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Visual Art

50 years in exile



VISUAL ART In 1988, Jeff Koons unveiled Michael Jackson and Bubbles, three ceramic sculptures of the pop icon and his pet chimpanzee. Koons’ sculptures, syncing his kitsch with Jackson’s gaudy tastes, were the conclusion of a series titled “Banality.”

In “Universal Remote,” Bay Area artist Jaime Cortez reintroduces Michael Jackson as an art subject. But Cortez is after something other than Koons’ surface banality. His exhibition’s variety of media — including a globular sculptural centerpiece that’s a counterpoint to Michael Jackson and Bubbles — form a mythic narrative. By turns revelatory and enigmatic, “Universal Remote”‘s look at history and human nature (to employ two Jackson keywords) is akin to Adam Curtis’ recent documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, which uses Phil Spector’s music to score the insidious maneuverings of the 1960s. If, as Cortez notes, the U.S. tends to sanitize the violence and viciousness of fairy tales, that clean-up work is trumped by a return-of-the-repressed within pop culture. I recently visited Cortez at Southern Exposure as he assembled the show, which includes a Jan. 29 program of readings and performances.

SFBG When did you decide to tell a Michael Jackson story?

JAIME CORTEZ It started a year ago. I was struck by how much Michael Jackson’s music was a part of my personal history. I’m at just the right age so that by the time I could be conscious of pop music, he was there. I realized that he did something that hardly anyone had done — he’d been a part of my life for decades. I started thinking about him more, and became fascinated with the aftermath of his death.

SFBG The degree of public scrutiny he received was akin to passing through the looking glass — you could say that he passed through the looking glass more often and intensely than anyone.

JC That’s a beautiful way of putting it. He was a creature of media. It was completely symbiotic — media tapped him, and he tapped media. My friend Ignacio [Valero] compares him to the frog put into boiling water that enjoys the heat until it’s too late.

He was consumed by this obsession with his own stardom. It’s almost as if he was making his face into a graphic brand. Everything was being flattened out: hot red lips, extremely pale face, shiny black eyebrows and hair.

SFBG His nose is central to your photo-collages. To me, it has fatal connotations. He marred or restricted a part of his body that is central to breathing and respiration.

JC I would look closely at photos of him and try to see him. There’s such a haze of media static and lies and mythologizing around him that it’s hard to get a bead on him. I feel that he was either in a deep state of constant denial, or a liar. He was constantly giving contradictory statements.

It actually made my eyes tear up when I took a good look at his face, his nose in particular — it was beyond repair. He had all the money in the world to change his face, but something went terribly wrong, and he was deformed.

SFBG Your show has many different forms: drawings, rotating scrolls, photo-collage, and sculpture. Why did you create more than one series of works?

JC There are theories about the five steps in the grieving process, and I was thinking about the different ways people deal with the passing of a person. The drawings of the animals represent a clean mourning. Michael Jackson was surrounded by so many parasitic people — those dependent on him for their financial well-being and sense of fabulousness — that his pets might have been the only place where he could get real love, besides maybe children. The pets are a stand-in for everyone’s grief.

The [show’s] lamps relate to the process of mythologizing from the record companies and the media — after a while, you couldn’t tell if the National Enquirer was more reliable than People or Newsweek. And then on top it all was his self-mythologizing. He alternated between extreme humility and grandiose egotism. The unadulterated rotating lamps that you buy for children’s rooms present a little story, one that illuminates a child’s space. I felt they were the proper form for exploring a very adult fairy tale about Faustian tradeoffs.

SFBG How did the text accompanying the lamps come about?

JC I was having dinner with Gary [Gregerson] and Jill Reiter, and Gary joked, “Michael Jackson was a castrato.” When he said that, I had this Tetris moment where all the blocks fell into place. When I began studying the castrati, it really got interesting. The most famous of them were basically rock stars. Women would faint or go gaga when they saw them. Women wanted to have sex with them. They looked different from other people because they developed differently from being castrated. And they had these gifts — the best of them had the lung power of a grown man coupled with a high, boyish or womanly voice.

SFBG How did you create the elaborate encasement that is the show’s centerpiece?

JC It’s built from a bunch of vases attached to each other with industrial adhesive. The statue is polymer modeling compound with wires for an Afro. The bubble on top is an acrylic globe I ordered from a street lamp company. On one hand, it makes him look like a specimen under a bell jar. Overall, it has a feeling of grandiosity and loneliness.

SFBG The mirror at the base adds another dimension.

JC Yes, it make the sense of space ambiguous. But most of all, I wanted to make something that looked precarious. For me, the piece is a visual analog for all the unbelievable machinery behind making a kid into a star. There’s an amazing amount of publicity and technology and image management, in addition to training and performing — this amazing apparatus, all of it built around a little 70-pound kid.


Through Feb. 19, free

Southern Exposure

3030 20th St., SF

(415) 863-2141


Coming attractions



HAIRY EYEBALL Welcome to 2011. It’s a new dawn, it’s a young decade, and I’m feeling good about the following shows worth eyeballing now or further down the line.



On a recent trip back to Taiwan, Job Piston took pictures of his grandfather’s garden, the former backdrop for many a family portrait. In Piston’s crisp C-prints, the garden stands as a verdant, almost-threatened exception to the urban sprawl that has sprung up around it. Standing in contrast to these landscapes are Piston’s photograms of the city that has grown beyond the walls of his grandfather’s compound. Created by exposing photographic paper to images on a computer screen originally shot by Piston using his cellphone, these are second-generation copies: photographs of pictures. Much like the now depopulated garden, the blurred, imprecise photograms are reminders, both beautiful and sad, that even through pictures one can never go back. Through Jan. 29. Silverman Gallery, 804 Sutter, SF. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (415) 255-9508, www.silverman-gallery.com.



Seemingly summoned from online backwaters of amateur gay porn sites, the men in Geoff Chadsey’s watercolor pencil portraits are turned on, tuned out, and chopped and screwed. An Abercrombie & Fitch-clad stud poses contrapposto in his underwear, his African American face standing in stark contrast to his blond tresses and white appendages. A shirtless bro in a trucker hat, his eyes squinting somewhere between sexy face and catatonia, has an extra set of arms. The lurid flush of Chadsey’s color palette — blues like Drano, pink flesh that crawls with green — only adds to the discomfiting mix of the banal and the extraordinary in his work. Through Feb. 12. Electric Works, 130 Eighth St., SF. (415) 626-5496, www.sfelectricworks.com.



Ruth Hodgins and Kit Rosenberg are a collaborative duo who met as MFA students at the SF Art Institute. While they are by no means the first artists to re-present everyday objects and materials, the “all bets are off” approach their work takes play very seriously, extending visual puns into more complicated thought experiments. In Theseus, for example, cooking twine is spun around nails hammered into on a board to create a wall-mounted labyrinth, as if to say that which forms the prison is also the means of escaping it. Through Feb. 19. WE Artspace. 768 40th St., Oakl. www.weartspace.com.



David Cunningham’s excellent gallery space at 924 Folsom may be no more, but the man with the golden eye is still actively curating. Case in point: this group show at The Lab, which brings together work by six European artists operating at the intersection of architecture, sculpture, and installation. Of particular note is Cath Campbell’s second full scale realization of her ongoing installation 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, which uses the titles of sentimental pop songs as blueprints for drawings, video, and models of imagined spaces. Jan. 14-Feb. 19. The Lab, 2948 16th St., SF. (415) 864-8855, www.thelab.org.



A belated coda of sorts to the large Hesse retrospective SFMOMA held back in 2002, this show focuses on the small, makeshift pieces that the sculptor would use as test runs or sketches of her larger works-in-progress. A friend once described Hesse’s amalgams of latex, wire-mesh, wax, fiberglass, and cheesecloth as “sad sacks,” but I don’t think that designation covers the range of effect her work elicits. There’s exuberance, playfulness, and even eroticism, to be found in her manipulation of the above industrial materials; all qualities I hope shine through in even these self-consciously “minor” works of an artist who was anything but. Also on tap at BAM for August is a retrospective of the stunning collage work of another German, painter Kurt Schwitters. Pencil it in. Jan. 26-April 10. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft, Berk. (510) 642-0808, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.



Gertrude Stein famously wore Balmain and had her portrait painted by Picasso. Lady knew how to live. So too, apparently, did her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, Sarah, who also collected art, held salons, and became important linchpins in Paris’ avant-garde circles in the early 1900s, after they expatriated from the family seat in Oakland. I hope this exhibit shines as much light on the Steins’ formative role in helping bringing modern art to the Bay as it does on the Matisses, Cezannes, Renoir, Picassos, and Bonnards they fervently acquired. May 21-Sept. 6. SFMOMA, 151 Third St., SF. (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org.

Light fantastic



VISUAL ART/MUSIC Suzy Poling greets me by the half-open front gate of Queen’s Nails Projects and hands me a Sapporo tallboy. It’s freezing outside, and not much warmer inside. And dark. But not for long: within moments, she’s turning on a projector at the top of a tall ladder, running tape through a bulky Pioneer tape deck on top of a giant Moog, and spinning transparent mobiles that are suspended from the spaces’ ceiling, all while explaining her thoughts on making art and the ideas behind her current show, “Zone Modules.” Analog sound growls like an electric beast. The big square room expands to an outer space with rough edges, as projector light refracted from glass and mirrors floats like electric stars across a gray-silver moon on one a wall.

“I think I’m into it,” Poling wonders out loud, looking at the wall fixture. “In this exhibition, there’s an overall idea of future decay.” She’s telling the truth, not spinning an artist’s statement, and yet there’s also a current of energy and motion coursing through the room. At a certain point I realize that things are moving all around me, including behind my shoulder, a corner-of-the-eye feeling that is disconcerting and exciting — in terms of immersion, it evokes Bruce McClure’s and Anthony McCall’s explorations of live cinema, or an inverted version of the effects created by Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. “I think people want to get in touch with infinity rooms [right now],” Poling agrees, when I mention Kusama. “It makes sense to get in touch with the planet we’re on and everything around it.”

This is just the beginning of “Zone Modules,” and just a hint of the constantly intersecting sonic and visual energies at play in Poling’s broader art endeavors, a growing and morphing constellation that connects colorfully primordial photos of geysers to layered, artificial experiments in grayscale. We walk to the next room, a small black space with an old black-and-white television in one corner tuned to an eternal 1920s movie dreamscape. “Everyone really liked this room for some reason [at the opening],” Poling says with a shrug, as swirling fog gives way to a close-up of a cut jewel on the small screen. “It’s like hanging out in a black room with a boob tube — it’s a classic hypnosis.”

The relaxed humor and pleasure in this room, though “experiential,” as Poling put it, is not common in today’s art world. It puts me in mind of Cary Loren, a friend of Poling’s from Detroit (and a member of the influential noise band Destroy All Monsters), whose viewpoint possesses a similar enjoyment of pop culture mutation — one that’s not kitschy, but imaginative in a raw, imperfect, individual manner. Poling’s years growing up and exploring the abandoned spaces of Detroit and then Chicago are central to what she’s making today. “It’s so cold and there’s some strange individuals there,” she says affectionately, when I bring up the Midwest. “I drew a lot of my inspiration from the Congress Theatre, this old movie palace from the 1920s on Milwaukee Avenue. I used to live inside it. I started [ the musical project] Pod Blotz there, because I could bring an organ up onto the stage.”

