. I don’t really know what the secret to that is, except you have to sort of believe that they’re alive.

SFBG How do you feel about having your work preserved in a museum?

DC I think of the museum iteration of this work as being a temporary thing. I don’t see that as being where this work would end up. I would hope that [in the distant future] it would end up in book form, that people [will] still knew how to manipulate the pages of books and read them.

SFBG Has anything about the show surprised you?

DC Walking into that room was a strange experience. I really felt claustrophobic, like I was trapped in my own brain somehow. It was very dream-like. Last week was the most dream-like week I’ve had. Right after I went to the opening the other night, I came home and my son and I were out on our porch and we saw a car going 90 miles an hour. It hit the median right in front of the house, flew through the air, turned upside-down, and landed on its roof. It was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen. And then, miraculously — there were little kids [inside], and [they] crawled out of this broken car. The next day I was like, was all that a dream? I was in a room with all my artwork and then I saw a car fly through the air. It was just so odd.

SFBG It was the same week as that thunderstorm.

DC Yes, it was all that stuff. It was very surreal. *


Through Aug. 12

Oakland Museum of California

1000 Oak, Oakl.

(510) 318-8400


Utopia, mon amour



VISUAL ARTS With Occupy gearing up again and a fresh round of election hell full upon us, another cycle of protest — and the urge to engage with the problems of the world while somehow escaping them — is in the air. The Oakland Museum’s current “1968 Exhibit” (through August 19) offers a family-friendly, multimedia trip through the Bay Area’s most famous political and cultural upheaval. But here are three ongoing shows that look closely at individual creators from the past whose work transcends nostalgia, transmits a fair amount of beauty, and drums up some idealistic lessons for the present.



A miracle to inspire cafe artists everywhere. In 1964, 23-year-old NYC photographer Arthur Tress winged through San Francisco for a season, shooting the populace at a particularly turbulent time: the Republican National Convention, the Beatles’ first North American tour, auto worker protests along Van Ness, the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He developed the negatives in the communal darkroom off Duboce Park, had an unremarkable show in the back of a cafe, packed the photos up at his sister’s, and moved on. After his sister died, he found them in a box of her effects, and realized their significance.

And what a find: Forget Mad Men, this is the real 1964, perched on the edge of a cultural unraveling, its existential beehive slowly loosening into flower child ideals. The 70 photographs on show at the de Young, curated by James Ganz, expertly play with composition to bring rough social patches to artful life. A distorted shot of a George Romney presidential campaign poster delivers Orwellian chills. Screaming girls hoisting “Ringo for President” banners intimate repressed political hysteria. Dashing union workers form impressive phalanxes. Patrons at a Fifth and Market diner embody an microcosm of economic disillusionment. A transgender woman suns her hairy legs on the Embarcadero, a plaid-shirted boy holds up a hand-drawn hammer and sickle.

All of it coated with the glamour of deconstructed nostalgia, in which one can indulge and critique at once. But there’s more: “You have throw into the mix a heavy dose of social commentary and criticism — the idea that the photograph can be a vehicle for social change,” Tress tells an interviewer in the show’s handsome if carelessly annotated catalogue. “You photographed street demonstrations, you photographed protests … it was a way of becoming part of the movement.”

Through June 3. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., deyoung.famsf.org


Inside the great Henry Ford automotive museum just outside of Detroit, you can tour an actual Dymaxion House, designed by preternaturally productive designer, philosopher, and dissembler R. Buckminster Fuller. It’s as perfect a realtime experience of walking around in someone’s 1940s sci-fi Utopian dream as one can ever have. A polished aluminum mushroom cap subdivided into tiny rooms bursting with ingenious “squee!”-worthy gadgetry to handle all of life’s projected needs, the Dymaxion House never took off as vernacular American architecture, despite its supposed ease of construction, light weight, and good intentions to house an expanding population. (Among its bland nemeses: rain, expense, and snarky architecture critics.)

But while it’s particularly poignant to see this polished dream deferred nestled among the many wheeled ones populating Henry Ford’s shrine to the former glories of the Motor City — and even though geodesic monument Spaceship Earth at Disney’s Epcot, another eerie graveyard of sleek Utopian ideals, remains Bucky Fuller’s only famous American architectural manifestation — the Dymaxion concept, and several other Bucky wonders, have had a profoundly positive and energizing effect on the Bay Area, as this visionary show at the SFMOMA reveals.

Curator Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher forewarned, “To be clear, it’s not so much a show about Fuller.” Indeed, but in the first rooms prepare to be blown away by gorgeous blow-ups of Massachusetts-born Bucky’s hyper-geometric blueprints, which will surely provide several indie electro bands with album cover inspiration for years to come, and a wall of insanely detailed notecards from “Everything I Know,” his late-life video-recorded brain dump.

Then the real magic of the show kicks in, as it opens up into displays of Bay Area movements and products directly traceable to Fuller, from glorious hippie artifacts like the Ant Farm architecture collective, the Whole Earth Catalog scene, and the iconic North Face “Oval Intention” dome-shaped tent (really!) to contemporary tech initiatives, like bright neon specimens from the “One Laptop One Child” campaign and the utterly transfixing “Local Code” by UC Berkeley Assistant Professor Nicholas de Monchaux, which digitally renders the transformation of all the unused public space in SF into “a common ecological infrastucture.”

Beyond reviving interest in Fuller, the ambitious project of SFMOMA here is to showcase the deep connection between the Bay Area’s brilliant tech legacy and its transcendental communal one, an audacious, successful synthesis that would bring Bucky joy — and one that only a full-size recreation of Steve Wozniak’s garage could probably best.

Through July 29. SFMOMA, 151 Third St., SF. www.sfmoma.org


Harry Hay seemed to drop almost effortlessly into so many essential 20th century ideal-driven environments — Hollywood, unions, the Communist Party, gay rights, naturism, really the list goes on. That this modest show at the SF Main Library, curated by Joey Cain, not only clearly distills Hay’s timeline and influence, but also manages to illuminate new corners of his life and sometimes bring on a few tears, is rather a sensation.

Seriously, the man was multitude. Hay is best known as the founder of one of the first gay rights organizations, the Mattachine Society — here revealed through documents, org charts, and touching photos to have been a sort of Moose Lodge for “homophiles.” In one of the show’s most astounding touches, the exquisite Edwardian tea set used by his mother Margaret to caffeinate the early Mattachine meetings is displayed in full.

But of course there was more for this Mad Hatter, including pleading the Fifth before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s for his Communist party membership and Marxist musicology studies, his 1930s radicalizing tryst with actor and union supporter Will Geer, a.k.a. Grandpa from The Waltons, the “Circle of Loving Friends” desert commune, the national campaign to stop the damming of the Rio Grande — all laced through with references to underground SF gay clubs and arts happenings. (Some things, like his controversial early support for NAMBLA, which could benefit from some honest contextualization, seem glossed over, perhaps due to space concerns.)

Hay’s creation in the 1970s of the Radical Faeries, a collective whose anti-assimilationist, Pagan aesthetic continue to influence and inform Bay Area style, is well-represented here, as is perhaps Hay’s most stable pursuit: his loving 40-year relationship with John Burnside. Two seemingly politically contradictory Utopian ideals, embodied in one mercurial spirit, revealed beautifully.

Through July 29. SF Main Library, 100 Larkin, SF. www.sfpl.org

Sea, here



>>See more astounding images from Beneath Cold Seas here.

THE GREEN ISSUE Most people associate underwater photography with the tropics, but the beautiful shots that appear in Beneath Cold Seas (University of Washington, $45, 160pp) were shot in the Pacific Northwest. What’s most striking about the book is the color and vibrance that photographer David Hall was able to capture. It’s a bit mind-blowing to imagine that the hooded nudibranches and grasping octopi found in the book live in the inky depths abutting our very own rocky shores. The next time you take a dip at Baker or Muir Beach don’t forget that you’re frolicking with some seriously stunning fauna. 

