Hairy Eyeball

Starred, Striped


THE WEEKNIGHTER Dave’s bar is America. I don’t mean that in the sense that you walk in the door and get the hairy eyeball, with a chaser of, “What the kind of hippie-communist-homo are you?” (Spoken in a drawl, of course). I mean it in the most basic sense — the mythic melting pot of equality and freedom. When you enter Dave’s (29 Third St, SF) you are entering a new world. It doesn’t matter how much you make (or don’t make), what you drive, or whether you work on construction sites or the human brain. All of that is left at the door. The only thing that matters is if you like to drink.

There are no mustachioed bartenders in suspenders playing with tinctures distilled from random Amazonian berries you’ve never heard of. Instead, you’re often greeted by an Irish lady who you can tell won’t take any shit, but who will also chat with you all day long. This is a fucking bar, man. Some days you show up and there’s free food put out. Other days you sit on a stool and somebody you’ve never met buys a round for the entire bar. It’s almost like Dave’s has some supernatural ability to give you whatever it is that you need on that particular day.

You sit at that bar long enough you’ll hear every kind of story imaginable, from every kind of person. You’ll walk in just to have a quick shot and a beer — and leave four hours later, having met, dunk, and talked shit with a car salesman from Oklahoma, a recently off-work janitor, a tech millionaire, and someone whose family has had 49ers season tickets since they played at Kezar Stadium. You will never see any of these people again in your life, unless you go back to Dave’s.

I’ve actually taken a few girls on first dates to Dave’s. I mean, we didn’t spend the entire time there, but used it more as a meeting place from which to embark on the rest of our activities. You’re probably saying, “Hey Stu, why would you take girl you’re trying to impress, and with whom you’re hoping to touch special places, to a dive bar like Dave’s?” Besides the fact that I’m broke and can actually afford the awesomely cheap drinks, Dave’s, in its own way, makes everyone feel comfortable. It was voted least pretentious bar in SF for this reason. Dave’s is the bar that everyone has had a good time at, even if they’ve never been there before.

These days I worry about places like Dave’s. Sure it’s been there for like 30 years or something, but it doesn’t have the shine and sheen that so many recently opened bars in SF have. For those of us who know better, this is exactly why it’s attractive. I just worry that the Robert Moseses of the world, the people who would plow a giant freeway through quaint Greenwich Village, have too much steam behind them right now. These are the people who don’t realize that having reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs and $13 cocktails doesn’t make a place special. In fact, it makes a place just like everywhere else. I’ll take a shot and a beer at Dave’s over all that fluff any day of the week. Hell, I’ll probably see you there.

Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at 


This old house


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

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

3020 Laguna in 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


3020 Laguna, SF

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

(415) 529-1221


What recession?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead horses and fool’s gold


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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


Through Dec. 23

Catharine Clark Gallery

150 Minna, SF

(415) 399-1439


Through Dec. 24

Haines Gallery

49 Geary, Fifth Flr., SF

(415) 397-8114

Bling and the kingdom


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Through January 15

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF.

(415) 978-2787


Through April 8

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin, SF.

(415) 581-3500


Uncomfortable truths


HAIRY EYEBALL Sometimes it seems like Americans would rather undergo a root canal than honestly talk about race in this country. Witness the rounds of recrimination and defensive posturing on all sides that followed the Washington Post’s recent front page story that the hunting camp Texas governor Rick Perry has long frequented was formerly known as “Niggerhead.”

Perry acknowledged that the camp’s original name was “offensive,” and in a move akin to the white paint that Perry’s own father brushed onto the rock on which it is carved, tellingly declared, “[it] has no place in the modern world.” This is a story a lot of people, not just Republican Texans, like to tell themselves about racism — it’s all in the past, or, if racism manifests itself presently, it is a crime committed by only the most egregious and malicious perpetrators. It’s this kind of magical thinking that makes a narrative like The Help, with its privileged-but-sympathetic heroine giving her cartoonishly racist sisters their comeuppance, a guaranteed best-seller and a box-office draw.

How refreshing then is SHIFT, a series of solo projects by Bay Area artists David Huffman, Elizabeth Axtman, and Travis Somerville newly commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. Employing different mediums and narrative strategies—crowd-sourced community intervention (Axtman), historical reconstruction (Somerville), science fiction-tinged Afro Futurism (Huffman) — each artist works through the messy business of how race is lived in America today in ways that are deeply personal, and at times, politically oblique.

Huffman’s contribution, “Out of Bounds,” which takes over most of the SFAC’s Van Ness gallery space (401 Van Ness, SF), packs the most visual impact of SHIFT’s three propositions and also leaves the most dots to connect. At its center is a towering pyramid of 650 basketballs, held in place solely by gravity and a simple wood frame at the pile’s base. The smell of rubber hits your nostrils before you have a chance to take in the piece visually.

Huffman, whose background is in painting, has materialized this formation before in a 2006 series of mixed media canvases which depict similar heaps of balls next to barren trees, as if they were piles of raked autumn leaves. Its current sculptural incarnation is far more monumental, like some arrangement of mythological fruit. But unlike Jeff Koons’ 1985 hermetically-sealed, readymade “Three Ball 50/50 Tank (Two Dr. J. Silver Series, One Wilson Supershot),” Huffman’s pyramid is in fact temporary: the balls will be donated to local charities after the piece is deconstructed.

Spheres and pyramids abound throughout “Out of Bounds,” as Huffman — who is African American — uses basketball as a kind of metaphoric lingua franca across his videos (his first pieces in the medium) and abstract paintings of astronomic clusters of balls to convey other forms of travel, whether across racial or temporal lines. Not everything translates, but maybe that’s the point. The sight of a spacesuit-clad Huffman comically embracing his way through a grove of redwoods in the video “Traumanaut Tree Hugger” is both silly and discomfiting, a humorous send-up of the supposed color-blindness of progressive politics and an unintended portrait of total isolation from other humans.

Less ambiguous but certainly more ambitious is Axtman’s ongoing video project “The Love Renegade #308: I Love You Keith Bardwell (Phase 1),” on view at the Van Ness gallery and which the artist is also showing in a series of community screenings. “The Love Renegade” responds to a 2009 incident in which Bardwell, a former Louisiana Justice of the Peace, refused to marry a mixed race couple fearing the rejection they would face by society. In response, Axtman interviewed mixed race couples and the children of mixed race couples who talk about their lives and assure Bardwell that it’s gotten better for them, ending their testimonials with a pledge of unconditional love to Bardwell.