For around a decade, Poling has lived in Oakland, perhaps the closest thing that California has to offer to those kinds of urban autonomous zones. As we move to another room in “Zone Modules” and she talks about a geometric costume she used to wear to early Pod Blotz shows — “I thought, ‘I love theater of Bauhaus, I love Dada, I love the Vienna actionists, and I’m going for this !” — I’m struck by the unashamed enthusiasm for different periods and styles of art, some outre or out of fashion, within her work. To say it’s refreshing in these jaded times would be an understatement. But this isn’t naïve art — it’s gradually formulating a personal vision informed by everything from optics and opthamology to Russian avant-garde posters. “I’m not going to deny these things — I like [Laszlo] Moholy-Nagy!,” Poling exclaims at one point.

“I could reinstall this installation a bazillion different ways and it would always be different,” Poling says, as a characterful projected object darts like a dragonfly around the corner of an adjacent room. Not all artists could make such a claim, and fewer still could say it and have the idea be exciting. Poling credits the endless potential for combinations present in “Zone Modules” to curator Julio Cesar Morales’s insights about what to leave out of the show, but I think it also has something to do with the her experiences collaborating with artists on an international scale, and her kinship with them. Along with her best friend Kamau Patton, she was part of Official Tourist, an artist group that included members from Bosnia and Japan. “I’ll relate to a friend in Belgium in Dolphins into the Future who makes psychedelic spacey new age music,” she says, when talking about the music of Pod Blotz. “But then I also really relate to Haters in Los Angeles. They make totally different kinds of music, but they have a deep respect for each other.”

In the back room of “Zone Modules,” Poling’s paintings — which layer paint over vinyl and and paper to create interruptions in form and shape — share space with geometric sculptural and light experiments. I stare into the triangular eye of a metallic sculpture in the center of the room and through a tetrahedral passageway, spy another trangle, this time painted. “I like having the ability to just go into making art with people,” Poling says. “That feeling that the creation station is out there.” 


Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

Closing performance with Death Sentence: Panda, Chen Santa Maria

Fri/7, 8–11p.m.

Queen’s Nails Projects

3191 Mission, SF


Boogie blows up


“It was an honor to be a part of history. The rest is history.” Spray paint artist Chor Boogie (www.chorboogie.com) is hanging out amid spurts of December rain in Clarion Alley, standing before his mural debut in the heralded Mission community art space. But he’s talking about a different piece, on a different chunk of creative community space, in a city halfway around the world: The Eyes of the Berlin Wall, which Boogie painted on an actual section of the Berlin Wall and was reported to have sold for 500,000 euros this fall.

The real story is a bit more complicated — and perhaps speaks to the uncertain position in which street art finds itself. After all, we’re at the close of a few years of pop culture re-ascendance, during which Banksy made a stencil art photographer of every major city tourist and that are ending with Brazilian muralist Blu’s commission of a massive mural facing a World War II memorial by Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art that was subsequently whitewashed when he painted a wall of coffins draped with dollar bills.

What is street art’s role today? A form once used by inner city youth to reintroduce their stifled voices into their surroundings is now heralded in the upper echelons of the art world and hipsterdom alike. Still, many so-called street artists are getting stuck in stale, reductive modes of being presented to the public — stale because many do public art as a form of getting known, fluidly moving back and forth between the corner and the gallery. What are we to call these artists?

I know one name for them: Chor Boogie. After a tough youth spent tagging in San Diego, Boogie, borne on the wings of a technique and style that pushes the capabilities of the aerosol can (he never paints without it) has achieved artistic notoriety. His low pressure, inverted style of spraying and rejection of stencils and other tools gives birth to kaleidoscopic psychoscapes — but why don’t we let Boogie describe Boogie?

“A surrealistic expressionism of a street romantic voodoo. Emotional landscapes of a melodic symphony through color therapy — that’s my style in a nutshell,” he tells me, pointing up at the twisted face-in-purgatory that he recently completed in Clarion, a piece that extends a full foot above the boundary delineated by the alley’s mural collective and onto the high priced condo above.

Boogie has painted at the Beijing Olympics, done portraits for Hugh Hefner and Jay-Z, has vast, stained glass-cosmos murals all over town, and gallery shows up and down the coast. His name gained widespread recognition when some kids tried to steal a few of his cans while he painted a Market Street mural in late 2009. He chased them into a dark alley and was stabbed twice. “I didn’t feel it at all because I was drawing,” he says, despite one wound landing an inch from his lower intestine.

His distinctive style may have been what drew the fateful attention of Patrice Lux at Berlin’s Stroke Urban Art Fair. For two days, the German art collector had scrutinized Boogie while painting at his festival booth. Boogie had no idea who the guy was. “He was studying my every move — finally, he walked up to me, asked me what my name was, and asked me if I’d like to paint the Berlin Wall. He took me up to his studio and he had a piece of the wall with Michael Jackson painted on it. I was like, ‘You want me to paint over that? Because I will!’ I think he thought it was kind of cool to have an American artist painting over this American pop star.”

Boogie was signing up to paint on a piece of graffiti history. When first erected, artists came from around the world to cover the western side of the wall in color, often working under the ominous gaze of East Berlin patrollers who kept the eastern surface sterile. “Artists risked their lives painting that wall. You went there at night and painted quickly,” says James Prigoff, an international street art photographer.

But by his visit in 1985, Prigoff was underwhelmed by what he saw. “It had become a funny zoo,” he remembers, tourists gawking at East Berliners and tagging the wall with shout-outs to relatives in Des Moines.

Although Keith Haring and Quick subsequently created memorable pieces on the wall, Prigoff thinks the site’s sociopolitical significance has shrunk. “Chor Boogie is a great artist, he deserves all the attention he gets. But [his painting on the wall] doesn’t do anything for me in the context of art. There are a lot of walls in the world, and that’s just one of them.”

Not everyone agrees. Lux tipped off Die Bunte Zeitung, one of Berlin’s major newspapers, that he would be looking for 500,000 euros for the piece of the wall Boogie had painted — dwarfing sales of individual wall pieces in the past. The day after the article ran, they had an offer. The piece still wasn’t finished. After that, Boogie had an audience of 100-plus people watching him complete his cash cow.

Back in San Francisco among the streets he’s helped to make more beautiful, Boogie’s not sure what’s going on with the deal — and perhaps almost as important, all that cash — vagaries of “contracts and commissions,” he says. Improbably, he’s washing his hands clean of the matter, for now.

“What’s the next one?” He smiles, possibilities dancing across his face. “The Great Wall of China!” He’s joking, but the future for Boogie — and street art in general — will invariably include larger canvasses. 



Fri/31 7 p.m.–late, free

Space Gallery

1141 Polk, SF


Look forward in anger



HAIRY EYEBALL/YEAR IN ART The year in art is ending on a note both sour and defiant. On Nov. 30, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, caving to criticism voiced by conservative politicians and religious groups, ordered the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” It was a cowardly decision; one that ultimately has undermined the credibility of Clough and his institution.

It’s unfortunate that it took an act of censorship to get art — specifically, art by an openly gay artist responding to the darkest hours of the AIDS crisis — back into the national conversation, but the chorus of condemnation coming variously from journalists and critics, art museum associations, and even The New York Times editorial page, has helped to do just that.

Additionally, Wojnarowicz’s piece, which was uploaded to Vimeo by his estate and New York’s PPOW Gallery soon after it had been taken down in Washington, D.C., has undoubtedly been seen by more viewers in the past month than it had at the Smithsonian, or perhaps even in past installations (as of writing this column, the uploaded version has received more than 18,000 views).

This will probably continue to be the case as more galleries and museums across the country, in an impressive show of institutional solidarity, screen and/or install A Fire In My Belly. Locally, SF Camerawork and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts held screenings earlier this month. Southern Exposure will continue to show the piece through mid-February, and SFMOMA is scheduled to screen the full-length version of the video in early January.

While I agree with Modern Art Notes’ Tyler Green that SFMOMA’s commitment to screen A Fire in My Belly is “a turning point” in this whole debacle (New York’s four biggest art museums have remained silent on the matter), I find his characterization of SFMOMA as “America’s most conservative, play-it-safe modern-and-contemporary art museum” a bit harsh. Certainly, this year’s recently revealed SECA winners — three of whom, it must be noted, have been past Goldie recipients, including 2010 winner Ruth Laskey — attest to the fact that, for every groaner of an exhibit (“How Wine Became Modern,” anyone?), SFMOMA is also committed to supporting artists whose work cannot be dismissed as “play-it-safe.” For starters, the memory drawings of Colter Jacobson, one of this year’s SECA winners, certainly fall along the continuum of queer portraiture displayed in “Hide/Seek.”

This is not to encourage wishful thinking. While it’s hard to imagine a San Francisco art institution doing something along the lines of the Smithsonian, I don’t think anyone expected a reignition of decades-old culture wars, let alone in the very city where the Corcoran Gallery infamously canceled a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1989. The shorter our cultural memory, it seems, the greater is our propensity to repeat the lowest moments of our history.

So, over the past few weeks, I’ve been going over the works, exhibits, and events that I was thrilled did happen here, all glorious reclamations of our Convention and Visitors Bureau’s tagline, “Only in San Francisco.” Here is an in no way complete rundown of some of the art I didn’t cover in this column for a variety of reasons (scheduling conflicts, in-the-moment preference, critical laxity), save for the works themselves.



Turning staid-by-day museums into hip nightspots for hip young folks has been the hip thing for institutions to do for some time now. Thankfully, the Berkeley Art Museum knows how to do it right. Skip the catered canapés and light show, and focus on programming that is truly varied and more often than not, locally-minded — from Terry Riley celebrating his 75th to Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart improvising film soundtracks, from performance artist Kalup Linzy singing dirty love songs to outré Mexican B cinema— all for next to nothing.



At first I couldn’t see the woman’s face in Carina Baumann’s Untitled (2). I stared into the slate-like surface (actually, translucent white film developed on aluminum), incrementally adjusting my height, until the blackness stared back. The effect was not one of shock, as with the mirrors at the end of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, in which the holographic undead crowd in with your reflection. Baumann’s art asks for patience and slow adjustment, and in return, regifts your sense of sight.



Perhaps most germane to the issues about queerness, identity politics, and representation now being raised (again) by Wojnarowicz-gate and the “Hide/Seek” exhibit, this group show put together by Chicago-based curator Danny Orendorff and SF native Adrienne Skye Roberts took “queerness” out into the desert, helped it cast off the much-tattered coat of identity politics, and asked a group of artists, activists, and filmmakers to record its unfettered visions of things to come (many of which, as the resulting work testified to, are being lived out right now).



Although Matt Lipps is a photographer and R.H. Quaytman is a painter, they tweak their respective mediums in these unrelated shows to arrive at a similar kind of flat sculpture, which flickers between abstract prettiness and representational heavy-lifting. Lipps’ densely layered photographs of assemblages — in which variously colored photographs of domestic interiors, cut into facets and taped back together to form the original image, become backdrops for cut-out reproductions of Ansel Adams landscapes — collapse foreground and background, personal space and photographic history. Quaytman, working in dialogue with the poetry of Jack Spicer and SFMOMA’s photo archive, silk-screens images from the museum’s holdings onto beveled, wooden panels of various sizes, augmenting them with flashes of Easter eggs-like color and glittering crushed glass.



Although nothing will top his porcelain casts of assholes that littered Ping Pong Gallery like so many discarded sand dollars for the 2009 group show “Live and Direct,” Eric Scollon’s more recent solo exhibit at the gallery, “The Urge,” continued to queer form and function. The 50 or so small porcelain works, painted in the blue and white style of Dutch Delftware and arranged in pun-laden groupings, smartly played off ceramics’ dual cultural status as both a “fine art” and kitsch object, while throwing shade at modern art’s conflicted relationship to ornament. Speaking of which, if only I had a Scollon for my tree.