SFBG: Where did you shoot Beneath Cold Seas?

DAVID HALL: I shot Beneath Cold Seas in British Columbia. The water tends to be more clear and there’s less pollution because of the small population density. But the same animals in the book are found in Northern California, they don’t recognize international borders. Technically biologists say the ecosystem extends from Southern Alaska down to Point Conception (north of Santa Barbara). That entire area is referred to as the Pacific Northwest.

SFBG: What environmental issues are facing the Pacific Northwest?

DH: One problem is the introduction of alien species. For instance farm-raised salmon taken from New England genetic stock occasionally escape and interbreed with the five or six Pacific species. So you’re getting a genetic mixture which endangers the original Pacific species. But the environmental issues that most people are worried about are overfishing and pollution, like oil spills. As more Canadian oil is being developed and exported to places like China, it will have to be shipped across these waters. So that becomes a concern, especially after what happened in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

SFBG: When did you start taking photos underwater?

DH: Many years ago I took a trip to the Virgin Islands. I’d never seen a coral reef before and was completely overwhelmed by what I saw while snorkeling. I felt that I had to photograph it because I’m not so good at describing things. I went out and bought the best camera I could afford which was a Kodak Instamatic in a plastic housing with flashbulbs. That was how it all started. In those days the bar was very low, if you got an underwater photograph that was somewhat recognizable you could get it published.


SFBG: What would you say inspired this project?

DH: At first I started going because I loved the diving, I enjoyed being there and getting photographs. But after the first half dozen trips I realized that the material I was getting was good enough for a book. I got the idea for the book about five years ago, but all in all it took about 15 years.

SFBG: What was a typical shoot like?

DH: I was living on a small boat for a couple of weeks at a time, doing three dives a day, and then reviewing photos at night. The days would be consumed with getting ready for the dive, getting all the equipment on, waiting until the current was just right, getting into the water, diving for an hour, getting back to the boat, getting warm — which takes another hour or two — and then getting ready to dive again. Altogether I made about 500 dives from 1995 to 2010.

Photographing underwater is much more difficult than photographing in air, and photographing in cold water is that much more difficult than photographing in warm water. No one had ever published a good book on underwater photography from a cold water destination in North America before. There are plenty of field guides, and fish ID books for fisherman, but no one had ever published a photographic book that tried to show the character of the ecosystem in an artistic way.

The book required getting a lot of wide angle shots to include the scenery as well as the animals. Getting good clear, colorful photographs in cold water is difficult because of visibility issues. Also cold water filters out all of the warm colors in the spectrum (red, orange, yellow) so to see the colors you have to add light back. So I dive with a pair of powerful flash units that attach to the camera by way of articulated arms that keep my hands free.

SFBG: So there wasn’t someone handling lighting for you?

DH: If I were a National Geographic contract photographer I’d probably have had a few assistants holding lights for me, but I wasn’t so lucky. I had to do everything myself. And in most cases I was diving completely alone.

SFBG: People don’t associate such colorful and exotic creatures with our coast. It’s really wonderful that your book is changing that perception.

DH: I certainly hope that’s what’s happening. The book has been very well received, largely because nobody was aware of what was down there. I mean marine biologists and divers were, but ordinary people had no idea.

People tend to protect what they know and value. Most Americans and Canadians are familiar with the aquatic species that we eat, but there’s a whole ecosystem there that the great majority of us are completely unfamiliar with. I hope my book will make people aware that these things exist and want to feel more protective toward that whole environment.


Cooking without borders


By Cynthia Salaysay


VISUAL ARTS The aura of old wars was in the room. Sock-footed, sitting on the floor eating bowls of ramen in the old barracks of the Marin Headlands, we were cozy and well-defended from the coastal fog. Once, these barracks were used to keep the Japanese out. But now we were welcoming them in, with every slurp of soup.

This was an art event about food and Japan. OPENrestaurant, an art collective of restaurateurs and cooks from the community around Chez Panisse, has been hosting events like these for the past four years. It’s the Alice Waters ethos applied to social practice art — creating food happenings where participants forge new connections, and a deeper understanding of food can hopefully occur.

This particular night, a foggy one at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, was a quiet one — no pigs butchered, or poultry running amok. It was a show-and-tell of the collective’s OPENharvest project of last fall, in which members — such as Jeremy Tooker from Four Barrel, Kayoko Akabori of Umamimart, and Sam White and Jerome Waag (current head chef) of Chez Panisse — met with people from the Tokyo food scene, to cook and eat beside them during rice harvest season.

Scattered throughout the room were mementos of the trip that spoke of the commonalities and the strange differences between the two cultures. eatlip gift: Cook book for Cooking People showed page after page of Saveur-esque snapshots of food — but no text. A stack of Café Sweet magazines sat next to the Four Barrel coffee cart, one of which featured photos from the Four Barrel café on Valencia. A small bottle of extra virgin olive oil was labeled in traditional Japanese brush script.

Ramen was served, the meaty broth spiked with Meyer lemon, and topped with gushy, soft-boiled egg. So were Japanese whiskey highballs, ubiquitous in Tokyo bars.

“There is this parallel community of people out there, who appreciate art and food in the way we do,” said White, a principle organizer of OPENharvest. “In the Bay Area it’s like preaching to the choir, people appreciate foodie-artsy-whatever. But to take it to a different culture, with a different food style, plug in some of our philosophy and have it work — that was super rewarding.”

During their trip, they made collaborative dinners with local chefs. Making bouillabaisse involved fishing in Tokyo Bay and calling farms for produce — an uncommon practice there. Local olive oil and wine was used. Dishes combined Japanese and California influences, for example using chestnuts, and kabocha squash as a stuffing for ravioli. Wild deer was butchered in front of their guests, and served.

“Everything tasted sweeter there,” said Waag.

Jonathan Waters, wine director at Chez Panisse, also took part. “The Japanese approached wine with an open palate. They were not conditioned to attach flavors to a construct — like dry or sweet. They were more open to the ethereal, mysterious qualities in wine.”

The Japanese were just as receptive to learning from OPEN members. “It seemed like it was a good time in the psyche of their country to talk about food,” said White. Sourcing of ingredients take on new meaning in a country dealing with the effects of radiation on agricultural areas.

But, said White, “Our Japanese friends said to us, ‘We don’t want to make this [event] a memorial to Japan.’ They didn’t want it to be just about radiation. That definitely exists, that’s a real thing, but there’s also a whole country with a future, stuff to hope for, and work towards.”

Last fall’s trip continues to have socio-cultural impact. The restaurants they worked with continue to call farmers directly for produce. And Japanese chefs and artists have since come to learn, cook, and do projects here in the Bay Area.

“Part of me feels like it’s not over,” said White. “Because what happened was we opened a door.” 



Agrarian visions


By Cynthia Salaysay


VISUAL ART Artists are makers, though rarely of history. But Fernando García-Dory and Amy Franceschini, two internationally recognized artists, seem to have a gift for it. “Perhaps,” García-Dory says, “when you start with a long perspective on history, you start to make history as well.”

At the David Brower Center’s Hazel Wolf Gallery, their joint show “Land, Use” presents work that is whimsical and futuristic, yet rooted in traditional agricultural values. It’s like Disney’s Tomorrowland — but on an urban farm, where wheelbarrows are pedal-powered. Or on the rolling green pastures of Spain, where sheep wear GPS transmitters around their necks.

Franceschini is one of San Francisco’s own. Her Victory Garden project in 2007 caught the fancy of SF City Hall, with pieces like Trike — a part-cycle, part-wheelbarrow, designed to contain all the supplies necessary to build a small garden. Soon the city began encouraging its residents to grow food, as it did in World War II. City Hall was decked out in raised garden beds, and residents throughout the city began their own vegetable patches.

García-Dory, from Madrid, has worked extensively with the dwindling Basque shepherds of the Pyrenees, where they have lived for centuries. His images and films portray white-haired men stacking golden cheese in ancient caves, or facing the wind, shearing one of their grim-faced flock.