Somerville’s moveable mural “Places I Have Never Been,” on display at SFAC’s Grove Street (155 Grove, SF) window space, is perhaps SHIFT’s most conventional component in terms of its chosen medium. Focusing on six pivotal moments in Bay Area history that affected various minority populations, Somerville has rendered iconic imagery from each event onto the six sides of large cubes that stack on top of one another to create a 10×14 foot wall that when placed together forms a large-scale painting across all its faces. Some of the events, such as the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII or the White Night riots, are more familiar than others (the 1966 Hunters Point uprising that saw residents facing off against 1200 National Guard troops).

Even though I started out this review discussing current events, I’d feel like I was underselling SHIFT if I simply called it timely. The point is that Huffman, Axtman and Somerville have taken the time in the first place to think through one of the most fraught, at times ugly, and always ever-present categories that we must continue to live with. The pieces in SHIFT are discussion prompts not diagnoses. And although they’re articulated with varying degrees of direction and clarity, at least they’re encouraging the conversation about race America never seems to be having to be broached in a way that’s not about blame or personal wrongdoing but accountability to each other.


Through December 10, free

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery

Various locations, SF

(415) 554-6080


The sight of sound


HAIRY EYEBALL “Home taping is killing music”, declared the 1980s anti-copyright infringement campaign waged by British music industry trade group, the British Phonographic Industry. History has proven BPI’s concerns to have been mis-targeted, with cassettes becoming an increasingly irrelevant medium in the ensuing decades, even as the music industry still struggles to respond to ever-mercurial forms of bootlegging and pirating. The cassette tape, however, has—perhaps unsurprisingly— re-emerged in recent years as both an object of nostalgia and a more exclusive format for more out-there musicians to release their small, home-made batches of black metal, experimental electronica, or noise out into the world for listeners for whom Tumblr is not enough.

Composer and musician Christian Marclay’s visual art often engages with our complicated relationship to outmoded technologies of audio-visual reproduction, particularly vinyl records. The photograms in his current show at Fraenkel Gallery continues this line of inquiry, playfully condensing the cassette tape’s arc from boon to perceived threat to obsolescence to fetish object.

For the gorgeous 2009 photogram “Allover (Dixie Chicks, Nat King Cole and Others),” Marclay exposed photo-sensitized paper to light after he had strewn over it the magnetic innards of cassette tapes and fragments of the broken plastic shells that once contained them that had been coated in a photosensitive solution. The resulting sprawl of tangled white lines on blue brings to mind the splatter canvases of Jackson Pollock or the chalk squiggles of Cy Twombly (associations Marclay’s titular “allover” winks at). In other photograms, such as “Large Cassette Grid No. 9,” also from 2009, Marclay has arranged plastic cassette cases in block-like patterns that cover the entire paper, with each cases’ accumulated wear and tear providing subtle variations.

That cyan-like blue color is what gives Marclay’s chosen process, the cyanotype, its name. Discovered by English scientist Sir John Herschel in 1842, the cyanotype process was historically used to make blueprints. I’d like to imagine that this irony isn’t lost on Marclay. By using an outmoded photographic technology to make visual art out of an outmoded audio technology, Marclay underscores the eventual obsolescence of all reproductive technologies. His cyanotypes aren’t blueprints so much as headstone rubbings.

In “Looking for Love” (2008), a single channel video shown in the gallery’s backroom, Marclay’s stationary camera stays zoomed-in on a well-worn phonographic stylus, as his giant hands roughly skip the needle around record after record searching for any utterance of the word “love.” The film’s exaggerated scale combined with Marclay’s increasingly impatient and roughshod sample hunting can be read as a parody of the audiophile as techno-purist. But the film also speaks to our enduring investment in music—be it the Dixie Chicks, Nat King Cole, or any of the other inaudible “others” that went into the making of Marclay’s cyanotypes—even as our experience of listening to it becomes more and more immaterial.



Fran Herndon was not a name I was familiar with, so I’m glad to now be acquainted with this largely unsung player in San Francisco’s artistic firmament of the 1950s and 1960s (and all around bad-ass) thanks to the eye-opening selection of early oil paintings and mixed-media collages organized by Kevin Killian and Lee Plested currently on view at Altman Siegel.

An Oklahoma native, Herndon moved to San Francisco in 1957 with her husband, the California teacher and writer Jim Herndon, who she met while traveling in France. She quickly fell in with the likes of the Robin Blaser, Jess and his partner Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer, with whom she formed an intense intellectual and aesthetic bond. Together, they founded the mimeographed poetry and art magazine J, and Herndon created lithographs for poet Spicer’s 1960 master-work The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether. All the while, Herndon continued to produce her own varied body of work that was as much a response to her newfound creative circle of friends and collaborators as it was to the times in which they were making art.

The series of sports themed collages she made in 1962 are especially representative of Herndon’s gift for exploding the hidden currents of emotion contained in her source material—in this case, images clipped from popular magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Life are transformed into near-mythological tableaux of victory and defeat in which race and the volatile racial climate of Civil Rights era-America are front and center (Herndon, who is of Native American heritage, has said “[America] is no place for a brown face”).

In “Collage for Willie Mays” the baseball legend is depicted hitting a homer out of a Grecian colonnade whereas in the decidedly darker and Romare Bearden-esque “King Football” an actual mask has fallen away from the titular ruler, revealing a skull-like visage wrapped in a cloak of newspaper clippings about the 49er’s then-scandalous decision to trade quarterback Y.A. Tittle for Lou Cordilione. The headlines about devastation and death speak to other off-field losses, though.

Other pieces resonate on a more emotional level. The gauche-smudged greyhounds in “Catch Me If You Can” bound past their bucolic counterparts like horses in a Chinese brush painting—all speed and wind—and are as much signs-of-the-times as the more politically overt anti-draft and anti-war collages Herndon made later in the decade.

Certainly, there was no time to wait. So much of Herndon’s art seems to come from an urge to document her “now” with whatever tools she had on hand, a present being lived and produced in the company of so many extraordinary others, from Spicer to Mays. Even her paintings seem to have been worked on only to the point at which their subjects just emerge distinct from their swirled backgrounds of color. Nearly fifty years later, Herndon’s urgency is still palpable.


Through Oct. 29

Fraenkel Gallery

49 Geary, Fourth Floor

(415) 981-2661


Through Oct. 29

Altman Siegel Gallery

49 Geary, Fourth Floor

(415) 576-9300

Caves of forgotten dreams


HAIRY EYEBALL If you follow Canyon Drive from Hollywood Boulevard all the way up into the hilly territory of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, you’ll reach a cul-de-sac. Beyond that, accessible by foot, is a small stone bridge which leads to a dirt trail that eventually lets you out in what’s known as Bronson Valley. This is where you’ll find the Bronson Caves.