Diaz Hope’s dazzling sculptures owe as much to his engineering background as to, as he puts it in an e-mail, a “revisiting of childhood thoughts about mortality and infinity.” Their mirrored, crystalline exteriors yell “Gaga!” but once immersed in their kaleidoscopic guts, they are, much like Yayoi Kusama’s infinity boxes, meditation chambers built from carnival ride components. Simply beautiful stuff.

Where everybody knows your name



HAIRY EYEBALL It can be easy to get cynical about the business side of art, so it’s always refreshing when a local labor of love such as Romer Young — the small Dogpatch gallery formerly known as Ping Pong — demonstrates that growth doesn’t necessarily entail compromising one’s vision.

That vision has always been driven by husband and wife team Vanessa Blaikie and Joey Piziali’s commitment to work that is consistently smart, challenging and often surprisingly personal: from recent Goldie winner Amanda Curreri’s conceptual prompts at forging new social connections, to, most recently, James Sterling Pitt’s table-full of sculpted art-related books and ephemera, an affectionate take on how material possessions can shape creative practice.

“We’ve had very special relationships with our artists because this has always been about putting their work first,” explains Blaikie, when I meet with her and Piziali in the gallery’s cozy back room, which adjoins Piazali’s studio. Inspired by the work of many of their classmates in San Francisco Art Institute’s MFA program, but dismayed by the lack of spaces willing to take a chance on art that was more conceptual or performance-based, Blaikie and Piziali took matters into their own hands and started putting together exhibits.

The gallery’s unusual former name came from the quarterly, ping-pong happy hours Blaikie and Piziali held, a nod to 1970s Bay Area conceptual artist Tom Marioni’s famous statement, “Drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art.”

“We were really trying to activate the space as social sculpture through a non-art event,” Piziali recalls, “but we also had our share of calls asking about equipment rentals.”

Five years later, as the partnerships Blaikie and Piziali formed early on have led to a roster of repeat-showers and a more prominent profile, they decided it was time to change names and reassess how best to shift their operation. “Once you’re not an exhibition space, you start looking at the model of ‘gallery’ and see what that means, “explains Piziali. “But you don’t start a space like this with blood, sweat, and tears only to ask every time, ‘Did we make the bottom line?'”

Though the paddles have been hung up in favor of the, let’s face it, more professional-sounding Romer Young — a combination of Blaikie and Piziali’s mothers’ maiden names — Blaikie’s and Piziali’s core commitment hasn’t changed. Fittingly, they have decided to inaugurate the newly christened space with a solo exhibit by the now New York City-based conceptual artist Chad Stayrook, who contributed one of Ping Pong’s earliest shows.

“It felt only right to honor the growth we’ve undergone,” reflects Blaikie. “When we started, we were doing it because we loved it, and now we’re doing it because we love it and we want it to make sure it can keep growing.”



Upon entering “Disponible — a kind of Mexican show” at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries, you hear Manuel Rocha Iturbide’s sound installation I play the drum with frequency before you see it — what you see is Hector Zamora’s massive arrangement of hanging metal drying racks. Suspended with fishing line in tiered formations, the drying racks play off of the Brutalist, concrete interior of the Walter gallery while imbuing the space with an ethereal density. The ricocheting clinks, low-end buzzes, and sonorous clangs emitted by Iturbide’s piece — installed in a lofted area above the main gallery — bring Zamora’s installation to life as a fog bank-turned-carousel organ.

Both pieces are less impressive, however, when you attempt to view them individually. Without the extra visual accompaniment, Iturbide’s deconstructed drum kit — played via algorithmically-controlled speaker cones whose vibrations sound the cymbals and drum heads they’re attached to — loses its initial impact. Likewise, separated from Iturbide’s soundtrack, Zamora’s piece resembles the forgotten remains of a half-finished install job.

This creeping feeling of “is that all there is?” that both Zamora’s and Iturbide’s pieces evokes seems, at least partially, by design. The exhibit takes its name from the text on empty advertising billboards throughout Mexico, in which disponible is followed by a phone number. Playing off the double meaning of disponible as “available” and also “potentially changeable” or “disposable,” the curatorial team of Hou Hanru, SFAI’s director of exhibitions and public programs, and Guillermo Santamarina, an independent curator based in Mexico City, aren’t so much devaluing the pieces they’ve selected as they are loosening the conceptual strictures implicit in putting on a show of contemporary Mexican art. I can’t wait to see what Hanru and Santamarina have in store for phase two of the exhibit, which opens in February.


Fri/10 through Jan. 15, 2011

Romer Young Gallery

1240 22nd St., SF

(415) 550-7483



Through Jan. 22

Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute

800 Chestnut, SF

(415) 749-4563


Pwning the classics


Jennie Ottinger’s last solo painting show at Johansson Projects, “ibid,” presented an assortment of ghostly figures — ballerinas, nurses, schoolchildren, businessmen — lifted from found photographs. The less-is-more aesthetic of Ottinger’s small oil and gouache canvases underscored the fact that, save for the recovered images used as source material, the everyday people depicted in them had long been lost to history.

The same could hardly be said of the authors Ottinger breezily engages with in her latest show, “Due By,” in which she casts a gimlet eye on William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harper Lee, John Updike, and Leo Tolstoy, among other notable figures of the modern Western literary canon.

Ottinger has essentially remade these authors’ best-known works in her own image with her own images. In addition to painting scenes from titles such as The Loved One and To Kill A Mockingbird, she has also created new covers for them (based on the design of older editions) enfolding her art around actual books. The contents of the books don’t match their titles. Their plastic slipcases, though, are a clever nod at authenticity.

On one wall these new-old books have been stacked horizontally into humorous thematic groupings whose titles frequently double as groan-inducing punchlines: the Madame Bovary, Couples, and Anna Karenina stack is called Why Buy the Cow When You Can Get the MILF For Free? Another short stack that includes Lolita, Sons and Lovers, and Oedipus Rex is titled, appropriately enough, Inappropriate Lovers.

Also throughout the gallery are single volumes, propped open on shelves. Ottinger has glued together the books’ pages and carved out small rectangular spaces into which she has placed her own summaries of the re-covered work, which you are allowed to pick up and leaf through.

Ottinger’s retellings — handwritten in a tiny, tidy scrawl that resembles birdtracks across fresh snow — are by far the best thing in “Due By.” Her observations are pithy, and at times, flash an understated brilliance. Ottinger is also, on occasion, not above proclaiming her ignorance of the text she’s writing on and doesn’t hesitate to quote Wikipedia and SparkNotes for backup.

Here she is on Anna Karenina‘s titular doomed heroine: “We will soon see evidence of her extraordinary relationship skills.”

Or the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “Much like tofu, he adopts the qualities of those around him.”

And I challenge any English PhD to come up with a more perfect gloss on As I Lay Dying‘s Budren clan as, “Holy shit! This family is cursed. Very National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

If Ottinger were a high school student, she would be the bright kid who always makes wisecracks in class because she’s bored with or understimulated by her surroundings, and not necessarily by the assigned reading (I wonder, in fact, if Ottinger was that student). Her writing, for all its glibness and front-loaded superficiality, carries a palpable amount of affection for the texts. Ottinger’s sassiness is an informed sassiness; it lacks the underlying vitriol of true snark.

In other words, Ottinger’s armchair criticism is the sort that the Internet — and blogs, in particular — has made us more accustomed to. At the same time, educators attempting to teach any of the texts featured in “Due By,” have had to become more adept at sniffing out the lines in their students’ papers lifted from the same Wikipedia and SparkNotes entries that Ottinger playfully quotes. You can read Anna Karenina in its entirety online, or you can find a million ways to get around reading it and still turn in a term paper on “the death of the heart.”

Mind you, I don’t think Ottinger is clutching her pearls over the fate of the literary canon (or the book as object, or the coarsening of pedagogy, etc.) in the age of Google. If the smart, funny, and lovingly crafted objects she has created in “Due By” must be burdened with a takeaway message about the way we read now, I’d like to quote one of the great antiheros of television, Don Draper: “Change isn’t good or bad. It just is.”



With Ed Moses’ dazzling acrylics, what you see is what you get. That’s not a diss by any means. Rather, don’t expect something else to emerge if you give into the temptation to slowly cross and uncross your eyes while staring down one of the textile-like paintings in “Wic Wac,” Moses’ current show at Brian Gross Fine Art.

Moses — a L.A. veteran who had his first show at the city’s legendary Ferus Gallery in 1958 — identifies as an abstract artist, even though paintings such as Anima Kracker can’t help but cause pattern recognition: their fractal-like smears of off-set yellows and purples are in fact made up of the morphed stripes, spots, and other tell-tale markings of zebras, giraffes, and tigers. 


Through Jan. 8, 2011

Johansson Projects

2300 Telegraph Ave, Oakland

(510) 444-9140



Through Dec. 23

Brian Gross Fine Art

49 Geary, SF

(415) 788-1050


America’s original sin



VISUAL ART Going into “Huckleberry Finn,” the final installment in the Wattis Institute’s trilogy of group shows organized around canonical American novels, it is perhaps best to heed the notice Mark Twain places at the outset of the text from which this exhibit takes its name and inspiration: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

The only punishment one risks incurring with “Finn” is self-inflicted fatigue from trying to take it in all at once. As befits Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — a book that is, among many things, a satiric portrait of the post-Reconstruction South, a vernacular bildungsroman, an exploration of the cross-racial politics of friendship, and a fictionalized travelogue — curator and Wattis director Jens Hoffmann sets a bold course across American geography, social and literary history, and visual art that is as expansive and winding as the Mississippi.

Much as he did with “The Wizard of Oz” in 2008 and “Moby Dick” last year, Hoffmann — firing on all cylinders here — has assembled a visual dossier that takes an open source approach to its primary text. In the spirit of Twain’s warning shot to plot-seekers and would-be moralists, the exhibit’s pamphlet calls its presentation “fragmented and inconclusive.” This description, like Twain’s, is only partially true. Individually, the pieces (including 15 new commissions) vary in terms of how directly and from what direction they engage with Twain’s novel. But Hoffmann’s talent as a curator lies in grouping together works, artists, and eras that, under the broad umbrella of “Huckleberry Finn,” have something new to say to each other — and to us.

Book-ended by two screening rooms, the first floor galleries examine Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a largely historical perspective, treating the text and its author as historical objects (in addition to some handsomely bound first editions of the book, there’s even a reproduction of Twain’s trademark white suit, hung casually on a coat rack) and exploring in more depth the cultural geography of the Mississippi (see James T. Loyd’s long survey of the river’s lower half), and in particular, the social inequalities wrought by King Cotton’s reign.

Some of the works, such as Horace Pippin’s two 1944 oils of antebellum life, Harlem Renaissance painter Claude Clarke’s harrowing depiction of a slave lynching, or Alec Soth’s 2002 photographic series documenting the beauty and strangeness of the riverside, are, each in their own ways, remarkable forms of reportage. Other pieces are pointed interventions. Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) is a mixed media sculpture that arms a mammy doll, set against a background of Aunt Jemima syrup labels, with a rifle and a broom.

The same could be said of the works on the exhibit’s second floor, as well as their arrangement, which more explicitly addresses the ugly legacy of what historian George M. Fredrickson has called “America’s original sin,” slavery. Right out of the elevator, one is confronted with a powerful triptych: Warhol’s screenprint Birmingham Race Riot (1964) is displayed beside a reproduction of a segregation-era sign that reads “BLACKS ONLY,” and both hang above Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ The End (1990), a stack of free-to-take posters placed against the wall, each one containing a white space framed by a black border.