The images come from the Shepherds School he created, and from his World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples (2005), in which shepherds and goatherds around the world came together to talk about their way of life, which has become so rarified in these modern times.

García-Dory’s work, in part, uses new technology to protect mobile pastoralism, as it’s called. His piece Bionic Sheep sits in the foyer of the gallery. The device emits ultrasound waves to repel wolves, as shepherds in Spain are no longer allowed to kill them to protect their flock. It also has a GPS so shepherds can keep track of their flock without being chained to the pasture. “They can stay at the bar, and have another beer,” Dory explains.

Adds Franceschini, “The role of art for us is, in part, utility. It has this negative connotation in the art world, but I think for us it’s important for the work we’re doing to be useful.”

Their first collaboration, Shepherd’s Wagon, a Blueprint, is “like the blueprint for a molecule that was sent on the Voyager shuttle to Jupiter,” says García-Dory. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Here, it’s a model, and it can be reproduced.'”

A canopy reaches out over the gallery, mimicking the awning of a shepherd’s wagon, where they sleep. Wooden chairs and a communal table fold down from the wall. As part of the installation, Franceschini and García-Dory invited young farmers, shepherds, and naturalists to sit together beneath their fragile roof. The forum’s purpose: to discuss how to balance the environmental concerns of naturalists with those of farmers and pastoralists, and forge a new network for social activism.

The gallery still holds some of the collective energy of the group. Remnants of their brainstorm litter the gallery like leaves blown over a sidewalk — a chaos of hopeful thoughts and ideas. Phrases like “We all need to come back to understanding the Farm Bill,” and “Let’s Shadow Each Other Voluntary Exchange Program” hang from the walls.

“Promoting a gathering as we did, it’s a way for us to be close to the people and have the direct communication that very often we lack in our lives,” says García-Dory.

“I haven’t been involved in food politics and land use in the last two years in the Bay Area,” Franceschini says. “For me, it’s a check in. Here’s all the people I’ve met from the Victory Gardens, here’s people I’d like Fernando to meet.”

Although the Bay Area is a hotbed of environmentalism and the slow food movement, awareness of pastoralism is low. “Dory’s reminding us of the history of the Basque sheepherders and the culture that brought shepherding to the American West,” says Brittany Cole Bush of Star Creek Ranch.

In the East Bay hills, Basque and Peruvian shepherds, along with young shepherds like Bush, use sheep and goats to reduce fire hazard, target invasive plants, and encourage native grasses to grow. “These animals are helping to revitalize the lands, and at the same time they’re producing a local grass-fed product that can be taken to market,” explains Bush.

Adds García-Dory, “Maybe sheep are the new celebrity, or should be.”

The Blueprint isn’t finished yet. “The people [at the gathering] said they would like to keep meeting and working, and that was really very encouraging for us,” says García-Dory. “We hope that the heritage of small farmers and shepherds can be a point of anchor for a new movement.”

Such a hope, though ambitious, seems realistic, given their past work. García-Dory’s World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples created an international, politically active community of shepherds that continues to work together. His Shepherds School has graduated 100 people. And Franceschini’s Victory Gardens live on — 10 of the gardens planted from the original 18 still exist. The city of San Francisco, which discovered through the project that people needed to learn how to grow food again, continues to fund educational programs like Hayes Valley Farm.

Although their pieces have created a lasting impact, Franceschini insists that much of that impact is due to the people around her. “An important part of what Fernando and I do is using the community around you to organize and activate ideas. That’s a message I’m always trying to tell my students. Your friends and your closest colleagues are your allies. I think sometimes you don’t see the potential in front of your nose.”

Other pieces on display include Franceschini’s This is Not a Trojan Horse, as well as short films and other artifacts documenting the Victory Garden, Shepherds School, and World Gathering.


Through May 9

Hazel Wolf Gallery

David Brower Center

2150 Allston, Berk.

(510) 809-0900


This old house


HAIRY EYEBALL Aside from its prime Cow Hollow location, the modest single floor, above-garage residence at 3020 Laguna Street is a largely unremarkable piece of real estate. Over its 150-year existence it has served as a home to people now forgotten, any relations of its last known occupants having cut all ties to this particular place. What’s left is the building itself, which, judging from its dingy stucco exterior and the tidy beaver dam of exposed lath covering what had been a bay window, looks as if it has an imminent appointment with the wrecking ball.

The house is indeed slated for demolition due to structural instability. But the lath-work exterior is in fact one of nine installations built in, on, and outside the house for Highlight Gallery’s inaugural site-specific project “3020 Laguna Street in Exitum.”

3020 Laguna in 2009:

Real estate developer and Highlight Gallery founder-director Amir Mortazavi, along with co-curator David Kasprzak gave each participating artist the stipulation that, aside from fasteners, they could only use materials sourced from the house itself. The resulting pieces turn the space inside out, making visible the domicile’s history as well as its bones, while also bringing in new bodies to reside — however temporarily — within its walls. In short, 3020 Laguna Street in Exitum returns something of the “home” to this house in its final days.

Starting from the outside, Randy Colosky’s “Quantum Entanglement of the Carpenters Union Local,” a clean line cut into the building’s stucco exterior with two rotary saw blades protruding from either end, is a visual chicken-egg puzzle. The blades appear as if they were cutting their way out or had been simply left there mid-job.

Upon entering a narrow hallway, one is immediately drawn into the front room on the right where Chris Fraser’s “Outline” — the aforementioned beaver dam — can be properly experienced. Fraser stripped the exterior wall to its studs and lath, producing a Venetian blind-style grating that turns the brightly whitewashed walls into a canvas for shadow and sunlight to play off.

When I visited the site late on a sunny afternoon, visitors understandably congregated near “Outline.” It is a serene, almost patio-like space in which the outside world, still so near, is transformed into flickering bands of movement. Afternoon shadows create moiré patterns of interference on the walls.

The other focal point was Andy Vogt’s “Drawn Out,” perhaps the most technically involved and architecturally ambitious installation aside from Fraser’s. Vogt cut a diagonal path into the floorboards between the kitchen entrance and what had been a window, excavating it as a single piece. He then decreased the height of the floor joists below the cut and put the floor back in place, creating a ramp to nowhere that draws the eye from the kitchen down to the where the wall had been to a patch of scrubby bamboo that has taken root in the crevice between the house and the neighbors’.

Not all the interventions are as heavy on reconstruction as Fraser’s and Vogt’s. For “Nothing to No Thing” Jesse Schlesinger camped out in what was the bedroom for 28 days, from new moon to new moon, using elements from the room—mainly a baseboard and door trim — to create a bed frame and stools, and invited visitors to join him for tea and coffee. Aside from the furniture itself, the only traces of these visits are the used tea leaves and coffee filters, a guest log, and, in a decidedly homey touch, the height of each guest recorded on the doorframe.

Christine M. Peterson’s “Shift (Plane),” which transforms a large storage area off of the kitchen by detaching and radially shifting the facade of closet doors that covered one wall, and Yulia Pinkusevich’s “Data Mass Projection,” a basement installation created out of telephone and data wires found throughout the house that have been stripped and hung to resemble a light spectrometer, are formally pleasing yet don’t quite reveal the space anew.

If this project can said to be haunted, it is by the ghost of Gordon Matta-Clark, the 1970s New York-based artist and architect best known for those works in which he dissected existing buildings, often slicing into and opening them up, or engaged with marginal and neglected urban spaces he termed “nonsites.”

I’m not sure if 3020 Laguna, or if any piece of marketable property in our 7×7 real estate bubble, would qualify as the latter. Matta-Clark was working at a time when New York City developers were throwing money into large corporate construction projects that sought to bulldoze and build over much of the Big Apple’s infrastructural rot and many Americans were fleeing to the suburbs. His pieces at both urban and suburban sites were informed by — and drew attention to — this shifting architectural landscape. Despite the elegiac overtures of some the pieces, the stakes at 3020 in Exitum feel smaller even if the project is engaging as a series of formal experiments in spatial perception.