Even if you’ve never visited the caves in person, you’ve probably at least seen them: they’ve been used in countless motion pictures and television shows. One of the mouths served as the exterior shot for the Bat Cave in the original ’60s Batman TV series. Natalie Wood’s long lost Little Debbie is discovered in one of the caves in 1956 flick The Searchers. The caves also make cameos in plenty of schlocky, B-grade sci-fi and fantasy cheese of both classic (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) and more recent (The Scorpion King, 2002) vintage.

Given their status as one of the film industry’s leading landscape doubles, it’s only fitting that the caves aren’t actually caves. There’s nothing natural about them: they’re all that remains of an early 1900s quarrying operation to supply stone with which to pave the streets of a rapidly-growing LA. On a clear day, from the other side of one of the tunnels, you can get a seemingly eye level view of the Hollywood sign.

This long history of artifice amid geologic permanence is both everywhere and nowhere in Brice Bischoff’s series of large-scale C-prints of the Bronson Caves currently hanging at Johansson Projects. The caves are the photographs’ crispest formal feature, although it’s the dazzling and seemingly supernatural rainbow-hued blurs within and near them that first catch your eye.

The colorful shapes — which vary in form from blasts of light to smoky wisps — evoke both the caves’ history as a site for staged close encounters of the third kind, as well as nineteenth century spirit photography. They’re also simply beautiful to look at. Their origin, however, is more mundane: wearing raggedy costumes made from colored paper, Bischoff gestures before his stationary camera using the space of the caves to suggest a course of movement. The time lapse captured by the camera’s long exposure renders his presence ghostly while setting into relief the surrounding rocky proscenium, although the artist never disappears entirely. (In one photograph, there is the suggestion of a human form wrapped in the Jamaican flag.)

Even though Bischoff’s presence before the camera is required to create each image, his photographs are the opposite of performance documentation. Rather, they are formally and thematically similar to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ghostly black and white portraits of old movie palaces, for which the photographer left his exposure open for the duration of a projected feature so that the screen appears as a glowing white light that illuminates the ornate architectural decor around it. So to do Bischoff’s photographs collate an accretion of instances which, individually, are less important than the location in which they’ve occurred. They bring to the fore a history which, at 24 frames per second, has always been relegated to the background.

The Bronson Caves aren’t the only natural feature on display in this exhibit organized around California landscapes. Tabitha Soren’s carbon pigment prints that combine crashing Pacific waves into vertiginous tsunamis and Ellen Black’s videos of doctored beach-scapes and mating snakes pack plenty of visual punch but lack the elegant conceptual underpinnings of Bischoff’s series.

For a more strenuous walk in the wild, you have to trek down Broadway to Jack London Square where at Swarm Gallery Colin Christy’s living installation “Wild and Scenic” throws scare quotes around both terms. For this non-earthwork earthwork Christy transplanted native and invasive plants found around the American River from Coloma, California to a dirt mound in the gallery. The plants are watered on a regular basis, and they’re painted with a bio-luminescent pigment to differentiate between native and non-native plants, so that Christy can track their growth patterns by taking long exposure time lapse photographs at night.

Of course, there’s another contender in this battle royale: humans. The pile of wood, glinting with patches of gold spray paint, that forms a sort of bulkhead on one side of the mound, references the role the American River was forced to play during the Gold Rush, itself a massive piece of terraforming that has indelibly altered California’s landscape. While drawing attention to this history of environmental degradation, Christy’s piece — in all of its gratuitousness — cannot help but be somewhat complicit in perpetuating its legacy. There’s life on the line, here, even if it isn’t human.



Through October 15

Johansson Projects

2300 Telegraph Ave., Oakl.

(510) 444-9140




Through Sept 23

Swarm Gallery

560 Second St., Oakl.

(510) 839-2787

Vision statement


FALL ARTS You better start doing your stretches and invest in a good pair of walking shoes. There’s as much ground to cover as there is art to see this fall, and if you get to every gallery, studio, and museum on this far-from-comprehensive list your eyes will probably be as sore as your feet. But as any seasoned hiker will tell you, the views are well worth any aches incurred along the way.

Julie Heffernan: Boy Oh Boy II” “Boschian” is an oft-overused adjective in art writing, and Heffernan’s more-is-more paintings, chock-full of twisted allusions to Renaissance art (Bosch included) and all sorts of fantastic razzle-dazzle, will have you scrambling for synonyms. (Sept. 3–Oct. 29, Catharine Clark Gallery;

Pamela Jorden” I’ll leave the question of whether or not painting’s dead up to more qualified coroners, and simply state that the oil-on-linen works of the young, Los Angeles-based Jorden make a powerful case for the continued relevance of gestural abstraction. There are echoes of Richard Diebenkorn or Clyfford Still in Jorden’s fractured cataracts of color (her blues will make you blush), but compositionally her canvases evince an alchemy that’s entirely her own. (Sept. 16-Oct. 15, Romer Young Gallery;

SF Open Studios Artists, they’re just like us! Seriously, though, one of the many pluses of ArtSpan’s annual city-wide event is that it helps demystify and de-romanticize what it means to be a working artist. Get to know the creative types in your neighborhood, see where the magic happens, and maybe help stimulate the local economy (hint, hint). (Oct. 1-18, various venues;

Lionel Bawden: The World of the Surface” The title of Badwen’s American debut is a half-truth. His sculptural works, comprised of hexagonal colored pencils grouped together and shorn, topiary-like, into amorphous shapes, suggest a world far below the surface: caves, fatty tissue, cells. Dive in. (Oct. 1–Nov. 26, Frey Norris Gallery;

Houdini: Art and Magic” How does a museum escape the confines of the now tired “contemporary artists responding to famous historical figure X” approach to curating? Do like the Contemporary Jewish Museum and put on a show about legendary escape artist Harry Houdini. Come for tributes by Vik Muniz, Jane Hammond, etc. (what, no Matthew Barney?) but stay for a recreation of his famous Water Torture Cell illusion, along with the hundred other bits of Houdiniana. (Oct. 2–Jan. 16., 2012, Contemporary Jewish Museum;

Ralph Eugene Meatyard” The very banality of Meatyard’s biography — he was a happily married optician in Lexington, Ken. who did photography as a weekend hobby — only makes his singular and startling body of work that much more so: from children creepily posed with dolls and masks to bold experiments with abstraction and “no focus” imagery, Meatyard’s pictures push into territory far more strange and wondrous than the Gothic South. (Oct. 8- Feb. 26, de Young Museum,

“Geoff Oppenheimer” Oppenheimer makes conceptually smart and visually arresting installation and video work that frequently voices the unspoken dynamics behind public performances of controlled discourse, such as press conferences. Be prepared to be discomfited. (Oct. 28–Dec. 11, Ratio 3;