Whereas pieces in the lower galleries are arranged with greater room between them, Hoffmann fills the second floor chockablock with representations of degradation and defiance: Kara Walker’s massive and monstrous shadow-play of rape and violence covers one wall; Ruth Marion-Baruch’s stoic photographs of Black Panther leaders hang on another. It’s as if Hoffmann felt that the only means of adequately depicting “Jim’s turbulent quest for freedom,” to again quote the program notes’ gloss on things, was actual disorder.

Appropriate to a show inspired by Twain, some works also exhibit a sense of humor as they engage with larger issues. Simon Fujiwara’s video piece — in which the artist dons a kind of cultural drag, playing an exaggerated caricature of himself being interviewed about his relationship to the character Jim — becomes funnier as his interlocutor’s questions become more ridiculous. It is a tall tale — aimed at both critics and artists — about misreading artistic practice as identity formation, and it is worthy of Huck himself.


Through Dec. 11

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

1111 Eighth St., SF

(415) 551-9210


Bless the beasts and children


HAIRY EYEBALL It’s hard not to look at Ryan McGinley’s road-trip photographs — in which his young, often nude, subjects, having ventured far from civilization, run through the woods, climb trees, dance amid a Vulcanic cascade of sparklers, and leap into the void — and not sigh a little. What now separates them from the images he shot for Levi’s current “Go Forth” campaign, seemingly plastered on every other Muni shelter, is frequently a conspicuously displayed pair of jeans.

McGinley has built his reputation on capturing Edenic visions of youth running wild. His pictures are gauzy and nostalgic, shot through with the sexy frisson of their in-the-moment documentation of a way of living that rebukes authority and throws caution to the wind. No one is at work in a McGinley photograph (an irony, perhaps, given the faux-literati, “we are all workers” sloganeering that Levi’s uses elsewhere in the campaign). Rather, people, such as the New York area taggers he started off photographing early in his career, create. Or, as in the road trip pictures, they drop out, escape.

No wonder Levi’s came calling. McGinley’s photographs deliver the promise of youth and all its freedoms in a sexy visual package. When McGinley is at his strongest, though, his pictures also offer up flashes of mystery and unaffected joy. Sometimes, when his subject’s eyes lock with his camera they seem to transmit the promise of a secret to be shared.

The road-trip photographs make up roughly half the images in “Life Adjustment Center,” McGinley’s current exhibit at Ratio 3. However much they dazzle — Tom (Blue, Pink and Orange), a male nude study, gives George Platt Lynes a glowing Technicolor kiss — they are not the true draw. The animals are.

The other half of the show consists of black and white studio portraits of models (again, nude) posing with all sorts of fauna: deer, a domesticated mutt, a peacock, a butterfly, and a coyote. They are the inverse of the road-trip scenes: nature has been brought inside. Both creatures and humans address us with unblinking stillness that, at first glance, gives the impression that the former are stuffed. However, the press notes inform us that the animals are real, which makes a photo like India (Coyote) all the more riveting.

The coyote is draped around India’s shoulders, her hands balancing it in place, in a pose that echoes classic depictions of Christ as shepherd holding aloft his allegorical lamb. The coyote — its tongue hanging out — appears at ease, as does India. Their proximity to each other is nonetheless unsettling (we are left to guess whether or not the scars that criss-cross India’s torso and legs were acquired while posing or before the shoot).

The photograph also makes me think of Josef Beuys’ famous 1974 performance in which he stayed in the René Block Gallery with a wild coyote for eight hours over three days. By the end of the piece, the coyote had become tolerant enough of Beuys to allow the artist to give it a farewell embrace.

In McGinley’s remarkable photographs animals and humans pose together, but there is no hierarchy of prop and subject. In these double portraits McGinley has captured a momentary, and intensely tactile, experience of trust and vulnerability shared between unlike creatures.



I have one thing to say to fans of 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) who haven’t yet seen local animation wunderkind and 2008 Goldie winner Samara Halperin’s epic, stop-motion same-sex cowboy romance Tumbleweed Town (1999). Get thee to YouTube.

A brief plot synopsis is in order. As Todd the Tonka cowboy hitchhikes his way across the Texas desert he navigates a rugged world of plastic masculinity only to find true love in the arms of a two-stepper at a raunchy roadhouse.

Currently in residence this week at Southern Exposure, Halperin has been converting the space’s sizeable gallery into a set for West of the Wonder Wheel, her much-awaited sequel to Tumbleweed Town, which trades wide, open spaces for the enclosed, topsy-turvy world of the carnival.

Halperin’s miniature amusement park, complete with rides and games of skill, was greatly inspired by Coney Island’s recently demolished Astroland Park, one of the subjects of a Halperin-curated series of short films about amusement parks that is shown alongside the film set/sculpture.

The last tiny detail is set to be glued in place this Friday, and to celebrate Halperin is hosting a pre-filming carnival-themed party with live music, games, and, of course, cotton candy.


Through Dec. 11

Ratio 3

1447 Stevenson, SF

(415) 821-3371



Through Nov. 15 (carnival reception Fri/12, 7 p.m.–9 p.m.

Southern Exposure

3030 20th St., SF

(415) 863-2141 www.soex.org

GOLDIES 2010: Jennifer Locke


In her pieces, Jennifer Locke has, variously, jumped rope for 30 minutes in a full-body latex suit (cutting out a hole in the bottom afterward to drain out her accumulated sweat and urine); wrestled with a partner at the Berkeley Art Museum smeared in stage blood; covered herself in Elmer’s glue, let it dry into a second skin, and then peeled it off; received a lap dance from a male stripper; and branded a fellow participant.

Granted, reducing Locke’s art to such a titillating laundry list is a superficial move. But the immediate visceral spectacle her work repeatedly presents is undeniably seductive — albeit in a punk rock kind of way. It’s hard not to be pulled in by the grappling, athletic bodies, the donning and shedding of second skins, all frequently soundtracked by the amplified breath of the participants themselves, even if it sometimes causes one to flinch.

Locke, who has spent considerable time working as a pro dom and is herself a champion submission wrestler, is keenly aware of her art’s initial draws. “Yeah,” she laughs over the phone, “athletic bodies are inherently sexy. It’s in our nature as human beings to want to look. But I want there to be a barrier between the audience and the image of the body.”

In Locke’s work, which she describes as a sculptural hybrid of live studio actions and video, the camera often provides that layer (or more often, layers) of mediation. Locke strategically uses video within her pieces to alter the on-site audience’s expectations and perceptions of what’s occurring in front of them, as well as those of viewers encountering the pieces as video documents after the fact.

Whatever erotic or transgressive charge a viewer may have invested in the actions being performed becomes rewired through the camera set-up, or is short-circuited entirely. As critic Daniel Coffeen has noted of Locke’s work: “She does not dabble in human affect but in human mechanics.”

In the aforementioned BAM piece, Red/White (Fake Blood), Locke and her wrestling partner sparred in the museum’s loading bay, their actions relayed to the audience via a live video feed that, due to technical difficulties, wound up being projected in black and white. The door to the dock, however, was left slightly ajar so anyone who wanted to see the “real event,” and the piece’s “true colors,” could — although no one was ever specifically directed to.

In Black/White, a three-day piece done as part of the opening of the San Francisco offices of the Marina Abramovic Institute of Performance Art, Locke placed the camera filming a live feed of her actions so that it encompassed those viewing her as well, then projected that image on a rear wall so the audience could observe either Locke’s action or the projection of themselves watching Locke’s action, but not see both simultaneously.

“I used to talk a lot in my artist statement about power dynamics, but then I realized over time that I’m more interested in how meaning gets produced,” she says. “Power is a means to talk about that, but I want to know how those hierarchies actually shift around in reality: Who’s in control? Am I? Is the camera? Is the audience? My work is like a three-card monte.”



GOLDIES 2010: Ruth Laskey


One thing that Bay Area art has no shortage of is color. Whether it be Albers-informed theory, Op-influenced repetitious patterns, Mission muralismo, or mural-like Mission School paintings, in general, local color has been primary, if not outright garish. Ruth Laskey’s palette stands apart — confident enough to be low-key or even muted in comparison. “Color is kind of it for me,” Laskey says, in the middle of a sleepy afternoon at a Mission cafe. “It’s where a piece gets its emotion.”

You could say that there’s a quality of quiet intensity to Laskey’s work, and the artist herself is soft-spoken. She’s also strong, clear, and candid in terms of viewpoint. “My relationship to color is not very systematic,” she says, when the topic of Albers references in relation to her work is broached. “It’s more intuitive. I already see things from a painter’s perspective. When you’re a painter making color, there’s an evolution that happens.”

In Laskey’s case, this evolution is ongoing — and it isn’t taking place within traditional painting. Both “7 Weavings,” her first solo exhibition at Ratio 3 in 2008, and a self-titled show at the same space this year are taken from her larger “Twill Series,” a growing group of “investigations” that she began in 2005, years after taking a weaving class in between undergraduate and graduate studies at California College of the Arts. “Twilling is basic, the first pattern weave you learn,” she says. “The loom I’ve been using from the beginning is basic. I was thinking about my understanding of weaving, and I was interested in how twill creates shape on its own. It kind of clicked one day that I could use twill, but insert the thread in the same way I would with tapestry.”

That moment kick started Laskey’s unique use of dye and weft and warp to create color forms in which minimalism and materiality intersect. Her “Twill Series” has generated a cover story critical appraisal in Artforum and many responses locally — in some ways, the discourse about her growing body of work (including my own 2008 piece for this publication, which focused on geometric elements) reveals as much about the writers as it does about the art itself, which invites contemplation and allows open interpretation. It’s a mistake to assume this openness is cool detachment, though. “It’s fabric,” she says. “It’s inherently warm.”

At the moment, Laskey’s studio is in the garage of her apartment in Glen Park, a neighborhood that has housed some artists of renowned dedication, like Bruce Conner. Her day job at California College of the Arts’ Oakland library is one source of inspiration and perspective. Music could be another. When I ask her what sounds might make apt accompaniment for an audiovisual presentation of her art, her choice is Sun Ra. Thinking of her work as what Ra would call an “art form of dimensions tomorrow” adds another a playful element to its fabric. She uses blankness around an image as he uses the silence that surrounds sound. Space is the place.

As for Laskey’s “Twill Series,” at the moment it’s hard to gauge how large it will grow, but there is no doubt her deployment of dye and geometric shape is subtly shifting. “It’s an issue that artists have to deal with all the time,” she reflects. “I might still be interested in what the work is doing, but is it still engaging for everyone else? There’s always that tiny figure on your shoulder saying, ‘Maybe you need to move on.’ But I feel like it’s taking me on this journey. It might be a really slow journey. It might have small steps. But I’m enjoying that. For me, it’s fruitful.” 

www.ratio3.org; www.ruthlaskey.com


GOLDIES 2010: Amanda Curreri


Five minutes into talking with Amanda Curreri over a slice and coffee at Mission Pie, I’ve agreed to take part in a piece she’s working on as part of Shadowshop, the in-gallery artists’ marketplace Stephanie Syjuco is organizing for SFMOMA’s upcoming survey of work made in the past decade.

“It’s called Afghanistan Insert,” Curreri explains, speaking in the measured fashion of someone who carefully considers her words. “I’m trying to insert Afghanistan into SFMOMA and into San Francisco’s art community.”

Curreri’s commitment to getting the local arts scene to engage with what has become commonly dubbed by the mainstream news media as “the forgotten war” is not just politically motivated. It’s also personal. Her husband has been working in Afghanistan for the past five months as a security contractor, during which he has sent her snapshots of local graffiti. They are documents of his ground truth.

Curreri plans on physically inserting herself and her husband’s images into Shadowshop, much in the same way she holds one of his pictures in the portrait accompanying this feature. Indeed, the photo, this profile, Curreri’s new status within the local arts community as a Goldie winner, and the conversations this increased attention might encourage will all become part of the discourse surrounding Insert Afghanistan and contributing to its impact.