3020 Laguna, SF

Sat/18 and Sat/25, 2 p.m.-7 p.m.

(415) 529-1221



Abstract truth


VISUAL ART A museum-quality show in terms of ambition and achievement, “Surrealism: New Worlds” fleshes out a forgotten, if not effaced, chapter in American art history, even as it incidentally tells the story of the gallery showing it.

For the éminence grise of the Weinstein Gallery was Gordon Onslow Ford (1912-2003), who, in addition to his role in the evolution of abstract art, was also one of the great collectors of modernism. Along with his friends Roberto Matta and Esteban Frances, the British-born Onslow Ford joined André Breton’s Surrealist Movement in Paris in 1938, and would subsequently pursue an increasingly visionary, Zen-influenced abstraction in New York City, Mexico, and finally Northern California, where he lived from 1947 until his death. Onslow Ford’s influence helped transform Weinstein — his exclusive dealer — into a serious gallery for historically-connected surrealist art; through him, the gallery would forge links with other, then-living surrealists like Enrico Donati (1909-2008), and even now, after his death, it continues to gather his fellow travelers, as when it began representing the estate of Gerome Kamrowski in 2005, or the estate of Jimmy Ernst (Max’s son) in 2010.

As befits its plural title, “New Worlds” doesn’t present anything like a unified aesthetic, because surrealism alone among the modernisms isn’t an aesthetic but rather a critical assault on the conventions of reality. Thus abstraction mingles freely with figurative art, assemblages with bronzes, an automatic work like Oscar Domínguez’s Three Figures (1947) with a meticulous imitation readymade like Marcel Duchamp’s Eau & Gaz à tous étages (1958). Drawn from a roughly 30-year time span, the 1930s to the ’60s, the show lists some 22 artists — an unlisted Dorothea Tanning (still alive at 101, though more active these days as a writer than a painter) brings that number up to 23 — all of whom were connected to some degree to Breton’s group. The theme, broadly speaking, is the encounter between the European-formulated surrealism and the “new world” of America.

Being a gallery, Weinstein naturally leans most heavily on painters it represents; Onslow Ford, Donati, Kamrowski, and Leonor Fini are the pillars of this show, along with substantial contributions from Matta and Jimmy Ernst. What is remarkable, therefore, is how deftly the gallery has filled out the show with works from big-name artists from the surrealist pantheon. A pair of Max Ernsts — Convolvulus! Convolvulus! (1941) and Head of a Man (1947) — gives as good an impression of his mercurial range as possible from merely two paintings, the former an Henri Rousseau-like jungle of hidden creatures emerging from weird plumes of color, the latter an austere though colorful Neo-Cubist mask. A single André Masson must suffice for that artist’s equally varied output, but the massive Le Centaure Porte-Clé (1947) (or “centaur key-ring”) is a real stunner whose mutating image suggests something of his graphic work. Large canvases by seldom seen surrealists like Domínguez and Kurt Seligmann lend the show considerable depth.

The most crucial of the surrealist old masters represented here, however, is Yves Tanguy, who stakes out his own wall with three oils and one of his delicately rendered gouaches. All are what you would call prime works of the artist, with significant pedigrees: one belonged to the early surrealist poet Paul Éluard, another to Hans Bellmer, and even the gouache has appeared in books and museums. But to identify Tanguy as more “crucial” here than, say, Masson or Max Ernst isn’t to remark on the greater significance and number of the works in question; rather, the influence of Tanguy on painters like Onslow Ford, Donati, Matta, Kamrowski, and William Baziotes feels more pronounced, and brings us to the heart of the show. For while, again, “New Worlds” showcases the surrealism’s variety over a 30-year span, the main thrust of the show inevitably becomes the development of abstract surrealism, particularly as affected by the arrival of Breton, Tanguy, and other members of the surrealist group in NYC in the early ’40s, fleeing the Nazi occupation of Paris.

The encounter between the European surrealists and American artists like Kamrowski and Baziotes is the chapter of art history largely effaced through the application of the term “abstract expressionism” to NY artists of the late ’40s and the ’50s. The term was already in use, coined in 1919 in German and brought into English by the Museum of Modern Art’s first curator, Alfred Barr (see his 1936 book Cubism and Abstract Art), to describe Kandinsky. But the term was anachronistically applied by American art critics like Clement Greenberg as a way to avoid the label “abstract surrealism.” With its communist and anarchist associations, “surrealism” carried too much revolutionary baggage for the post-war political climate in the US. The move also helped elide the stubborn political reality that abstract art was first achieved in Germany by a Russian artist, as if to suggest that historical “expressionism” hadn’t really been “abstract” and only here in America had become so. Thus Greenberg, in his essay “‘American-Type’ Painting” (1955, 1958), elaborates an account of art as a series of laws, problems, and solutions in order to write: “The early Kandinsky may have had a glimpse of this solution, but if he did it was hardly more than a glimpse. Pollock had had more than that.”

Though no one believes in laws of painting anymore, the eclipse of abstract surrealism from American art history has proved curiously durable. But “New Worlds” illustrates the pivotal role of surrealism with a collaborative poured painting by Kamrowski, Baziotes, and Jackson Pollock, uncertainly dated “Winter 1940-1941.” Given that Onslow Ford began pouring paint in 1939, and gave a series of lectures on surrealism in NYC attended by at least two if not all three of the young American artists beginning in January 1941, it’s hard not to conclude that Pollock’s initial inspiration for his drip paintings was Onslow Ford’s account of surrealist automatism. This is the type of connection the label “abstract expressionism” obscures.

Yet this historical neglect has paved the way for Weinstein’s success, as the gallery has become an effective advocate for abstract surrealism.


Through Feb. 11

Weinstein Gallery

291 Geary, second flr., SF

(415) 362-8151



Wall played


Also in this issue, Guardian writer Matt Sussman on who got the hype — and who earned it — in the galleries at Art Basel Miami 2011

VISUAL ART The popular face of Miami is made of aqua blue views and chrome rims, but the parts of Wynwood that haven’t been covered by murals yet look more like asphalt and the muted tones of low-cost rentals. Since the 1950s it’s been largely a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It’s also where many African Americans moved when they got priced out of the Overtown neighborhood to the south, where they were originally relegated by Jim Crow laws.

But, in a high-low art tornado last month, Wynwood is also where I learn that the popular legend labeling the Mission District the neighborhood with the most densely-packed street art in the world is total bunk.

Wynwood’s main drag Second Avenue is Clarion Alley on acid. Having come straight from Miami International Airport, my rental car barely inches down the strip, so omnipresent are the weaving, goggling packs of urban art voyeurs in oversized silk shirt-dresses and vertiginous wedge heels or where’d-you-get-’em sneakers. The only sign of the neighborhood’s year-round residents are the sporadic flaggers in self-bought orange vests waving cars into parking spots.

Angry sharks, Persian cat-women, color-washed streetcars, and owls sitting shotgun in convertibles — sometimes layered on top of each other — grace walls here. Designs pour off walls and onto the sidewalk. Here, the fairytale nymphs and walking houses of Os Gemeos on a fancy restaurant; there, a massive black-and-white photo wheatpaste by JR of bulging, watching eyes that echo the look of passers-by. I nearly break my neck on Mexico City artists Sego and Saner’s horned beetle-men, who clutch amulets and wear fanged leopard masks on the backs of their heads. Absolut Vodka has occupied a parking lot with a temporary open-air club, dotting it with human-sized aerosol cans and fencing it off with chainlink. It’s enough to make any street art fan lose their shit, or at least the rental car.

I’ve parachuted into the middle of Miami’s yearly art inferno, a.k.a. the week that the Art Basel art fair comes to town. Since 2002, this Swedish import has filled Miami Beach Convention Center with astronomically-priced works from over 260 international galleries. Umpteen ancillary art and design fairs populate deco hotel-land and its surrounds during this time — the city becomes one largely, loudly turned-out gallery opening.