The Air We Breathe” I have some serious reservations about the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s decision to organize their first major contemporary group show in a long while around “the cause of marriage equality” (for starters, why not host “Hide/Seek,” the previously censored and now traveling exhibit about same-sex desire and American portraiture currently at the Tacoma Art Museum, instead?). That said, something truly queer, politically risky and aesthetically challenging has gotta happen when you put specially commissioned works by the likes of John Ashbery, Dodie Bellamy, Raymond Pettibon, Ann Hamilton, and Robert Gober (and many others) under one roof, right? For now, consider my tongue held and eyebrow raised. (Nov. 5–Feb. 20, 2012; SFMOMA,

The persistence of objects


HAIRY EYEBALL German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) acted as an interpreter for the discards of modern life, or what Alfred Barr, the first curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, tellingly referred to as, “witnesses stolen from the ground.” He listened to what the matchbook covers, torn ticket stubs, crinkled packaging, scrap paper, fabric remnants, and other junk that he took back to his studio had to say about form and color, and in turn, re-presented their testimonies to the world in which they once circulated.

Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibit “Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage,” the first US survey of the artist’s work in 25 years, traces the dialogue between found things and made objects that comprises Schwitters’ remarkable oeuvre. The 30 some-odd works that fill BAM’s sixth floor gallery are densely indeterminate, neither strictly paintings nor collages, but hybrids of both that reflect Schwitters’ association with the Berlin Dadaists — and also his background in painting, which accounts for both the influence Expressionism, and later, Constructivism, would have on his approach to composition.

In some pieces the assembled components have been pushed and flattened into each other, with the paste acting as both fixing agent and mixing medium, giving the work the appearance of having been painted — which in a sense it has been, if you substitute paper scraps for brushes and oils. In other works, bas relief-like effects are created through successively built up and painted-over layers in geometric arrangements that become more precise over time. In every piece, there is a careful attention to the grain of the materials used as well as their color (Schwitters gravitated towards an autumnal palette of reds, blacks, browns, and yellows, with occasional streaks of blue or gray).

As with other artists of his generation, Schwitters’ life and career was to be inevitably shaped by both world wars (his trajectory from Germany to Norway to England was largely determined by where the Nazis weren’t). Schwitters referred to his output interchangeably as Merz, a neologism based on the second half of Kommerz, the German word for “commerce.” The designation reflected his desire for his practice to, in his words, “make connections, if possible, between everything” in a world he saw as increasingly fragmented.

Whereas his Dadaist contemporaries such as John Heartfield and Hannah Höch cut apart newspapers and film rags and reconfigured them as monstrous satires of the noisy, busy society that produced them as spectacular propaganda, Schwitters’ work proposes an engagement with its various found source materials based on assimilation and incorporation rather than harsh juxtaposition. Everywhere in Schwitters’ work there is the glint of the familiar: the postage marks, the trademarks, bits of text, and reproduced images in his skeins of torn pulp and paint identify specific places, times, and events.

The Merzbau — a vast, ongoing architectural assemblage that took over six rooms of Schwitters’ family home in Hannover and which was completely destroyed in a 1943 bombing raid — is perhaps the apotheosis of Schwitters’ vision. Like a beaver building a dam, Schwitters constantly added bits and pieces, inviting friends to build out alcoves within the all-white grotto-like rooms whose square lines had totally given way to myriad angled surfaces and seemingly-impossible proportions.

On BAM’s ground floor sits Peter Bissegger’s meticulous, life-size reconstruction (1981-83) of one of the Hannover rooms. It’s a doozy to walk into, and, once you’re out again, near-impossible to try and square the three dimensional geometric assault just experienced against the three wall-mounted 1933 black and white interior photos on which the reconstruction was based. Save perhaps for the Winchester Mystery House, you will simply not experience another space like it, or have your experience of space so wonderfully warped (even BAM’s interior, which offers a Brutalist response to the Guggenheim’s famous spiraling rotunda, seems positively orderly by comparison).

While undeniably cool as an object, in some respects, the reconstructed Merzbau conceptually cuts against Schwitters’ process of ongoing accumulation that led to its construction in the first place. To have the Merzbau be a wholly transportable thing that can be taken down and re-assembled, jigsaw puzzle-style (as demonstrated in an accompanying time lapse video of the piece’s installation), is to fail to treat it as something that has no final form but is always in the process of becoming. Indeed, it’s telling that Schwitters built other Merz environments wherever he moved, at each location spinning anew another web of form and shape culled from bits and pieces of his surroundings. The task he had set before himself to connect the world anew would prove to be unending. 



Through Nov. 27, $7-$10

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-0808

Crying in public


HAIRY EYEBALL Weaving my way through the groups of slower moving shoppers and tourists ambling out of the Powell Street BART Station, I realized I was already too late.

I had wanted to be present for the June 11 noon kickoff of Market Day — the large-scale public art event tied to Allison Smith’s current Southern Exposure exhibit “The Cries of San Francisco” — but when I reached Mint Plaza and had been handed a schedule I saw that my timing had been off by an hour.

Oh well. The point of Market Day wasn’t to necessarily be at a certain place at a certain hour to see a certain something. The “something” was supposedly happening all around me. The nearly 70 Bay Area artists, performers, and craftspeople Smith had gathered for this ambitious public art project had dispersed throughout Mint Plaza, and up and down Market Street between Fifth and Third streets, to peddle their wares (many homemade), offer more ineffable “services” (such as owning the expletive of your choice or telling you a story), or to simply “perform” in “character.”

The criers were to be like tiny pebbles subtly altering the fast-moving watercourse of weekend foot traffic. Granted, participation is hard to measure for something like “The Cries of San Francisco,” but wherever I turned, people seemed engaged even if the number of folks documenting a given artist seemed to greatly outnumber the members of the public they were interacting with.

I decided I needed a little more intimacy if I was to get my feet wet. I started back toward Market and ran into a woman dressed in steampunk-ish attire. Her name was Jamie Venci, a.k.a. the Questing Choreographer (each participating artist conveniently had a large nametag). She offered me an informative pamphlet about one of three historic buildings in the vicinity that had survived the 1906 earthquake if I promised to carry out the site-specific choreography contained within.

I agreed, and for convenience’s sake, I went with the Mint Building. Not five minutes later, I was on the steps of “the Granite Lady” attempting to convey the shape of its crenellated outline with my arms — per a step in Venci’s cutely drawn instructions — in what must have looked like a particularly inept approximation of tai chi.

Conceptual art requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of its audience. I was not merely being ridiculous in public, but was publicly enacting a new relationship to a space I had not really considered too closely before. I, as much as Venci, was the Questing Choreographer, and together we had collaborated on a piece.