All this is consonant with Curreri’s view of herself as more of an instigator than an artist. “I’m trying to make art that crosses out of the art world,” she says, echoing Joseph Beuys’ notion of social sculpture. Her projects thrive on participation, using the exhibition space as a kind of social laboratory in which she arranges shared cultural touchstones and institutions — campfire songs, the judicial process, family recipes — as prompts for personal reflection and shared conversation on the “big subjects” that undergird them: history, politics, memory, and in the case of Afghanistan Insert, their intersection within a seemingly endless and fruitless foreign occupation thousands of miles away.

Engaging with Curreri’s art often entails an extended encounter with the artist herself (given how unexpectedly my interview at Mission Pie has turned out, the reverse seems true as well). The last conversation I had with Curreri was this past July, when she videotaped my extemporaneous responses to her off-camera questioning about the topic of last words. My interview was to be incorporated into her concurrent exhibit “Occupy the Empty,” for which she transformed Ping Pong Gallery via hand-sculpted “props” into a courtroom in which various associates, friends, and strangers, such as myself, volunteered their time and testimony.

As with Insert Afghanistan, the inspiration for “Occupy the Empty” was also personal: after participating in a court hearing concerning her late father, Curreri found out it had been held in the same Massachusetts courthouse in which Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in the early 20th century. Curreri, also of Italian-American descent, saw the coincidence as a chance to connect to that history and, in the process, build a community around a larger discussion of remembrance. Curreri recalls one participant for whom the show served an almost therapeutic function.

“I want to create art that has an interpersonal function, in real-time,” she says. “I want my work to set a specific frame around our inherent connectivity.” 



Mirrors and masks



LIT/VISUAL ART At a time when everyone is bemoaning the death of the book from either Kindle or just plain old lack of interest, I stand up for our old friend and former conveyance. There’s something about it — the smell of fresh ink, the feel of the yellowed-pages of a well-worn paperback, that gentle “crack” of the spine of a new volume — that can never be replaced by some black-matte gadget. As a writer and lover of all things book, I’ve been impressed by a few this year that may reignite your love for what’s laying between the covers, just waiting for your return.

Julian Bell’s Mirror of the World: A New History of Art (Thames and Hudson, 496 pages, $34.95) is an unassuming tome. Clocking in at just under 500 pages, this softcover textbook-looking marvel has become a mainstay on my research shelf and bathroom magazine rack. Gathering full-color plates of some of the most lush (Delacroix’s Death of Sarandapulus), confrontational (Donatello’s David), and demanding (Jane Alexander’s Vissershok) images in Western art over the last 500 years, Bell has managed to do what so often seems like the impossible in the art world: he’s included damn near everybody. To Bell, Nok terracotta, Chinese Master Guo Xi, and Dogon carvings have as much influence on contemporary art as Warhol, Pollack, and Manet. “I want to believe,” he says in the introduction, “that works of art can reveal realities that had otherwise lain unseen, that they can act as frames for truth.” Mirror to the World does just that, framing a more-true, inclusive history of art while providing a nifty little timeline in the back to play catch-up.

Speaking of timelines, I’m grateful that Simone Werle’s 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know (Prestel, 160 pages, $19.95) has one! As a latecomer to the world of fashion, I know what I like, but sometimes have no idea why, or where it came from. The designers profiled in this book are given full- color spreads featuring their most signature pieces. Armani, Prada, and Dolce and Gabbana are explored at length, while conceptualists such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kubokawa are not overlooked. From early-20th century designers like Coco Chanel and Andre Courreges to contemporaries such as Vivienne Westwood and Tom Ford, this guidebook is handy and dandy.

One of the most beautiful books I’ve gotten my hands on this year is also one of the most challenging and provocative. Martin Eder’s Der Blasse Tanz/The Pale Dance (Prestel, 320 pages, $64.95) is a formidably luscious soft-focus bomb waiting to go off in the reader’s psyche. The German painter walks the thin line between fantasy and reality, nightmare and saccharine dream, child-like infatuation and barely-legal obsession. With a technical prowess to rival Renoir and Botticelli, Eder uses watercolors to draw us into this uncomfortable in-between, turning us into admirers and voyeurs at the same time. From the plush feel of the slightly weathered cover-stock, to Isabel Azoulay’s introduction and its insights regarding feminism and erotic art, everything works together, making Der Blasse Tanz an artifact that tells our oh-so modern story in a way that only a well-made book can.

But if there is any book out there right now that truly justifies why art and photo books still exist, it’s got to be Phyllis Galembo’s Maske (Chris Boot, 208 pages, $46). I love this book! In it, ordinary people turn into mythic figures and magicians, tricksters, and gods through fantastic costumes in African and Caribbean rituals and celebrations. Striped bodysuits that cover the entire body, including the face, conjure both Sesame Street and Freddy Kruger. Outfits are made entirely of bunched greenery. A lacquered wooden mask topped with a headdress and a full-body model doubles and then triples a small boy’s mass. The images themselves are striking, statements on both fashion and fetish. Knowing that there are 180 of them, and explanations for each one, makes the imagination take off on plywood wings.

Tick tock



HAIRY EYEBALL In a characteristically poetic passage within 1980’s Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes early cameras, given their cabinet-like appearance and precise mechanical innards, as “clocks for seeing.” I couldn’t shake the phrase while taking in Will Rogan’s “Stay Home,” an ambiguous smile of a solo show composed of photographs and three-dimensional photographic collages at Altman Siegel.

Taking the measure of time is very much on Rogan’s mind, as it was on Barthes’ some 40 years ago. A photograph is but an imperfect means of forestalling time’s onward march: it offers the present a momentary record of an instant long gone. So too has photography, at least in the nondigital form that Barthes was writing about, become an index of a past medium, and in our current age of Photoshop, an object for nostalgic longing (see the Hipstamatic iPhone app).

Rogan skirts this sand trap even though his practice deliberately engages with 1970s printed matter and evokes a range of photographers from that decade and later, most notably Lee Friedlander and Daido Moriyama’s social landscapes, and to a lesser extent, Sherrie Levine’s appropriations. The three small sculptural collages of cropped images affixed to painted wood pieces with beeswax even look as if they are from another time. Indeed, it’s easy to get distracted by Rogan’s mode of address (“hey guys, here are some cool books I found at a yard sale, and look what I came upon while walking to the corner store”), by his work’s muted cleverness and calculated arrangement of happenstance, that it can be easy to overlook the substance of what he’s saying.

Viewing the Past As it Happens takes its title from a passage in a picture book on astronomy that is itself the subject of the photograph. The book lies open; a picture of a galaxy on the right page. A description on the adjacent page details that what we are looking at, that what astronomers gaze at through their telescopes night after night, is in fact millions of years old. Of course, this also functions as a gloss (as does the photograph’s title) on the act of taking a picture: in that moment when we look into the viewfinder, our fingers poised to capture what we see before us, we are in a sense seeing what will become the past.

Two other photographs of educational books, The Elusive Nature of Time and Man Versus Clock: The Unequal Struggle, drive the point home that the photographer’s relationship to time is a Sisyphean one, even as the lifted bathos of their titles sends up the self-seriousness inherent to such postulating. Rogan seems to say, “Don’t freak out, too much,” while simultaneously holding up evidence to the contrary. The detritus that catches Rogan’s eye in other pictures — reflective glass shards, a gutter-lodged beer can, a taped-together window, an abandoned sneaker — are corollaries to the amazing sign on the paper shredding business captured in Shredder that reads, “DOCUMENT DESTRUCTION — While You Watch,” in light of which “document” starts to read more as a verb than a noun.

With Busts, a series of six magazine pages (covers perhaps?) that have been altered so that only the ghostly white silhouettes of unknown seated subjects remain, Rogan moves from documenting destruction to participating in it. It’s hard to tell whether or not the outlines are formed from erasing a prior image or painting over unrelated text, some of which is visible underneath the white. Regardless, the message is still clear: time is on no one’s side.



Time will certainly not be on the side of Hugh Brown, who demonstrates in his solo show “Allegedly” at Robert Koch that no amount of skilled workmanship or flawless execution can make up for a paucity of ideas. Indeed, he has but one, and truly, it is more a gimmick than a concept: to remake iconic works of art in his own image.

And how does the artist picture himself? As a chainsaw-wielding bad boy, cutting through the canon and art world pretensions with the power phallus of choice for exploitation filmmakers and ice sculptors. Brown’s smash and grab tour through art history includes Diane Arbus (here, the child clenched in rage holds a toy saw instead of a grenade), John Baldessari, Henri Matisse, Barbara Kruger (“I saw therefore I am”), and Roy Lichtenstein, among many others.

Granted, Brown’s art is well made and it exhibits a careful attention to the material details of the work it parodies. A “Bruce Nauman” is actually done in neon (surprise, it’s a chainsaw). Each work is also credited to the original artist, a parenthetical “allegedly” following their name, as if the dubiousness of what we we’re looking at weren’t apparent already.

Appropriation is by no means a new game, and many of the artists hijacked by Brown made poaching and quotation central to their own practices. But the art in “Allegedly” lacks any real critical force. It says nothing about the works being pillaged and everything about Brown’s estimation of himself. The show is apiece with those postcards that put sunglasses on the Mona Lisa or banana hammocks on Michelangelo’s David.

How Brown has managed to convince gallerists otherwise is a mystery that “Allegedly” leaves unsolved. *


Through No. 6

Altman Siegel Gallery S/F

49 Geary, Fourth floor, SF

(415) 576-9300



Through Oct. 30

Robert Koch Gallery

49 Geary, SF

(415) 421-0122



Of Human Bondage



HAIRY EYEBALL Two life-size sculptures of human skulls sit side by side at Meridian Gallery. The first is cast in glass, tiny air bubbles filling its dome like frozen stars. The one to the right, the wall card indicates, is actually human, but you wouldn’t know it since it’s covered in black leather. The seamless second skin is pulled tight around the bone, as if shrink-wrapped. The effect is both helmet- and lifelike, making you immediately want to run your fingers across your head and face, feeling the tautness of your flesh, aware, at the same time, of what’s contained by such penetrable softness.

Bringing out the sentient in the inanimate is one function of certain forms of shamanism, but it could also serve as description of art making as well. It certainly applies to the practice of Toronto-based, African American artist Tim Whiten, whose work, by turns affecting and frustratingly opaque, is the subject of Meridian’s career-spanning overview, “Darker, Ever Darker; Deeper, Always Deeper: The Journey of Tim Whiten.” This is Whiten’s third show with the gallery, and his return is always something of personal one: his close friendship with exhibit curator and Meridian director Anne Trueblood Brodzky goes back decades.

With its use of natural, sometimes found materials — cotton, coffee, leather, wood, stone, bone, glass — and ritualistic air, Whiten’s art frequently gives off the impression of having been excavated rather than created in a studio, as if what fills Meridian’s three floors are the assembled artifacts from some now-vanished indigenous people. (This is an artist whose most well-known piece, Metamorphosis, involved him being sewn into — and then wriggling out from — a bear skin turned inside-out ). As Robert Farris Thompson’s essay in the accompanying catalog painstakingly details, Whiten’s work consciously takes inspiration from and evokes a network of traditions and objects (his “visual ancestry” in Thompson’s words) that stretches from the daily rituals of his late woodworker father to the bone yards of the American South to the totems of the Ejagham people of southwestern Camaroon.