Wynwood, with its surplus of 80-foot blank walls, hosts many an art collection — but it’s most visible contribution to the scene is its dense network of murals. Of these, the undisputed center is a compound of buildings grouped around a courtyard of marquee works dubbed Wynwood Walls. The properties were purchased by (in)famous neighborhood rejuvenator Tony Goldman in 2004. Many hold Goldman responsible for the gentrification of Soho, South Beach, and city center Philadelphia.

Wynwood Walls is his carefully orchestrated attempt to use the allure of street art to change the area’s economic fortune. Shortly before Art Basel 2011, Goldman produced a series of YouTube shorts dubbed “Here Comes the Neighborhood,” in which longtime graffiti photographer Martha Cooper cheerfully opines “Now we’ve got something [street art] that people are calling the biggest art movement in history of the world. And it just might be.”

The night of my arrival, the amount of in-progress murals at which the crawling traffic gives one an opportunity to gawk is striking. At least a dozen artists labor within a four-block radius, greeting fans, drinking beers and staring up at their half-finished creations contemplatively.

Such was the mood in which I find Buenos Aires street artist Ever, who along with an assistant is completing a massive wall featuring two disembodied heads emitting his signature riotously colorful cognitive mapping hives, which in the past he’s painted emerging from the brains of Mao Tse-Tung and his own younger brother. Ever was flown up by a community-based Atlanta street art festival, Living Walls, to paint a Second Avenue parking lot wall as part of the festival’s first project outside of Georgia.

It’s not his first international street art festival, but Ever is among the artists under-impressed with the Basel-time scene in Wynwood.

“It’s like the alcohol. I hate the shit — but one drink more!” We talk when the dust of Basel has long settled; Ever, fellow street and gallery artist Apex, and I perched around Apex’s studio in a Market and Sixth Street garment factory building.

Apex, who has been to Miami during Basel week four times, and twice to paint the crystallized, color-saturated “super burner” murals he is known for, explains that for him, the problem is exploitation. Street artists typically paint walls for a pittance or for free, in a neighborhood where businesses are making boatloads of money off spectators that come to marvel.

“You have, like, Tony Goldman, he gives a certain amount of money, property owners make money, but artists, a few make money,” Apex explains. “The rest, no. Artists get caught in the excitement of it. But who is getting paid off of it?”

“Who wins,” Ever adds.

“If someone is making money off of it, you should know who that is,” concludes Apex.

But the two artists agree that Art Basel week is an excellent education in the workings of the high art world for aspiring professionals, and that the camaraderie that flourishes between street artists can be important, inspirational.

And of course, the parties. Basel is known for them — 2011 featured everything from the $200-a-ticket “Fuck Me I’m Famous” David Guetta show to surprise kudos for the partykids from Pharrell onstage at Yelawolf’s Saturday night gig at a castle-shaped outdoor club in Wynwood. On my first night in town, the whole Living Walls gang — organizers, artists, errant alternative journalist from San Francisco — pile into cars and hit the Design District to check out the opening of the group show of Primary Flight, a local collective that got its start commissioning murals wall-by-wall in Wynwood.

“We started noticing we weren’t the breadwinners of the galleries,” Primary Flight founder Books Bischof tells me in a phone interview. “It was like fuck you, we’re going to take to the streets. We’re all curators in a sense, so we might as well get up and be seen.” Bischof logged time connecting with local graffiti crews and Wynwood’s homeless population to make sure he had community support for bringing the art crowd into the neighborhood during Basel week. He somewhat resents Goldman’s “just buy it” approach. “When we learned about [his Wynwood building purchases] we were like, well that’s kind of fucked.” (Though officially the two camps exist amicably, Goldman told me he upon arriving in the neighborhood he found Primary Flight’s piecemeal approach to its murals “helter-skelter.”)

But along with Wynwood’s art scene, Primary Flight has grown. In addition to its mural program — through which Apex painted his 2011 Miami wall — attendees at the collective’s gallery space could take in traditional paintings and sculptures, but also Mira Kum’s “I Pig, Therefore I Am” installation featuring the artist in the nude, living with two pigs in a small enclosure for 104 hours. “We represent artists with a street art, fuck you swagger,” comments Bischof.

Things are much more established now in Wynwood, which by most counts serves as Miami’s arts district year-round. There are expensive coffeeshops and bars, fine restaurants, precious florists, and blocks of galleries selling accessible art. (During Art Basel week, one of these is given over to an artist who specializes in kawaii food art printed onto affordable decals and posters. An entire wall is covered in swirly-topped ice cream cones in a hundred color options.)

Though professional street art certainly existed prior to his engagement, this upscaling can largely be attributed to Goldman’s speculative interest. Goldman’s PR agency sends me press materials dubbing Wynwood “the next great discovery in the Goldman Properties portfolio.” His company’s general methodology is to buy up historic buildings in socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods and fill them with upscale businesses that attract more pedestrian traffic.

There is little doubt that Goldman envisions the future of Wynwood as a place where housing units rent for far more than many of its current residents can afford. His team has spent considerable time and effort working with Miami’s city council on creating live-work zoning in Wynwood (not unsimilar to the type of zoning that loaded San Francisco’s SoMa with high cost condos). After the Basel hangover has dissipated, I get a chance to talk with him.

“When I went to Wynwood and I had boxy warehouse buildings, it was a much different challenge for me,” says Goldman during our decorous phone interview. “Now I could be free. Some people would look at ugly buildings and empty parking lots and loading zones — what I saw was an international outdoor street art museum. Huge canvas opportunities.” He bought six of those buildings in the center of the neighborhood, two of which now house spendy restaurants run by his son and daughter.

Goldman is not completely without street art cred. Since 1984, he has owned a massive wall on Manhattan’s Bowery and Houston Streets that has hosted murals from Keith Haring, Barry McGee, and Shepard Fairey. “[Street art] is freer in a lot of ways than walking in a museum, which a lot of street artists consider graveyards,” he says. “Not that I agree with them, not that I disagree with them either. I think Wynwood Walls is one place that has validated the art form as an important contribution to contemporary art.”

But Wynwood Walls also serves as the main attraction to an area in which Goldman Properties has monetarily invested. “It [is] a center place that the arts district really didn’t have, a town square, a centerpiece that was defined architecturally,” reflects Goldman. “It served its purpose.”

But perhaps this use of street art as tool of gentrification is not so incongruous. After all, most if not all professional street artists are able to create murals only by selling gallery-ready pieces. Ever tells of painting a mural for Coca-Cola with studiomate Jaz, only to use his paycheck to create three more public walls. “The reality of art is you always need a rich person,” he says.

Which is, more or less, to say that even in Wynwood, professional street art is not entirely soulless. Take for example one of Ever’s favorite Wynwood pieces, done by Spanish artist Escif. The wall was so popular, in fact, it merited a cameo in a “Here Comes the Neighborhood” episode. And not for its bright colors or revolutionary design; it’s just black capital letters on a flat white background.

But it does have a pretty direct message for good-intentioned folks in Wynwood. It says: “Remember, u’re not doing it for the money.”

What recession?


Also in this issue: Guardian culture editor Caitlin Donohue on Art Basel Miami 2011’s street art scene

VISUAL ART Now in its 10th year, Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB)— the art world’s annual “spring beak” during which power brokers, status-seekers, and a curious public descend on Miami Beach over the first weekend in December — makes for an easy target, engorging South Beach’s already cartoonish version of “living large” by bringing its own cold strains of entitlement, status, and exclusivity.

Perhaps this is what advertising mogul and mega-collector Charles Saatchi decried (somewhat sanctimoniously) as “the hideousness of the art world” in an op-ed piece for the UK Guardian, conveniently published during the fair’s run. Those who liked to show off certainly did: luxury SUVs continually clogged the viaducts across Biscayne Bay; I counted more blue-chip handbags and heels than in the September issue of Vogue; and there was always buzz of a party or dinner you weren’t on the list for. (Party-crashing is ABMB’s unofficial blood sport).