The satisfaction I took in my demonstration of good faith was fleeting, as questions took over. What had passersby thought about what I was doing? And how could they really have anything to think about without some context for my undertaking? If a person dresses up in a colorful manner in San Francisco and carries on in public does anyone raise an eyebrow, let alone pause to consider the host of artistic and economic concerns that “The Cries of San Francisco” aimed to bring to the streets?

Materials for the event cited Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire to protest police harassment, as well as Carol Reed’s 1968 film version of the musical Oliver! as representational precedents. But despite the presence of Art for a Democratic Society’s Class War Store cart full o’ Marxism, the tenor of many of the criers was more playful than revolutionary. Whimsy was the order of the day.

Ha Ha La (Nathaniel Parsons) pushed around an “amusement park,” a steep ladder that participants would gingerly climb up and down while Parsons bellowed a New Age-y chant affirming their bravery and blessedness through a conch shell. After I took my turn on the rickety structure, I chose a souvenir badge that read, “You don’t have to behave you just gotta be brave.”

Also hard to miss was Maria de los Angeles Burr, who, as the Unsellable, had transformed herself into a walking pile of paper bags. “I have become burdened by too many possessions,” she muttered to me, as confused shoppers exiting from the Westfield Centre stopped to take pictures or gawked while hurrying on their way.

I wondered if they got the visual pun, or would simply move on and tune out the other criers much in the same way many of us avoid other solicitors like petitioners or canvassers.

I also wondered what the Market Street regulars — the men who sell cheap earrings, bootleg Giants merchandise, and faux-cashmere scarves from tables or the young hip-hop dancers who busk near the Powell Street cable car turnaround — thought about the criers. Did they view them as competition? As a friendly change-of-scene? Or did they see them at all?

By 4:30 p.m., all the criers had reconvened at Mint Plaza. They seemed tired from their day of art-making and being “on.” Continuing at a full clip, however, were tweens Colin Cooper and Cole Simon, by far the loudest and youngest hawkers, who had set up shop as the Masters of Disguise (one of their parents informed me that their after-school art teacher, a California College of the Arts student, had encouraged them to get involved with the project).

I walked away from our genial encounter $1 poorer but with a pair of plastic pink sunglasses and an orange mustache to my name. I felt braver with them on.

The carnival continues: the gallery installation component of “The Cries of San Francisco” is up until early next month and will host a series of performance events. Future Saturday marketplaces are scheduled for two Saturdays, June 18 and July 2 (noon to 6 p.m.). And on Wednesday, June 15 at 7 p.m., various criers will present a showcase of musical storytelling, speeches, and other forms of public address.


Through July 2

Southern Exposure

3030 20th St., SF

(415) 893-1841




“Surface, surface, surface.” Patrick Bateman’ pithy summation of the dominant aesthetic of his times in American Psycho could easily serve as a subtitle for Takeshi Murata’s colorful still lifes currently hanging at Ratio 3 (Murata’s computer animated short, I, Popeye, which plays in the gallery’s backroom, merits less discussion despite its gallows humor).

Seemingly random groups of objects — fruit, knickknacks, VHS cassette tapes of cult films such as Dario Argento’s Opera or Dawn of the Dead, a cow skull, cans of Coors, and what appear to be forlorn, soft-sculpture likenesses of brass instruments and a tea kettle — are arranged against neutral backgrounds and dramatically lit from a variety of angles.

Murata’s images are large and crisp. Their flawless, hermetically sealed perfection recalls certain advertising photography from (to return to American Psycho) the 1980s. Or, to go back a few years earlier, some of the album art created by British design firm Hipgnosis. The catch is that these images aren’t actually photographs of anything; they aren’t even photographs. Murata created these pigment prints — to call them by their proper name — with a computer, individually rendering each object, light source, shadow, and reflection.

The fact that there’s no there there shouldn’t be alarming. Open any lifestyle magazine and you’ll find countless examples of pictorial illusion promising the world. Murata’s images replicate the logic behind the shell game that advertising firms call doing business and Marxists call commodity fetishism. None of the objects in his compositions really make sense together syntactically, but bathed in the glow of a nonexistent photo studio each thing appears as strangely covetable as it does out of place.

This is not say that Murata’s compositions can’t simply be enjoyed for their pleasing arrangements of shape and color, or for the ways the objects play off each other (in Art and the Future, a replica of the Terminator’s chrome skull is paired with a copy of Douglas Davis’ 1975 treatise of the same name). Rather, these carefully orchestrated moments out of time complicate that enjoyment, asking us to reconsider the pleasures we take in looking at and staging displays of taste.



Starting tomorrow through the rest of the weekend, San Francisco will become home to not one, not two, but three — count ’em, three — art fairs. The largest is the San Francisco Fine Art Fair, which returns to Fort Mason’s cavernous Festival Pavilion after its inaugural run last year. Then there are the two newcomers: ArtMRKT San Francisco at the Concourse Exhibition Center, the first Bay Area event put on by the Brooklyn-based art fair organizers of the same name, and the smaller scale, locally-based ArtPad SF, which takes over the rooms, patio, and even the pool of the Phoenix Hotel.

Art fairs are many things: commercial ventures, networking hubs, forums for and targets of critique, and socio-aesthetic petri dishes in which artists, dealers, gallerists, curators, critics, collectors, and gawkers all rub shoulders and share drinks. This kind of close proximity can be rare in San Francisco, which given its size, has a lot of different places to see art and a lot of different kinds of art to see. Sure, individual openings are their own kind of mixers, but not on the scale or with as diverse an audience as an art fair.

Almost every local gallery worth its salt, along with plenty of out-of-town exhibitors, will have a presence at one of the fairs (and to make taking it all in that much easier ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF will be sharing a shuttle service between venues on Saturday and Sunday). ArtMRKT and ArtPad SF, in particular, have also made it a point to involve community arts orgs and nonprofits. Black Rock Arts Foundation is ArtPad SF’s opening night beneficiary and ArtMRKT is hosting MRKTworks, an online and live auction set to benefit several other local arts nonprofits. ArtPAD SF will also host panel discussions on California art and collecting street art with a who’s who of notable locals and feature live performances and video pieces throughout the weekend.

What this confluence of big events means for the state of art-making and consuming in San Francisco remains up for discussion. Art fairs are one indicator of market growth — or at least of the organizer’s belief in a market’s potential, which in San Francisco’s case would mean having to address the fact that local artists have historically outnumbered local collectors. The proof, I suppose, will be in the attendance records and sales figures.