Although such context is helpful, possessing it does not give a more overtly referential sculpture such as Magic Staffs (1970) — two wooden sticks wrapped in leather with dangling bits of animal bone and human hair — the same charge as Whiten’s far simpler leather encased stones from the same period. As with the leather-wrapped skull (Parsifal, 1986), Whiten’s covering of the stones serves to underscore the natural processes by which their shapes came to be while also reconstituting them as something more mammalian.

Two large canvases from the mid-to-late 1990s, Enigmata (no. 11) and Enigmata with Rose (no 4.), work in the reverse by displaying just the covering: in this case, hospital sheets, stained with coffee. Their chestnut brown wrinkles and creases suggest skin, as well as the bodies who once laid on and beneath them, leaving their marks in blood and sweat, giving birth to new life and passing on from this one. They are by far the most touchingly human pieces in “Darker.”



Darker still are the photos of Rudolph Schwarzkogler at Steven Wolf’s spacious new Mission District digs. “Castration Myth” documents the intense 1960s actions the late Vienna Aktionist carried out in front of a few spectators in his apartment. The indeterminacy of what’s happening in these photos (the exhibit takes its title from the apocryphal story that Schwarzkogler amputated his own penis in one performance) still causes unease, even if the Aktionists’ anti-aesthetic — in which the artist’s body is pushed to its limits, trussed up, battered, and defiled — has become metabolized into pop culture by way of punk rock and, more recently, the prurient sadism of the Saw films.


Through Nov. 26

Meridian Gallery

535 Powell, SF

(415) 398-7229



Through Oct. 9

Steven Wolf Fine Arts

2747 19th St., A, SF

(415) 263-3677


At the Drive-In



VISUAL ART Before it became the context-free darling of YouTubers and meta-bloggers, the 1980s was a real, living era. Movies and music videos copulated. An actor became president and decided to invade Grenada despite a warning from, yes, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the action would be seen as "intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime." The pre-politics Governator appeared in 1984’s The Terminator as "something unstoppable … that felt no pain." And Martin Amis, in Einstein’s Monsters (1987), wrote that "the arms race is a race between nuclear weapons and ourselves." The future appeared bleaker than bleak, its robotic violence and darkness palatable if seen through neon-tinted pop culture glasses.

The 01SJ Biennial, a welcome if dizzying affair that opens this week in San Jose, is a plugged-in antidote to ’80s-era apocalyptic soothsaying. Although more recent cultural creations from 28 Days Later (2002) to The Road (2009) have done little to imagine a coherent future, they’ve at least begun asking what it means to be honestly human. Might we finally stop blaming technology?

Blogging about the biennial’s "Build Your Own Future" theme, Artistic Director Steve Dietz recently noted that the event offers a chance for "serious play." For an illustration of what he means, look no further than Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark’s Empire Drive-In, a fully functional theater featuring cars saved from a local auto wrecker and a screen built almost entirely from salvaged wood. A collaboration with artists including Brett James, Ian Page, and Robin Frohardt (who designed and fabricated a unique concession stand), Empire‘s cinema comes to life inside the San Jose Convention Center’s airplane hangar-sized South Hall.

Last week, Chandler took a break from cleaning broken glass out of one of the cars to chat about the project. He said he had first presented Dietz with the idea of a possible live performance by his band Dark Dark Dark, along with Flood Tide: Remixed. a sort of contemplative preview version of his forthcoming feature film of the same name. "Steve was interested," Chandler explained, "but he said that it wasn’t enough. I was like, not enough?!"

Though Chandler had been pouring himself into Flood Tide project, if the biennial wanted something even bigger, he knew what to do. He called Stark, the intrepid editor of Nonsense NYC (www.nonsensenyc.com ). "Jeff is amazing at pulling off really big, impossible projects," Chandler says. "And he’d had this idea in his head for a while about a junk car drive-in."

Chandler and Stark met while working on the Miss Rockaway Armada project (www.missrockaway.org ), the first iteration of a number of artistic ventures involving large rafts made of salvaged materials. That participatory trip down the Mississippi River — deemed an "anarchist county fair" and a "fools’ ark" — gave birth to the projects that became the subject of Flood Tide. In turn, Empire Drive-In includes not just the hypnotic Flood Tide: Remixed, but a number of "live cinema" presentations, including Zoe Keating and Robert Hodgin’s Into the Trees, and Laetitia Sonami and SUE-C’s Sheepwoman.

"The cars we’re using were on their way to Redwood City to get crushed," Chandler explained. "A lot of them had smashed windshields." He and Stark chose vehicles based on what was available rather than a predetermined vision: "We didn’t want to do a retro, ’50s-style drive-in."

As with any other theater, when a drive-in closes for good, we say that it has "gone dark." My childhood haunt, Skyview Drive-In in Santa Cruz, went dark a few years ago. When I drove by and saw the missing screens, I started to cry. Empire Drive-In presents the unbearable lightness of seeing in a world that might someday go dark.


Thurs/16–Sun/19, various venues

(408) 916-1010


Portraits of Jason



HAIRY EYEBALL “The black queen is not interested in sympathy,” intones the artist Tim Roseborough dryly in Portrait of Jason II: Rebirth of the B*tch , his “sequel” to Shirley Clarke’s 1967 film Portrait of Jason. It’s one of many verbal snaps issued by Roseborough’s piece, a séance with and tribute to its titular subject currently on view at the tiny Scenius Gallery.

The Jason is question is Jason Holliday, who, for close to 100 minutes, gives Clarke’s near-static 16mm camera the performance of a lifetime. In an uninterrupted stream of speech filmed mostly in medium close-up, Holliday holds forth on the life experiences, aspirations, and observations he’s picked up as an African American, a gay man, an ex hustler, and a showbiz dreamer.

As the culled remains of the 12-hour shoot roll on and Clarke loads in new reel after new reel, Holliday’s finger poppin’ sassy front gradually gives way to flashes of deep-rooted pain and vodka-fueled rage, culminating in a tear-streaked finale that qualifies as one of the most unsettling moments in American documentary film.

Dressed in Jason drag — Coke bottle glasses, a natty white shirt, and dark blazer — and speaking in Holliday’s jivey cadence, Roseborough resurrects Clarke’s subject as a ghost from the past commenting on current events (Obama is discussed) and a cultural climate worlds away from the pre-Stonewall moment of Portrait.

Things get more interesting when Roseborough uses his performance of Jason to dive into how race and gender are affectively coded in Clarke’s film. The above quote is spoken in the midst of a disquisition on representations of “the queeny black man” as either an object of (presumably white) pity — here he brings up Paris is Burning — or exotic fascination (RuPaul), who is invariably collapsed with the figure of the drag queen.

Although it bears the look of its source material, Roseborough’s piece fundamentally differs from Clarke’s film in its presentation. Shot on single-channel video, Roseborough’s movie is shown on DVD. At my viewing session, I was given a remote allowing me to skip around between chapters, effectively taking in as much or as little of his Jason as I would like. Of course, when watching the original Portrait, you can up and leave the theater at any time (many viewers have in the two screenings I’ve attended), but its grueling duration and unrelenting pace are also what gives Jason’s performance, and Clarke’s film, their urgency.

Roseborough’s Jason might be more effective if unleashed across YouTube instead of confined to the by-appointment-only limitations of Scenius’ white cube (although, even former reigning queen Kalup Linzy has moved on and up to episodes of General Hospital). I’m glad the bitch is back, but I’d like to have a clearer sense of the stakes behind Roseborough’s new portrait.



There are scads more shows opening just around the corner that space limits me from including in last week’s fall arts preview. That said, here are a few more current and upcoming exhibits worth seeking out in the coming weeks:

Composed of hundreds of miniature landscapes inspired by Western landscape painting, Sean McFarland’s refracted view of California’s blues, browns, greens, and golds turns Adobe Books’ back room into an exploded postcard shop.

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the cleverly titled “Black Sabbath” examines how black artists used Jewish music as way to define African American identity, history, and politics. The Idelsohn Society of Musical Preservation, which curated CJM’s recent “Jews on Vinyl” exhibit, has uncovered all sorts of hidden-in-plain-sight encounters between black and Jewish musical cultures, from Cab Calloway doing Yiddish jive to Johnny Mathis singing the Aramaic prayer “Kol Nidre.”

Radiohead fans know Stanley Donwood as the go-to cover artist and frequent artistic collaborator for the British rock group’s albums from The Bends onward. “Over Normal,” Donwood’s first stateside solo exhibit, features many of the painter’s colorful “word map” canvases, whose wavy, grid-like structures (based on the street layouts of major world cities) are filled in with politically resonant and controversially juxtaposed words (see the cover for 2003’s Hail to the Thief). 


Through Sept. 10


3150 18th St., Suite 104, SF

(415) 420-2509



Through Sept. 19

Adobe Books Backroom Gallery

3166 16th St, SF

(415) 864-3936



Through March 1, 2011

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission, SF

(415) 655-7800




Thurs/2 through Oct. 27

218 Fillmore, SF

(415) 861-1960



Funny face, fecal face



FALL ARTS/HAIRY EYEBALL “New Work: R. H. Quaytman” It’s appropriate that the paintings commissioned by SFMOMA for R.H. Quaytman’s first West Coast showing were conceived in response to the museum’s own photography holdings as well as the work of SF Renaissance poet Jack Spicer. I’m curious to see what sort of conversation Quaytman’s precise, labor-intensive, and site-specific silk-screens (in “seven interrelated sizes based on the golden ratio”) stage with Spicer’s salty and spicy verse. Oct. 22-Jan. 16, 2011; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, www.sfmoma.org.

“Masami Teraoka: The Inversion of the Sacred” Masami Teraoka built his reputation in the 1980s and ’90s on his apocalyptic ukiyo-e-style paintings, which juxtaposed topical content (AIDS, the globalization of fast food) against their faithful reproduction of an older, “traditional” aesthetic. In recent years he’s turned to Renaissance altar painting as the medium of choice to express his disgust over a whole host of new evils. His latest gilded blasphemy — a triptych that reenvisions the Last Supper as a Papal stag party in hell — encompass the ever-mounting sex abuse scandals linked to the Catholic Church and the gulf oil spill. Oct. 2-Nov.13; Catharine Clark Gallery, cclarkgallery.com.

“Tammy Rae Carland: Funny Face, I Love You” For her second solo show at Silverman Gallery, Mr. Lady Records cofounder and visual artist Tammy Rae Carland presents a suite of new work inspired by female comedians. Carland’s photographs of empty stand-up stages give off a slightly forlorn vibe, to be sure, but her anywhere clubs are also sites of possibility to laugh off gender difference as well as to laugh at it. You’ll leave in stitches. Sept. 10-Oct. 23, 2010; Silverman Gallery, www.silverman-gallery.com.

“10 Years of Fecal Face, An Anniversary Show” A decade in Internet years is a long-ass time, so three cheers to founder John Trippe and his army of global correspondents for sticking to their guns these past 10 years and creating an invaluable resource and platform for Bay Area artists and visual art fans. Tripp has pulled together a who’s who of site and Fecal Face Dot Gallery alum — David Choe, Matt Furie, and Jeremy Fish, to name a few — for this epic retrospective. Support the scene that supports you. Sept. 10-Oct. 9, 2010; Luggage Store Gallery, www.luggagestoregallery.org.

“HARVEST: what have you gathered?” Just in time for the lead-up to Thanksgiving, the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District Gallery lays out quite a spread. “Harvest” asked a diverse group of TL-based artists, “What have you gathered?” Their responses should make for an interesting snapshot of the lives that comprise a neighborhood in flux. Sept. 1–Nov. 30; 134 A Golden Gate, www.nom-tlcbd.org.