“I just stopped Tweeting,” remarked a social media manager for a San Francisco museum, as we shared a bleary-eyed ride to the airport on Monday night. “I mean, how many jokes can you make about the money?”

My van-mate’s fatigue was understandable. The fair itself is exhausting, having grown to include some 260 international exhibitors that transform the Miami Beach Convention Center into a warren of aisles and booths, as well as programs of outdoor sculpture, video, and a series of panel discussions and Q&As. And this isn’t even including the aforementioned endless circuit of afterhours soirées.

But his bafflement also pointed towards the way business is done at Art Basel, bringing to mind Marx’s characterization of capital as a kind of magic act. Most of the transactions happened offstage, with a majority of pieces selling before the fair had even opened. As a curator friend jokingly asked, echoing sentiments she has been hearing all weekend from gallery associates: “Where’s the recession?”

There certainly wasn’t much in the way of finger-pointing on the convention center floor. Threats of an Occupy-style protest remained just that. Danish collective Superflex’s giant flags emblazoned with logos of bankrupt banks (at Peter Blum Gallery) attempted to reveal the elephant in the room. They might have been overpowered, however, by the flash of Barbara Kruger’s riotous wall texts at Mary Boone, which proclaimed “Money makes money” and “Plenty should be enough.” The ripest visual metaphor for wasteful abundance was certainly Paulo Nazareth’s “Banana Market/Art Market,” a green Volkswagen van filled with real bananas that spilled out onto the convention floor.

Even though the writing was on the wall, visitors seemed more keen on getting their pictures taken with some of the single-artist installations that were part of the”Ark Kabinett” program. Ai Weiwei’s barren tree made from pieces of dead tree trunks collected in Southern China had almost as long of a queue as Elmgreen and Dragset’s marble sculpture of a neoclassical male nude hooked up to an IV, the centerpiece of Amigos, the un-ambiguously gay duo’s deconstructed bathhouse that took over Galeria Helga de Alvear’s booths.

There were a few welcome surprises: new LA-based artist Melodie Mousset’s mixed-media piece “On Stoning and Unstoning” (at Vielmetter) offered a politically astute and formally bold tonic to the generally conservative, painting-heavy selection, as did older sexually and politically frank pieces by second-wave feminist artists such as Martha Rosler and Joan Semmel.

However, the most exciting art could be found outside the convention center, mainly in the rapidly-gentrifying Wynwood neighborhood which now boasts more than 40 galleries (nearly quadruple the number from eight years ago). Many of Miami’s biggest collectors have followed suit, setting up warehouses in the adjacent Design District where their collections are on view to the public.

“Frames and Documents,” the Ella Fontanalas-Cisneros Collection’s sensitively curated selection of Conceptualist art from the 1960s to the late ’80s— which juxtaposed the work of Central and South American artists with that of their American and European contemporaries — was brimful with lush aesthetic rewards delivered with the barest of means.

I renewed too many loves that afternoon (and found some new ones, as well) to list in full, but another institutional stand-out was the Miami Art Museum’s “American People, Black Light,” a retrospective of Faith Ringgold’s early paintings from the ’60s that capture with unflinching clarity the anguish, ambivalence and rage of the Civil Rights era. Given Ringgold’s profile, it’s shocking that they’ve never been the subject of their own exhibition until now.

Much has been made of the “trickle down” effect ABMB has had on the cultural revitalization of Miami. (Wynwood is the most frequently cited example). The most hopeful and lasting sign I saw of any such change was a few blocks down from the Cisneros collection, at the small gallery Wet Heat Project. For the group show “A Piece of Me” pairs of art students from local high schools had been matched with four mid-career alumni from Miami’s New World School of the Arts. Each student team then conceived, developed, and produced a video installation in response to a piece by their alumni mentor, with both the final video pieces and those works that inspired them on display in the gallery.

What could’ve been a gimmicky set-up resulted in some truly inventive, thoughtful, and original work on the part of the students. Moreover, “A Piece of Me” offers one portable model for bridging the community at large and the art community. As Max Gonzalez, one of the participating students who was on hand, said of his installation, “It was go big or go home for us.”

Next to that vote of confidence, the Miami Beach Convention Center floor — littered with big names and bigger baubles destined for law firm lobbies and penthouse living rooms — seemed that many more miles away.

Matt Sussman writes the Guardian’s biweekly Hairy Eyeball column.




YEAR IN VISUAL ART “Occupy the Empty,” Amanda Curerri’s 2010 solo show at Ping Pong Gallery (now Romer Young Gallery), seems about as appropriate a tag line as any for this past year. It’s not just Curerri’s prescient title that resonated with the occupations at Zucotti Park, Frank Ogawa Plaza, and the Mario Savio steps at U.C. Berkeley’s Sproul Hall, as well as the populist expressions of protest seen throughout the Arab Spring that many involved with the Occupy movement looked to, not always unproblematically, as sympathetic precedents.

“Occupy the Empty” took seriously the question of how art and aesthetics can create a more democratic society, testing the tensions inherent within the question’s very terms by asking viewers who entered Curerri’s deconstructed courtroom to become witnesses. The efficacy of the entire enterprise was predicated on individuals taking the stand, but also placing their testimony against and alongside those who had spoken before about a form of speech no less personal and performative: last words.

Similarly, the tension of the individual voice in relation to the collective it contributed to has been the engine motor of the Occupy movement. At the encampments no one could speak for anyone else and yet everyone was, at the very least, in agreement on the necessity of being present, a message often relayed (without an apparent sense of irony) back to the assembled, via a re-presentational strategy known as “the human microphone.”

One could also point to the whimsical criers and peddlers of Allison Smith’s “Market Day,” a public performance event held on and around Market Street in June as part of her Southern Exposure exhibit “The Cries of San Francisco,” or Stephanie Syjuco’s “Shadow Shop,” a mom-and-pop-style art market that resided for five months at SFMOMA, as other examples of participatory artistic practice that aimed to insert alternative forms of democratic exchange into public life, in some ways anticipating much of the discussions around aesthetics and politics that Occupy generated.

Whether this exploratory, incessantly present dynamic will — or can — continue to “trickle up” further through the art world remains to be seen. Major museums largely played it safe this year going with tried and true blockbusters (locally, Picasso and Impressionism) or spectacular spectaculars that had critics alternately swooning or pointing at the naked emperor’s relentless march, as in the recent retrospectives of Mauricio Catalan and Carsten Höller in New York.

Certainly, the likes of Charles Saatchi grumpily lecturing about cultural capital and the “vulgarity” of new super-elite art collectors in the pages of the UK Guardian doesn’t make the one percent look necessarily any more “in touch.” (Not that any of the moneyed gawkers I encountered at Art Basel Miami would care.) On the other hand, Alice Walton’s recently opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, funded with Wal-Mart cash, can be seen as presenting both a possible new model and a grim augury about how art’s public future will rely even more transparently but no less troublingly on private beneficence. Why must we travel to a major urban center to see outstanding art? Then again, why donate to a museum when you can build you own?


Although I don’t do regrets, I believe that putting out something “for the record” should still count as as a positive — despite constant abuse of the phrase by those publicly scandalized for their private moral failings. So, following in the tradition of last year’s “year in art” column, here is an incomplete rundown of art, exhibits, and, institutions that didn’t entirely make it in for myriad reasons, none of which had to do with the work itself.



Who said non-representational collage was done for? VanDyke’s colorful, mixed media mash-ups of paint and paper flaunted the grain of their materials and the elegance of their compositional logics with the disciplined flourish of a master flamenco dancer.



Whereas SFMOMA’s track record in regard to exhibitions has been mixed this year (cheers to the recent Richard Serra and Francesa Woodman retrospectives; good riddance to the slog that was “Exposed”), its public programming has brought an invigorating mix of poets, musicians, performers, and audiences to the institution, making that word seem an awfully staid descriptor for a venue that has consistently hosted such unexpectedly engaging and fun events.