On the other hand, you can view these fairs as a sign of evolutionary development within the larger ecosystem of San Francisco’s art scene. Before last year’s SF Fine Art Fair, there hadn’t been a comparable event in the city for close to two decades. Maybe these are the sort of events SF needs to slough off of the self-deprecatory framework that regards what is made and what goes on here as “provincial” compared to Los Angeles or New York City. After all, “boosterism” needn’t be a dirty word.

I hope to expand on these issues in the next Eyeball, after I’ve had a chance to make the rounds and cool my feet in the Phoenix’s pool. 



Through June 11; free

Ratio 3

1447 Stevenson

(415) 821-3371


Thurs/19– Sun/22; $25 (single day), $45 (3-day)

Concourse Exhibition Center

620 Seventh St., SF

(212) 518-6912


May 19–May 22

Phoenix Hotel; $10

601 Eddy, SF

(415) 364-5465


May 20 –22; $20 (single day), $30 (3-day)

Festival Pavilion

Fort Mason Center, SF

(800) 211-0640


TV eye


HAIRY EYEBALL In 1976 artist Clive Robertson reflected on a performance he gave that same year, in which he dressed up as and restaged pieces by the famous postwar German performance artist Joseph Beuys. “We have to adapt legends so that they become portable and can fit into our pockets,” he wrote. “Unfortunately for the artist, that is the fight we label history.”

Robertson was addressing his own anxiety of influence in the face of Beuys’ then-ascendant status within the art world, but his comments also provide a gloss on the struggle that curators and art historians face in their own practice. In the case of “God Only Knows Who the Audience Is,” a parting gift from the graduating students of California College of the Arts’ Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice, currently on view in the galleries of the school’s Wattis Institute, it is a struggle undertaken with great intelligence and economy.

Smartly conceived and staged, “God Only Knows” is a dialogic tale of two histories. One is a survey of the nonprofit artist-run organization and gallery space La Mamelle (which became ART COM in the 1980s) that existed in various incarnations from 1975 through 1995 and forms an important, if under-recognized, chapter of Bay Area art history. The other traces a concurrent shift in performance art, largely made possible by the advent of video technology, away from the artist’s body and toward the disembodied artist.

La Mamelle was, appropriate to its name, a nurturing organ for the local art scene. In addition to hosting events and organizing exhibits, the organization released videos, audio-zines, and microfiches, and published anthologies as well as the regular magazine in which pieces such as Robertson’s “The Sculptured Politics of Joseph Beuys,” quoted above, first appeared.

The constant proliferation of publications and media put local artists such as Chip Lord, the video collective Ant Farm, Lynn Hershman, and Bonnie Sherk — who all have pieces or documentation of early performances on display here — in touch with other artists around the world and vice versa. The aforementioned artists had wandered to the end of the conceptual inroads that had been laid down by the likes of Andy Warhol and Beuys, and were now operating in a new media wilderness, with only their VHS cameras to guide them.

“God Only Knows” successfully locates these artists and their work within a continuum of practices that stretches into the present. Others have followed Robertson in treating Beuys and his practice as source material (“identity transfer” in his words), as evinced by nearby pieces in the first floor’s survey of performance art that de-centers the artist’s body as both a performance’s agent and its living trace, such as Whitney Lynn’s 2010 re-do of another Beuys performance, or Luis Felipe Ortega and Daniel Guzmán’s 1994 video Remake, in which the duo stages “improved upon” versions of canonical performance art pieces.

The exhibit’s second floor takes us into the ’80s and ’90s, where the message is clear: television opened up the potential for art to reach new audiences. Greeted by the ponderous, mustachioed visage of Douglas Davis in his The Last Nine Minutes, a live-to-video performance realized in 1977 for Documenta 6, we immediately see how video dissolved the time lag between action and its documentation. Bill Viola’s 44 portraits of television viewers (1983-84) staring silently into their TV sets, made for WGBH in Boston, screens on the other side of the entrance.

In the middle of the gallery, playing across what the accompanying brochure calls an “archipelago” of viewing stations, are various video pieces by La Mamelle and ART COM artists, as well as those by artists such as the Borat-like Olaf Breuning, whose work plays off of the spectacle of TV shows. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, Mario Garcia Torres’ jarring 2008 nine-channel compilation of artists’ TV cameos from the past four decades (Dali doing a car commercial; Warhol appearing as himself on The Love Boat) tabulates the increasing banality of art’s intersection with television.

Yet despite the histories laid out in “God Only Knows Who the Audience Is,” Bravo’s Work of Art, YouTube, and the continual meddling presence of James Franco, video has yet to kill the performance art star — or at least the demand for the star’s body, as demonstrated by Marina Abramovic’s recent MOMA retrospective, in which the real attraction was not the controversial restagings of her greatest hits, but her daily physical presence.

The irony, of course, is that exhibit’s online half-life, which continues today. The Flickr and Tumblr are still there. The artist is still present to those who navigate to those pages, even though Abramovic left the building long ago. God only knows who’s still watching.



The title of German painter Christoph Roßner’s current solo show at Romer Young, “The Hat, That Never Existed,” is a tip-off. Roßner’s smudged, over-painted, and half-erased depictions of things and people — trees, candles, top hats, houses, old men — scan as disappearing acts rather than fixed portraits (the way the canvases have been hung even suggests that a few have gone missing from the gallery). “Ghoulish” is the operative word here. Not much separates the faceless specter of Ghost from the skeletal visage in Grinser; and Roßner can make even a rock look like an Expressionist coffin. That’s not lazy journalistic shorthand, either: Roßner’s rough-hewn bleakness is of a piece with the Old World aesthetics of, say, George Grosz. The séance lasts only one more week, though, so act fast.


Through July 2

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

1111 Eighth St.

(415) 551-9210


Through May 14

Romer Young Gallery

1240 22nd St., SF

(415) 550-7483


Touching from a distance


HAIRY EYEBALL “Art enables us to meet my parents again after they have departed,” the contemporary Chinese artist Song Dong says in a statement that introduces his current show at Yerba Buena Center of the Arts. “In my art, they have never been away, and will live with us forever. I think they might still be worrying about our children and us. I wanted to have an exhibition where we would bring them back to us and tell them, ‘Dad and Mom, don’t worry about us, we are all well.’ “

Taking its title from that final reassurance of filial piety, this deeply personal and truly monumental exhibit is a testimony to Song’s sincere belief in the power of art as a means to connect. And you will likely leave a believer too. Art, as Song elaborates in the two decades of work collected here along with accompanying explanatory texts commissioned for the exhibit, allowed him to rebuild his once-strained relationship with his parents while they were still alive. It also allowed him to create a record of their lives together as a family who weathered the worst years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and to help himself and his young daughter connect to the stories and the struggles of his parents’ generation.