“Reclaimed: Paintings From the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker” Fact: the Nazis did many shitty things, such as taking other people’s (wealthy Jews, in particular) cultural property as their own. Such was the fate of the collection of prominent Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who had amassed a sizable number of Northern Renaissance rarities. After much effort conservators finally repieced together the collection in 2006, and now SF gets a peek at Goudstikker’s greatest hits. And what hits they are: for starters, Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Landscape with Iceskaters (1608) could give Breughel’s peasantry a run for their money. Oct. 29-March 11, 2011; Contemporary Jewish Museum, www.thecjm.org.

“Chris Duncan: Eye Against I” Though it takes its title from a seminal album by Washington, D.C., hardcore-legends Bad Brains, “Eye Against I” can also refer to the mind/body split one undergoes when staring down one of Chris Duncan’s refracted whirlpools of color. Fry art by way of Saul Bass is one way to think about Duncan’s carefully hued spirals of isosceles triangles, but some of the guest artists scheduled for a series of accompanying live events might provide some other ways to re-see the work. Sept. 11- Oct. 16, 2010; Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, www.baerridgway.com.

“One Night Stand: A Mills MFA Group Show” Art doesn’t come much cheaper than this. The bright-eyed and bushy-tailed talents in the 2011 Mills MFA class are selling their work for under $50 a pop. Buy now or cry later after they’ve won a SECA award and made the cover of Juxtapoz. Oct. 8, 6-9 p.m.; Branch Gallery, www.branchgallery.com.

“Cliff Hengst and Wayne Smith: New Work” Both Hengst and Smith have been longtime fixtures on the SF art scene, but their work — different as it is in tone and medium — is always refreshing. Here’s hoping Hengst unveils work in line with the small gems in his last showing at 2nd Floor Projects: news photo-sourced images of demonstrations in which everything but the protestors’ signs have been blackened out. Sept. 10-Oct. 29; Gallery 16, www.gallery16.com.

“Suggestions of Life Being Lived” This exciting group show curated by Danny Orendorff and Adriane Skye Roberts promises to live up to the dare laid down by Bikini Kill many moons ago to be “worse than queer.” Bypassing the usual identity politics-centered narratives and concerns that have defined much LGBT art practice, “Suggestions” seeks out new territory for queerness, whether it be in Kirstyn Russell’s photos of gay bars past, Jeannie Simm’s intimate study of an Indonesian maid training agency, or Chris Vargas and Greg Youman’s humorous “real life” Web sitcom Falling in Love With Chris and Greg. Sept. 9-Oct. 23; SF Camerawork, www.sfcamerawork.org.


Not all fall hits are in the city. Borrow some wheels and head to points north and south to check out these promising shows:


Before SF Art Institute was SF Art Institute, it was known as the California School of Fine Arts and had one of the finest photography programs in post-World War II America. Set up by Ansel Adams, the program counted such celebrated photographers as Dorothea Lange, Homer Page, and Imogen Cunningham among its illustrious faculty. Smith Anderson North in San Anselmo collects an unprecedented showing of photographers who came out of the program at the height of its fame. Sept. 14-Oct. 15; Smith Anderson North, www.smithandersonnorth.com.

“2010 01SJ BIENNIAL”

You may know the way to San Jose, but San Jose knows the way to the future. The 01SJ Biennial has grown into one of the Bay Area’s premier art events, bringing together visual artists, architects, computer programmers, and a whole host of other creative doers and thinkers and unleashing their creations and collaborations across the city, this year, with the prompt to “Build Your Own World.” Sept. 16-19; www.01sj.org.

In the dumps


From Kurt Schwitters’ dwelling-consuming accretion The Merzbau to Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s silhouette-casting garbage heaps, making art from the discard pile is by no means a new gesture. It can still be a potent one, though, as evinced by “Art at the Dump,” a 20-year survey of the fruits of Recology’s artist in residence program at Intersection for the Art’s new gallery space in the historic San Francisco Chronicle building.

Recology’s program — the first of its kind in the nation — has grown immensely since the late artist and activist Jo Hanson first reached out to the Sanitary Fill Company back in 1990 and got her hands dirty. Today, participating artists are provided with a stipend and a studio in which to create work from materials scavenged from the Public Disposal and Recycling Area (a.k.a. “the dump”). The residency also involves community outreach, with artists speaking to the more than 5,000 students and adults who annually attend tours of the city’s garbage and recycling facility.

As in any large group show, the creative mileage at “Art at the Dump” varies. More than a few residents over the years seem unified in their studied appreciation of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines and Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, but their final pieces often lack Rauschenberg’s precise eye for juxtaposition or Cornell’s tender hermeticism. Mark Faigenbaum’s (2005) wonderful Pop 66 (2) — a chopped-up 1966 Muni bus poster arranged into a quilt-like pattern of concentric squares — on the other hand, stands on its own as an abstract reconfiguration of its source material while also evoking Charles Demuth’s precisionist oils.

If one artist’s trash doesn’t always make for treasure, at the very least you can count on a conversation piece. A sculpture by Casey Logan (2008) consists of a section of a tree trunk whose upper half has been, as if by the intervention of some magic beavers, whittled into a two-by-four complete with barcode sticker. It is called Destiny. It makes for a humorous pairing with Linda Raynsford’s (2000) two Tree Saws: old handsaws whose rusted blades Raynsford delicately cut into the outlines of forest giants.

Other past residents have taken a craftier approach. Estelle Akamine’s 1993 evening skirt and fantastically fringed cape made from computer tape ribbon could easily pass for one of Gareth Pugh’s recent gothic runway looks.

Perhaps the exhibit’s final word belongs to Donna Keiko Ozawa’s 2001 conceptual sculpture Art Reception, a found jug filled to the top with trash produced during a gallery’s opening reception. Cleverly recalling Oscar Wilde’s famous opening salvo in The Picture of Dorian Gray that “All art is quite useless,” Ozawa’s piece also underscores that the process of art-making — from a piece’s creation to its display — leaves its own set of carbon footprints.



Robb Putnam’s also no stranger to refuse. The titular orphans in the Oakland artist’s first solo exhibition at Rena Bransten are large, cartoonish canine heads made from compacted scraps of old blankets, fake fur, bubble-wrap, and it seems whatever else Putnam swept off his studio floor.

Mike Kelley’s perverse stuffed animal sculptures and the grotesque composite portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo both come to mind here. But with their Augie Doggie-like curves and permanently wagging tongues, Putnam’s mutts are more pitiable than abject. Skinned and beheaded, they are mascots for the unwanted and forgotten.

The show is only up for four more days, so run don’t walk to take in all the plush sadness.


Through Sept. 25, free

Intersection 5M

925 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2787



Through Aug. 21, free

Rena Bransten Gallery

49 Geary, SF

(415) 982-3292



The yellow wallpaper



HAIRY EYEBALL New York City construction workers at the World Trade Center site recently unearthed an 18th-century ship hull. More interesting is that scientists believe that the structure was part of the massive landfill that extended lower Manhattan further into the Hudson River. You don’t have to read too deep to hit on the symbolism of this story, even if the occurrence at its center isn’t so uncommon in a city as densely developed and old as New York (see the 1991 discovery of a 200-year old African burial ground, also in lower Manhattan). Beneath the site where the Twin Towers fell lies further wreckage, older ruins. Nothing is ever truly gone. What lies buried will eventually surface. The present is always haunted by the past.

The same could be said of the art world, which has recently been holding some flashy curatorial séances of its own. Two exhibits don’t necessarily make a trend, but the Berkeley Art Museum’s current “Hauntology,” recently reviewed in this paper, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem’s ongoing exhibit “Haunted: Contemporary: Photography/Video/Performance,” both summon the specters of late-1980s academic theory (Derrida in name and word, in the case of BAM’s show) in their selection of works that address the unseen yet felt presences — aesthetic, historical, political — floating amid the present.

You can also add “Now, It’s About What You Can’t See” to the list, although this group show at Triple Base Gallery of paintings, drawings, and installations is not as enthralled by its organizing principle — what is absent may not be forgotten — as the previously mentioned exhibits are to critical theory and now-old debates around appropriation in photography. As Triple Base’s statement declares, though the artists vary by age and medium, their works, “provide faint shadowy traces of moments to imagine what once existed and hint at an ever-evolving history.”

The faintest traces belong to Rachel E. Foster’s wall installation, which is practically invisible from certain angles. Only by moving back and forth in front of the surface does the repeatedly painted word “ghost” emerge from the seemingly contiguous white field of the gallery’s wall. As in her older works involving text, here, Foster cleverly collapses medium and message, using a representational strategy to bring a word’s meaning to life. In this case, the word “ghost” becomes just that.

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to read Foster’s installation as a commentary on the small group of Eleanor Kent’s early oil paintings, which are hung on the same wall. Inspired by her life in Noe Valley in the 1960s when she was still associated with the Bay Area Figurative movement, Kent’s small-scale domestic scenes — her son playing, a couple talking over dinner — aren’t by themselves elegiac. But Foster’s apparitional wallpaper imbues Kent’s facelessness figures and rough outlines with an air of loss that might not be present otherwise.

Wallpaper is put to different use in Mara Baldwin’s How to remember where you put something, the sharpest and most moving articulation of the show’s preoccupation with absence and memory. Baldwin, it appears, has removed and rehung a large section of old wallpaper. The yellowish pattern of red and yellow flowers has faded with age, as revealed by two brighter rectangles near the section’s center that suggest the spaces where perhaps art or photos had once been hung (curiously, no nail holes are visible). But looking closer, you realize that the paper in the less-faded sections is not the same paper at all, but a continuation of the wallpaper’s design in watercolor.

The piece’s two painted sections aren’t simply indexes for what’s gone missing (which may not have even existed in the first place). Executed by Baldwin’s steady, patient hand, the painted sections also draw attention to what they are intended to replicate: the banal, mass-produced wallpaper that surrounds them. By flattening background and subject, Baldwin makes painting the aid to memory of the piece’s title, while also suggesting that “putting on a new coat of paint” always involves some form of erasure. Chechu Alava’s soft-focus portrait of a sylph-like young woman in a slip is more conventionally ghostly, but not nearly as haunting as Foster’s hidden graffiti or Baldwin’s yellow wallpaper.



As I wrote two columns ago in my review of the multi-gallery show “They Knew What They Wanted,” the George Eastman House’s 1975 exhibit “New Topographics” — currently hanging in a reassembled version at SFMOMA — continues to cast its shadow over contemporary art and curatorial practice, particularly where landscape is concerned.

“Land Use,” at Oakland’s Swarm Gallery, could easily be a satellite to both exhibits. Bill Mattick’s color photographs documenting the ecological cost of urban and industrial development in Southern California are the closest relatives to the grim indictments of such “New Topographic” participants as Joe Deal, Robert Adams, and Lewis Baltz. Chris Sicat’s pieces of reclaimed wood “colored in” with soft graphite pencils are less successful as sculptures than as documents of the artist’s attempts to work within natural form of his materials. Sculptor Reenie Charrière takes a similar tack with manmade waste, aggregating the plastic bits that don’t make it to the recycling center into playful, biologic forms.


Through Aug. 29

Triple Base

3041 24th St., SF

(415) 643-3943



Through Sept. 12

Swarm Gallery

560 Second St, Oakl.

(510) 839-2787


The curve of the lens



PHOTO ISSUE It wasn’t until Julian ArtPorn (www.ArtPorn.com) was taping the back hem of my red and white polka dot dress up over the seat of my Nishiki road bike that I realized the Coppertone dog-girl duo of yore is, in fact, one of our most visible illustrative renditions of boudoir photography. Then, my derriere suitably exposed to his basement studio — the most revealing shot of our session — and he had arranged my hips just so, and coached me on the appropriate pin up “surprised” face, ArtPorn resumed with the flash bulbs.