The sculptural, late 1960s pieces in this quiet stunner of a show highlighted the influence of Spain’s many forms of national costume upon its most gifted native sons, couturier Cristobal Balenciaga — and should shush the grousing of anyone upset over the rise of fashion and textile exhibits at major art institutions. To appropriate a nugget of praise once paid to Yves Saint Laurent, we can debate whether or not fashion is art until the cows come home, but there is no doubt that Balenciaga was an artist. Bring on the Gaultier!



Ireland’s early ’70s canvases of cement, dirt, and rock are slices of time, fragments of place. They are numinous, fragile reminders of being, as well one piece of the legacy of this late, great Bay Area artist.



If you haven’t already planned a weekend around the Getty’s massive, multi-institution survey of postwar California art (www.pacificstandardtime.org), you owe it to yourself to head south ASAP. Many of the participating exhibits close in late January, so get!

Dead horses and fool’s gold



HAIRY EYEBALL What more can art tell us about our culture’s conflicted relationship to celebrity, let alone its own conflicted relationship with celebrity? Not much, I suspect.

Kim Kardashian needs Barbara Kruger, who collaborated with the self-branding phenom on a now infamous cover portrait for W magazine’s 2010 art issue, like a fish needs a bicycle. And Warhol’s silk-screened Marilyns, or even Jeff Koons’ ceramic tribute to the King of Pop and his pet primate, seem positively quaint next to the hollow extravagance of Siren (2008), Marc Quinn’s life size statue of a yoga-posing Kate Moss cast in solid gold. I’m sure, though, that Kruger and Quinn appreciated the press their pieces netted them.

So, kudos to Bay Area artist Ray Beldner for attempting to scout some new routes through well-trod terrain. His two series of portraits at Catharine Clark Gallery are as much about the processes used to create them as they are the famous (and sometimes infamous) faces they depict. The results are decidedly mixed.

For the ghostly digital portraits in the first series, “101 Portraits,” Beldner overlaid the first 101 results that came up in a Google image search for a given subject, resulting in a hazy composite of that person’s publicly circulated image at a particular moment in time that reveals little of their actual likeness.

Some subjects are recognizable by a certain feature (Sarah Palin’s trademark up-do, Barack Obama’s prominent ears), whereas others (Michael Jackson, Britney Spears) are nearly unidentifiable, eraser-marks of their former selves.

The portraits invite allegorical speculation. Is the recognizability of Palin and Obama’s outlines a testament to the consistency of image in politics? Does the illegible smudginess of Jackson and Spears offer a formal comment on their respective falls from grace? But why over think things? Beldner’s composites are at their most intriguing when viewed as useless data sets; palimpsestic reminders that for all of the algorithms Google has churning out its top results, the internet is still something of an impenetrable jungle.

Gimmickry gets the better of Beldner’s other series, “Drawn by the hand of…,” hung in the gallery’s rear space. Wearing silicone gloves made from casts of other people’s hands, Beldner applied colored ink directly to paper. The resulting ventriloquized finger-paintings — whose sparse, monochromatic figurations recall Raymond Pettibon — are too stylistically uniform to say much about the potential affective affinities between the hand used and the person depicted.

Rather, the paintings come off as obvious and sometimes ghoulish sight gags: Jackson (again) was drawn using the hand of a young boy; for Jaycee Lee Dugard’s kidnapper Phillip Garrido, Beldner used the hand of a young girl. If the gesture seems familiar, it’s because it’s old news: another Young British Artist alum of Quinn’s, Marcus Harvey, caused much pearl-clutching with his 1995 portrait of British child murderer Myra Hindley, created by applying gray and black acrylic paint using a plaster cast of a child’s open palm.





Leslie Shows’ large-scale mixed media portraits of the many faces of two pyrite chunks are the formidable and beguiling standouts of “Split Array,” her first solo exhibit at Haines Gallery. Despite Shows’ subject matter — fool’s gold — there is no joking around here. The pyrite portraits are the 2006 SECA Award recipient’s most technically finessed exploration of the parallels between geologic formation and the material process of painting to date.

Shows has worked layers of Plexiglas, colored ink, Mylar, crushed glass, metal dust, and mirrored shards onto thin, reflective aluminum panels (which she also engraves) to create trompe l’oeil effects that give her compositions dimensional heft despite their bas relief-like surfaces. When viewed head-on, a silvery pyramid-shaped outcrop seems to emerge from the upper left section of Face K (2011), pulling away from its striated Plexiglas backing. Similarly, Face P (2011) seems to extend infinitely back into the upper right hand corner of its aluminum “canvas” even as bloodied streaks (ink stains, perhaps?) in the lower half foreground the entire composition’s flatness.

However dazzling, the pyrite portraits are not merely the sum of such special effects. A deeper kind of alchemy is going on here beyond Shows’ transformation of industrial materials into representations of a mineral which is, by and large, useless to industry. I’m still trying to put my finger on it. Robert Smithson’s dictum “Nature is never finished” comes to mind as a signpost, although I’m guessing he would’ve had beef with the Faces series.

In Smithson’s gallery installations, the mirrors placed to infinitely reflect piles of shells or dirt were reminders of these natural components’ infinite variety and unknowable totality. Nature could be brought into the white cube but the white cube would never fully exhaust it. Show’s pyrite faces — with their man-made materials and Cubist collapsing of multiple perspectives — arrive at a similar conclusion, but through overt representation rather than presentation. To attempt the latter would risk evoking a naive transcendentalism which in this day and age could amount to a fool’s errand.


Through Dec. 23

Catharine Clark Gallery

150 Minna, SF

(415) 399-1439



Through Dec. 24

Haines Gallery

49 Geary, Fifth Flr., SF

(415) 397-8114


Bling and the kingdom



HAIRY EYEBALL “Why curate an exhibition focused on a single country in an age of disappearing boundaries?” is one of the questions posed by the curatorial text at the start of “The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art from India,” Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ survey of recent photography, sculpture, and video from the subcontinent.

One obvious answer is, “Why not?” The recent historic record gives plenty of reason enough. Despite all those “disappearing boundaries” and the wider circulation of art and ideas and artists around the globe, there is the fact that, perhaps with the exception of Chinese art, comprehensive displays of contemporary art from non-Western countries are proportionally much rarer in major Western institutions, especially those in the US.

There is also the issue of timeliness. Although India’s transformation into a leading global economic player is not news, the impact that growth has had on the arts and the art market still is. An Artinfo.com headline asked only last week, “Is India Becoming the World’s Hub for Internet Art Commerce?” (with the related article on the blue chip, Internet-based art fair, India Art Collective, making a persuasive case for “yes”).

But the most compelling reasons for The Matter Within are offered by the art itself. Alternately playful and reflective, packing visual pop and demanding of deeper consideration, the exhibit’s pieces are as densely-packed with ideas, portraits, and questions about what and who comprises as complex an entity as “India,” and also what India’s future might look like when reflected in its past and present, as YBCA’s galleries are chock-a-block with things to look at.

This breadth is both “The Matter Within”‘s greatest curatorial strength and the source of some of its practical weak spots, particular in regards to how it is installed. There is simply more art here than YBCA can comfortably accommodate, as well as intriguing omissions (why no paintings?). Different series by the same artist are spread across the space’s two main galleries, something not explicitly stated in the wall didactics, which often address both bodies of work but are positioned alongside only one of them.

This is all the more frustrating since not everything in the show necessarily deserves inclusion. Sunil Gupta’s photo-story Sun City, which recasts the heterosexual relationship at the center of Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction film La Jetee as a trans-national homosexual one played out against the backdrop of AIDS rather than nuclear annihilation, is a moving engagement with both the film it references and the shifting valences of minoritarian sexuality and desirability across borders.