Making daily life the stuff of creative practice has its art historical precedents in conceptual art, a label that has often been attached to Song’s output. But such contextualization is largely beside the point in the face of the electric current of emotions — sadness, longing, remorse, gratitude — that it’s hard not to feel while watching the earlier video pieces Song made with and about his father, or surveying the massive installation piece, titled Waste Not, that he collaborated on with his mother.

The video works, the first pieces viewers encounter, offer variations on a simple yet effective technique: Song films himself or someone else sitting in front of a projection of an earlier recorded interview (usually with his father), continually having the person align their face with the face of whoever is speaking in the projected video. Sometimes it is Song aligning himself with his father; sometimes with his father and mother. And in one piece, a viewer can put himself in a Song family portrait via a similar process (the resulting snapshots are uploaded to YBCA’s Flickr account). The effect is ghostly, blurring the projected subject and the filmed subject into a new, purely virtual being.

The sprawling Waste Not is undoubtedly the heart of “Dad and Mom,” which displays the entire contents of the house Song’s mother lived in for 60 years, and where she married and raised Song and his younger sister. Here, organized into neat piles that fill up YBCA’s entire large gallery, are the contents of a life: clothes, kitchen utensils, toiletries, school supplies, shopping bags, toys, shoes, furniture. At the center of the space hang the remains of the house’s walls and room, a skeleton of beams that seems an impossible vessel given the sheer volume of its former contents.

Having grown up amid the lean years of the Great Leap Forward, Song’s mother subscribed to the belief that nothing should go to waste (from which the installation takes it title), so she recycled and saved everything she could, from plastic bottles and fabric scraps to gasoline canisters and balls of string. Song, in turn, saw creating the installation with her as a way to continue this practice. By turning her accumulated junk into a traveling archive, nothing would have to be discarded and everything would be meaningfully preserved.

Originally conceived by Song in 2005 as a way to help his mother cope with the grief over her husband’s sudden death three years earlier, the work has now become a memorial to her memory as well. SONG DONG: DAD AND MOM, DON’T WORRY ABOUT US, WE ARE ALL WELL

Through June 12 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

The unseen enemy


Trevor Paglen’s photography has always been about making the unseen visible. His luminous chromogenic prints unsettlingly reveal that the machinery of war and surveillance controlled by the military-industrial complex is more often than not hiding from plain sight; one need only have the right high-powered lens to gaze back.

One of the ironies of Paglen’s work, owing largely to the great distances from which he must photograph his purposefully obscured subjects, is how minuscule and non-particular they appear within the photographs themselves (this is also why Paglen’s work, in particular, suffers in reproduction). Test sites are twinkling oases amid vast surrounds of rock and sand, orbiting satellites are often no more than streaks of light, and unmanned planes are but black flecks against large expanses of sky. The human element is absent or left implied.

“Unhuman,” the title of Paglen’s second solo show at Altman Siegel, is thus quite appropriate, calling to mind the unmanned and auto-piloted craft that he repeatedly shoots while also drawing attention to the reality that much of this technology will continue to exist and perhaps, one might speculate, even continue to operate long after we have vanished. The recent work in “Unhuman” zeros in on both concerns.

Take the black and white photograph, Dead Military Satellite (DMSP 5D-F11) Near the Disk of the Moon, in which the titular forgotten object, lighted only by a half-veiled moon, is barely visible amid the surrounding darkness of space. The shot could easily be mistaken for a matte painting from Alien, and its seeming impossible vantage point makes Paglen’s dogged tracking of the dead satellite somehow all the more poignant.

Other photographs are less subtle. In the diptych Artifacts, a black and white photograph of the famous Anasazi cliff dwellings in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Park hangs next to one that captures the glowing traces of spacecraft perpetually orbiting thousands of kilometers above the equator. Although the score-marked cliff face in the first photo forms a nice formal counterpoint to the hatch-markings of time-lapsed stars in the second, the pairing (perhaps a nod to Kubrick’s bone-satellite?) offers too heavy-handed and easy a comparison.

But Paglen doesn’t need to spell things out so directly. The show’s most stunning pieces are a series of lush skyscapes in which reaper and predator drones hover mote-like amid large, gaseous swathes of color seemingly lifted straight from a Rothko or Turner. The abstract beauty of these images is held in tension by the near-unseen menace that their titles call attention to. It’s a tension exacerbated by the limits of Paglen’s own machine-enhanced vision, such as when he photographs a similar type of dronecraft in a blurry, enlarged “close-up” two miles from the Indian Springs, Nev., site where it sits parked.



For her debut at Silverman, local Deva Graf looks to both midcentury Minimalist sculpture as well as her ongoing studies at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California’s ski country. The pairing isn’t so unlikely, and the two installations Graf has created on either side of the small space evoke both the simple shapes and natural materials of de Maria and Smithson sculptures as well as those of objects used in Zen practice.

To the right is Mother’s Vigil, an arrangement of three small stone sculptures of Buddhist deities surrounded by lighted candles (around 40 are used for the piece each day) set into earthenware bowls filled with sand. In Bindu, on the opposite side, a lighted pyramid-shaped candle on stone pedestal sits below an eye-level framed piece of paper with a black India ink square at its center. An arc, also done in India ink, is traced on the wall above both painting and candle.

The features and iconography of each installation overtly solicit the viewer’s contemplation and concentration. Alas, that’s a tall order when floor-to-ceiling windows are the only thing between you and heavily-trafficked Sutter Street.


Through April 2

Altman Siegel Gallery

49 Geary, Fourth Floor, SF

(415) 576-9300


Through March 12

Silverman Gallery

804 Sutter, SF

(415) 255-9508


Not forgotten


HAIRY EYEBALL Around 500 people a day pass through the long corridor that bisects San Francisco City Hall’s lower level: supervisors dashing to the café for a quick lunch; tour groups of elementary school children; aides making a post office run; the occasional member of a wedding party looking for the bathroom.

It is also one of the last places where you’d expect to find a politically vital art installation, which is what makes San Francisco Art Commission gallery director Meg Shiffler’s decision to hang its current exhibit, “Afghanistan in 4 Frames,” in such a public and heavily-trafficked area so gutsy. Though the SFAC regularly puts on three to four art shows a year in the City Hall space, none in recent memory have resonated so powerfully with the dynamics of the venue itself.

The “4 Frames” exhibit presents a ground-level (no pun intended) portrait of the country through the lenses of four photojournalists who, over the past five years, have embedded themselves with various military forces and units stationed there. Though each photographer varies in style and background, their work — presented as photo-essays — shares a focus on the day-to-day, intersecting lives of civilians and soldiers off the battlefield.

James Lee, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and current San Francisco State University graduate student whose move to photography from writing was a recent one, captures in crisp color the downtime faced by young Afghan National Security Force soldiers stationed near the Pakistan border.