“So cute!” he giggled sweetly. I vamped to his praise. A girl could get used to this.

And it would appear that many have. Boudoir photography, that classic art form old as photography itself, is a growing market, burgeoning alongside its onstage cousin, burlesque. Many wedding shutterbugs are now including a clothing-off (or clothing artfully draped over favorably lighted curves) session with the bride to value-add to their package promotions. It’s a version of risqué that newbie subjects can control completely: a good way to be bad, a cute way to be sexy?

Photo by Julian ArtPorn

But for the photographers I spoke with for this article, boudoir photography was more than a means to a paycheck. ArtPorn, who in his bohemian upbringing was “hitch-hiking alone and smoking pot at the age of five,” finds the preservation of his subjects’ sexuality a precious task. He shoots almost exclusively on a bright white background, gleeful captures of countless freaky people he’s photographed both on the Burning Man playa and his basement studio in Excelsior.

Julian’s into people’s natural sexiness — whether it takes the form of one of my “cute” booty-baring bike photos, or something rather kinkier. He’s shot ecosexual porn stars, randy leather couples, women hanging by ropes from the ceiling. Whatever gets you hot, dig? Sexuality is “one of the most magical things about anybody,” he tells me after our shoot. “It’s an amazing, powerful, and wonderful thing. The media doesn’t do a great job of representing that.”

Michelle Athanasiades, whom I meet sipping white wine in a Moroccan lounge next to Dollhouse Bettie, her Haight Street lingerie shop (www.dollhousebettie.com), would concur. “The standards that are set for beauty — they seem so unattainable in so many ways that the idea of giving yourself the freedom to express your own sexuality and beauty is a gift.” Athanasiades got into the boudoir photog game by necessity, shooting models in her retro silk and satin whispers back when her undie trade was conducted solely on the Internet.

Photo by Michelle Athanasiades

New to photography, she’s never shot outside her third floor Edwardian flat, decorated only with her romantic aesthetic and the “best diffuser ever,” San Francisco fog outside the windows. Customers began to come to her to look like her catalog of Mae Wests and Bettie Pages. “People are captivated by the elegance and sexuality of the pre-women’s liberation era,” Athanasiades tells me between sips. “There were women back then who embodied that pioneering spirit and also that sexuality.” Still a side gig to Dollhouse Bettie, her clients want photos for wedding/engagement presents, a fun thing to do with their girlfriends, or just to have ravishing, seductive photos of themselves.

As for the bike shoot — well sure, it was for the article, of course! But now that the vital background research is accessibly located in my computer hard drive, I click open the photos when I want a reminder of beauty. It was massively fun to pick out which frilly panties I wanted to sport, to bring my beloved bike along for the ride when he suggested I come up with a fun prop (even if it lacked the star quality, perhaps, of his other subjects’ interlocking nipple rings and patent leather corsets). And if I look particularly fetching, comfortable, happy in my skin — well gosh, you’re too kind! — we must consider it a reflection of the photographers themselves.

According to Matthew


It is an understatement to say that the work of Matthew Barney elicits strong reactions. Critics have alternately hailed him as “the most important American artist of his generation” (that’s the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman) and complained of his art’s Wagnerian grandiosity, needless inscrutability, pretentiousness, and icy perfection (“loveless” was one of the words the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kenneth Baker used to describe “Drawing Restraint 9,” Barney’s 2006 show at SFMOMA).

As someone whose initial infatuation with Barney’s work is increasingly tempered by skepticism, I think there is truth to both camps. You’ll be able to deliver — or perhaps revise — your own verdict at the Roxie Theater, which is presenting all 7.5 hours of the epic Cremaster Cycle (1995-2002), Barney’s five-part, officially-never-gonna-be-available-on-commercial-DVD magnum opus. The theater is also screening De Lama Lâmina, Barney’s near hour-long 2004 film, in which he collaborates with a Brazilian Carnaval krewe to orchestrate a performance aboard a float in Salvador da Bahia’s annual parade.

Barney’s art becomes increasingly frustrating and seductive the longer one attempts to decode its carefully staged and indisputably visually stunning pageantry, which encompasses death metal covers of Johnny Cash, the esoteric intricacies of Masonic symbolism, Busby Berkeley-style revues in football stadiums, androgynous water sprites, and the complex biology of sexual differentiation in the fetus (the series is named after the muscle that controls the descent of the testes). The one constant is Barney’s display of his body: frequently nearly-nude, but more often subject to some physically demanding ordeal or engaged in an athletic feat.

As Daniel Birnbaum astutely observes in Artforum, “Barney is a believer in ‘the meaning of meaning.'” Which is to say, nothing is done just for show in Barney’s world, even if the systems of meaning he draws upon — developmental biology, Celtic mythology, Mormonism, minimalist sculpture — are themselves enclosed within, and at times frustratingly occluded by, his art’s glossy packaging and Hollywood-level production values. It’s hard not to ask: what does it all mean? But the question easily gets lost within the Cremaster Cycle‘s lavishly appointed echo chambers.

That said, Barney’s art offers no shortage of beautiful moments and otherworldly imagery. His universe encompasses elegance (Aimee Mullins as a gorgeous cheetah woman in Cremaster 3) and horror (the conception scene early on in Cremaster 2). Whether or not all this beauty is truth is still up for debate.



Robert Koch Gallery is currently home to quite the odd couple. From the 1960s to 1985, Czech artist Miroslav Tichy, formerly a painter, took thousands of surreptitious pictures of women in his hometown of Kyjov using various homemade cameras made from whatever was on hand: cardboard tubes, wood, sanded Plexiglass lenses.

The photographs — creased, badly printed, all in soft focus — are as dreamy as they are creepy: Tichy often cropped off the heads of his unknowing subjects (many of whom are in swimwear), leaving their identities anonymous while reducing them to bared legs and torsos. Despite their aura of timelessness, you feel dirty looking at Tichy’s photos. It’s hard, though, not to keep staring.

Plenty of isolated gams appear in the work of Hungarian artist Foto Ada, also at Koch, but the effect is far less sinister. Ada (maiden name, Ada Ackermann, married name, Elemérné Marsovsky) created her remarkable photo-collages from the late 1930s through World War II, clipping magazine and newspaper images of soldiers, Hollywood starlets, and industrial landscapes into sharp and humorous comments on the accelerated culture of her time. The Nazis, in particular, gets theirs: Hitler and Goebbels converse in skeleton-filled catacombs, appropriately oblivious to the death that surrounds them.


July 30– Aug. 8, $5–$9.75

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087



Through Aug. 21, free

Robert Koch Gallery

49 Geary, SF

(415) 421-0122



Against nostalgia



VISUAL ART/MUSIC Whether through the distorted visual crackle of old videotape or the gauzy gaze of a photograph, there is a class of artwork that challenges the spectator to engage with something not immediately present. It’s as if there is something floating behind the image at hand, which the mind is desperately hungry to grasp, but cannot perceive. This effect we call “haunting,” and often leave it at that. But 17 years ago, French philosopher Jacques Derrida developed a way of thinking about the concept of the ghost in terms of its symbolic relevance to our experience of history, and his “hauntological” approach continues to inform strains of art and music criticism as well as political philosophy.

Inspired by Derrida along with a recent spate of hauntologically inclined British electronic music, the Berkeley Art Museum’s “Hauntology” exhibit assembles an array of such unsettling works across several media. Curated by local artist/musician Scott Hewicker and BAM director Lawrence Rinder, the small but affecting gallery is composed mostly of selections from BAM’s collection that fit in one way or another into the rubric of hauntology.

Working, with a few exceptions, from within the museum’s existing collection was ultimately liberating, according to Hewicker. “I think we wanted to take it another step further in some other open direction, and kind of be very poetic about it, and not be in this defined realm that doesn’t really have a very strict … defined realm,” Hewicker laughingly explains, on the opening day of the exhibit.

Besides that circumstantial constraint, the idea of a hauntology show presents a couple other interesting conundrums. For one thing, hauntology is not a genre of art; it’s an I-know-it-when-I-see-it affair at best, more of a critical framework than a set of conventions. For another thing, there is no defined hauntological movement in visual art (though there is arguably one in music), now or at any point in the past.

What defines hauntological art is loosely derived from Derrida’s idea, as quoted in the exhibit’s manifesto, of “the persistence of a present past,” a past not immediately perceptible but always exerting itself on the present. Hewicker and Rinder interpret this in a number of ways through their selections. The 1820 painting by an unknown artist View of Providence, Rhode Island invites questions of context — who painted this? and why? — and its ominous black grids of windows necessitate a similar curiosity: what’s behind them? In Roger Ballen’s Twirling Wires (2001), on the other hand, the question has more to do with what is actually transpiring in the photograph of a blanket-swaddled man seemingly menaced by a floating mass of wires.

Besides Derrida’s foundational 1993 book Specters of Marx, the curators point to British music journalist Simon Reynolds’ writings on electronic musicians such as Burial and the various artists on the Ghost Box label. Reynolds seems to have opened up the field for discussing hauntological aesthetics in modern popular culture. Another acknowledged inspiration is Adam Harper’s blog, Rouge’s Foam (www.rougesfoam.blogspot.com), which treats music and visual art from a hauntological perspective. Hewicker elaborates: “He was sort of the motivation for the show in the sense that he called for kind of a nonstylistic approach to art in a hauntological sense — that it wasn’t just about spooky images, necessarily, but … these things that have these layered meanings beneath them.”

Perhaps the most exciting issue raised by the show is that of medium — what it communicates (i.e. artistic medium as spirit medium), and what it means to make the medium the subject of a piece. Much of the exhibit consists of two-dimensional visual art, but the few deviations stand out. On the inclusion of video, audio, and sculpture, Rinder muses over e-mail, “People don’t think in as clearly material or disciplinary categories as they used to. So it felt natural to select from this broad range of works.”

Despite the fundamental role music plays in the exhibit’s conception, only one audio piece was incorporated into the exhibit, Ivan Seal’s Stuttering Piano (2007). Seal has produced cover art for such releases as the 2008 reissue of Persistent Repetition of Phrases by hauntological ambient project the Caretaker, but none of his visual art was in the collection. His audio works often accompany his paintings, so the curators saw this as an intriguing “solution” to that unavailability.

Lutz Bacher’s video piece Olympiad (1997) is a silent stuttering image, the deteriorated quality of which makes it disorienting to watch; many works in the exhibit similarly hound the viewer via their chosen medium. Paul Sietsema’s 2009 diptych Ship Drawing, oriented as the gallery’s centerpiece, is as concerned with medium as any piece in the show. One side depicts a drawing of a ship — note, specifically a drawing of one, since the weathered paper it appears on is also rendered in ink. The other half simply shows a blank bit of the same paper. Thus, the medium becomes the subject. In this way, even the nature of their own production is part of the past that haunts these works.

So all this art, spanning centuries, cultures, and movements, brought together at BAM — why now? Hewicker cites “ghosts that people are not addressing” as evidenced by the “Tea Party movement, the sort of revisionist nostalgia, the rewriting of textbooks in Texas.” Derrida’s ideas are still relevant to today’s political world, and that resonates in how this art affects us, whether it was created in 1658 or 2008.

As one would hope from a thoughtfully curated show, motifs emerge among the included works. There are myriad obscured faces, indecipherable objects, and artworks within artworks, as well as subtler commonalities. This conspires to reinforce the sense of hauntedness in the exhibit, as if something has come down through the ages to inspire art that not only, as Rinder puts it, “[evokes] futuristic ruins, displaced subjectivities, and uncanny silences,” but more important, leaves us ill at ease.


Through Dec. 5, $5–$8 (free for students and children)

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-0808