His large-scale, multi-portrait narratives focusing on gender-ambiguous couples in the next room over, however, is less compelling and lacks the directness with which Tejal Shah documents the female masculinity of her transsexual and transgender subjects in the photo series and digital slide show, “I Am.” Shah’s portraits would’ve made for a smart counterpoint to Pushpamala N.’s “Native Types” series — in which the photographer appears as various Indian female archetypes culled from art history, pop culture, and religion— that instead are hung across from Nikhil Chopra’s equally costume and prop-heavy, yet less conceptually tight, photos and video in the show’s entry gallery.

Similarly, Rina Banerjee’s Frankensteinian sculptures of colonial-era antiquities and costly animal remnants, although rich with historical allusion, simply look busy compared to Siddartha Karawall’s giant send-up of a horse and rider statue Hangover Man, made from wax-covered T-shirts that had originally been donated to poor communities in India by an American charity but got re-routed to the open market. The rider in question is the former Maharaja after whom Karwall’s art school was named, who now appears as a Don Quixote-like wraith representative of the gulf between Western goodwill and the Indian “ground truth” of need and impoverishment it is supposedly addressing.

A different sort of disconnect haunts the Asian Art Museum’s “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts,” the other major exhibit in town currently devoted to India. Maharaja means “great king” or “high king” in Sanskrit, a status expressed in the breathtaking level of sumptuousness and luxury of the material items through which Indian rulers displayed their power.

Light on historical context and heavy on the baubles, Maharaja offers up a seemingly endless parade of such items: extravagantly embroidered textiles, magnificent ceremonial accouterments, and enough serious bling to outshine the borrowed sparkles of any contemporary red carpet. The effect is strangely flattening. Monarchy is the golden goose that produces marvelous things rather than a larger institution, the spoils of which only tell one part of a more complex and usually bloody story.

Thus, what Maharaja leaves largely unaddressed are questions of power and history, as well as the politics of display. For example, what was the cost in human labor (and perhaps lives) to spin and weave the silk necessary to make the stunning 18th Century bridal gown in the second gallery? Or to mine the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds that emblazon so many of the items displayed?

The fact that the majority of the artifacts come from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum –an official co-presenter of the exhibit— speaks more to the legacy of British colonial rule than the brief gloss the Raj and its aftermath receive in the show’s third gallery, which crams in most of Maharaja’s history lessons. And judging from the case of various Cartier commissions from the 1920s and ’30s, and the gorgeous modern furniture commissioned by Yeshwant Rao Holkar II (a jazz age jetsetter and friend of Man Ray’s who is the exhibit’s breakout star), India’s deposed royals did pretty well for themselves, even as the times changed around them.

But then again, that the already powerful would continue being high rollers is not really news. As Mel Brooks pointed out long ago, it’s good to be the king.


Through January 15

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF.

(415) 978-2787



Through April 8

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin, SF.

(415) 581-3500



GOLDIES 2011: Tammy Rae Carland


GOLDIES The beds in the photographs are like any other unmade beds — messes of rumpled sheets and dented pillows occasionally punctuated by a stray article of clothing or a curious pet. Except that they are not like other beds: they are, as the title of Tammy Rae Carland’s 2002 series of depopulated portraits informs the viewer, “lesbian beds.”

The distinction is crucial, critical. A smart conceptual retort to the hoary stereotype of lesbian bed death, Carland’s photographs of one of the places where women share their lives (and their bodies) with other women also make clear the political stakes of representing even the most quotidian objects.

At the same time, there is nothing in or about the photographs that signifies “lesbian.” Indeed, it is very banality of the images’ content, the very familiarity of the scene that is repeatedly depicted in “Lesbian Beds,” that makes them so immediately relatable. And yet to uncouple these photographs from the title which brackets them would be to disregard the difference the entire series makes visible.

This sometimes uneasy mix of representational politics and sentimental attachment to objects is at the core of Carland’s work. She cites her longtime involvement in the queer and feminist punk scenes that sprung up in Pacific Northwest in the early ’90s — where she made zines, ran a gallery space, booked shows and, later, ran the successful and politically progressive indie label Mr. Lady Records with her partner — as a catalyst for her interest in, “marginal identities and marginal bodies.”

“[And] not just in regards to sites of oppression,” explains Carland — who has lived in Oakland for close to a decade and now chairs the California College of the Arts’ photography department — “but alternative sites where people function.” It is often the material possessions accumulated at those sites, rather than the people themselves, that catch Carland’s sympathetic eye and form the genesis for a new project. For her series “Outposts,” it was the (unpopulated) encampments within the “women born, women only” space of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. In “My Inheritance,” Carland turned the camera on the inventory of her late mother’s apartment — the entirety of which could fit in a paper grocery bag.

Carland’s latest project, “I’m Dying Up Here,” which was recently featured as part of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s triennial Bay Area Now 6, takes a different tack, focusing on stand-up comedy and the figure of the self-deprecating comedian. Pieces include staged photographs of local female performers, their faces often obscured, caught mid-routine, as well as a bar stool and microphone — the tools of the trade — cast in white porcelain.

Like beds, the comedy club stage is also a site of vulnerability, albeit a public one. For female comedians, the price of admission is often predicated on making themselves the butt of their own jokes. The melancholy and tender pieces in “I’m Dying Up Here” convey that moment, pregnant with empowerment but also the threat of rejection. A joke, like an artwork, can always flop or the audience just might not get it. A bed is just a bed; but then it isn’t, if two women share it. Carland’s work routinely foregrounds this riskiness while extending a reassuring hand as if to say, “it’s ok if this fails, because we both still tried.”

GOLDIES 2011: Ana Teresa Fernandez


GOLDIES When I meet Ana Teresa Fernandez at her studio at the furthest edge of Hunters Point, she tells me she has just come from surfing. Water, it seems, is very much Fernandez’s element, frequently appearing in her dream-like video installations and her gorgeous, large-scale, photorealistic oil paintings as both setting and metaphor — and sometimes even as medium.

“My work is about an energy that is placed in an object that creates a kind of strangeness,” she explains. More often than not that object is a body of water: a swimming pool, a bathtub, the polluted shallows of the Pacific at the San Diego-Tijuana border (Fernandez was born in Tampico, Mexico), and the San Francisco Bay itself. The strangeness emerges out of the choreographies of resistance and restraint — ritually washing herself; performing household chores; walking, or more often than not, swimming in heels — that Fernandez executes at these symbolically-charged sites, documented in the larger-than-life scale of her videos and paintings.

For its many beautiful surfaces, Fernandez’s art doesn’t let you forget that the actions depicted are rarely neutral, even if the ways in which they’ve been gendered, raced, and classed have been naturalized. The glossy realism of Fernandez’s aesthetic also foregrounds the physicality and sensuality of what she’s doing or enduring. For example, in the video of her performance Ice Queen, Fernandez wears high heels made of ice while standing on an Oakland storm drain until her footwear has entirely melted back into the Bay some 45 minutes later. In one of the paintings from the “Pressing Matters” series, Fernandez is shown mopping the beach at US-Mexico border while in pumps that sink into the sand, an image that is the very definition of Sisyphean.

Fernandez wears that uniform of a black cocktail dress and matching heels in many of her performances. It simultaneously draws attention to her body through its very incongruity with her setting or actions while also rendering her archetypical feminine. When I ask her about this tension, Fernandez, who swam competitively for 14 years, informs me that to wear clothing while racing is called drag, leading to a half-joking assessment of her performance getup as “wearing the weight of femininity.”

But for Fernandez, who cites modern artist Marilyn Minter and Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres as inspirations in the same breath, the point is not accusatory per se, but to explore how that weight can or can’t be shifted through a willful blending of the metaphoric and the physical. Water can drag you down, but it also provides buoyancy. “There are these moments of seduction that occur because of the element itself, whether its the beauty of the sea or the allure and sensuality of dance. I throw a wrench into all that,” Fernandez explains. “Actually, I throw the whole toolbox.”