In contrast to the all-male environment Lee documents, Lynsey Addario’s series “Women at War” focuses on the experience of female U.S. troops and their engagement with female civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer has a knack for taking a picture at the moment her subjects are at their most unguarded, whether sharing a laugh with each other or shaving their legs in the barracks.

Addario’s photos are pointedly hung on a wall across from Bay Area photographer Eros Hoagland’s slightly more testosterone-driven series, “Siege Perilous.” The high contrast black and white photos depicting British military forces in the Korengal Valley and Helmand Province practically crackle with tension.

Another veteran photographer, Teru Kuwayama, is the only one who works with actual film, and his grainy, black and white Holga and Leica portraits of rural clans and armed mercenaries feel as if they are from another era. Kuwayama’s most timely work on Afghanistan actually resides offsite and online: his Web reporting initiative, Basetrack, links deployed Marines with life at home through images and video created by embedded journalists (although just last week military brass asked the embeds to leave).

Afghanistan made front pages again last summer after WikiLeaks uncovered 90,000 pages of classified materials chronicling a five-year window in the U.S. military’s long slog there. But “4 Frames” reminds those who encounter it — as well as those who seek it out — that regardless of the headlines, there will always be an ongoing, human side to what has been so often dubbed “the forgotten war.” And forgetting is not a luxury we can afford.



Although a vastly different beast from “Afghanistan in Four Frames,” SFMOMA’s current juggernaut of a thematic survey “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870” offers a pointed study in contrast, demonstrating how not to curate a photography show with clarity of vision or regard to what could be called an ethics of representation.

As proclaimed by its title, “Exposed,” which was organized by SFMOMA and the Tate Modern in London, where it originally premiered, attempts to track — across various eras, technologies, and milieu — what the introductory wall text calls the “voyeuristic impulse” in modern and contemporary photography: “an eagerness to see a subject commonly considered taboo.”

With such an open-ended criteria, the curators have essentially given themselves carte blanche to include everything from early 20th-century “detective cameras,” Walker Evans’ portraits of unknowing New York City subway passengers, Ron Galella’s paparazzi snaps of Jackie O., Nick Ut’s iconic image of a crying Kim Phuc in Vietnam (as well as his 2007 picture of a crying Paris Hilton), Robert Mapplethorpe’s BDSM pictures, surreptitious documentation of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and Trevor Paglen’s near-abstract renderings of distant military sites.

The 200 or so pieces are arranged in thematically-grouped galleries (“Celebrity and the Public Gaze,” “Witnessing Violence”) that wind through half of the museum’s fifth floor. By the time you’ve made it through the lengthy, final “Surveillance” section of the show, “Exposed” feels more like a photography catalog that become the genesis for an exhibit, and not the other way around.

Such tidy categorization has the negative effect of creating closed systems rather than allowing different pieces to speak to each other. For example, two harrowing, anonymously-attributed lynching photos belong next to one of the most moving selections in “Exposed,” Oliver Lutz’s Lynching of Leo Frank, which hangs in another gallery. At the same time, the very proximity of death images and paparazzi shots cheapens both.

When presenting highly-charged, difficult images, many of which document humankind at its most brutal and unsavory, the context they are displayed in becomes as crucial as the images themselves. “Exposed,” which feels like the result of several unseemly Google image searches rather than a decade of curatorial sweat, disappoints in this regard.

Atrocity. Murder. Fame. Kinky sex. It’s all here! The question no one seemed to ask is: does it need to be? “Exposed” is simply too much. *


Through May 13, free

City Hall

1 Dr Carlton B. Goodlett Place (ground floor), SF

(415) 554-6080


Through April 17; free–<\d>$18

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000


Every little star


HAIRY EYEBALL In 1979, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive received a generous and somewhat unusual gift from the sister of the late German-born, pioneering American sculptor Eva Hesse: an assortment of small experimental works, made by Hesse herself, in materials such as latex, cloth, wax, fiberglass, wire mesh, and masking tape. What made these objects so unusual was their very indeterminacy. Should they be thought of as proper Hesse pieces? Were they studies for the large-scale sculptures that came to define Hesse’s output throughout the 1960s, or standalone technical experiments with different materials and processes? Alternately, were they intended to simply be as is — Hesse had given away similar objects as gifts and kept others arranged throughout her studio.

Hesse, who tragically died of a brain tumor in May 1970 at 34, left little to no indication. “Eva Hesse: Studiowork,” the stunner of an exhibit currently up at the Berkeley Art Museum, is then a homecoming of sorts for many of the pieces on display. Originally curated by Hesse scholar Briony Fer and Barry Rosen of the Hesse Estate for Edinburgh’s Fruit Market Gallery in 2009, this testament to the benefits of gutsy scholarship and cross-institutional support boldly embraces the precariousness of Hesse’s curious objects head-on and encourages us to see them on their own terms.

Entering the gallery space, you immediately encounter a group of previously unseen paper works arranged out in the open on a low plinth, like scattered autumn leaves. The forms vary in thicknesses and degrees of curvature: a worked shape of adhesive-enforced cheesecloth resembles a sunken pumpkin; a crinkled piece of tissue thin papier-mâché a bowl or shard of skull. The slightest breeze could send it flying. Hesse purposefully used fragile or impermanent substances — much to the bane of conservators — as a way to imbue her sculpture with a self-sustaining mutability, a means to continue the processes her initial crafting set into motion. In this sense, time is also one of her materials, as evinced by the caved-in latex bricks and box-like containers that have oxidized over the decades to a rich mahogany color.

The delicacy of the paper works is offset by the three large vitrines in the adjacent room each filled with a variety of objects that alternately read as: replicas of exotic coral or dried chili peppers; dirty jokes; rudimentary toy prototypes; or, more directly, obstinate lumps, variously crafted from latex, wax, painted wood and rubber tubing. The soft, round, protuberant forms of our bodies are evoked everywhere, and yet to call a fold of latex “vaginal” or a coil of tubing “intestinal” somehow feels inadequate to conveying the uncanny physicality of these pieces. It’s as if someone had made you a model of your own hand to hold.

“There is no wishing away the fact that it is hard to know what to make of these things because they are intractable in some way,” cautions Fer at the start of her warm and deeply perceptive catalog essay. Rather than function as a limitation, this interpretive resistance posed by the studio works invites us to un-see them as sculpture and to view Hesse’s careful making and undoing of material as posing a perhaps unnameable but immanently enriching possibility.



My first glimpse of Katy Grannan’s street photography was a startling color photo included in Fraenkel Gallery’s 30th anniversary show “Furthermore.” The picture was of an elderly woman wrapped in a mink stole, her face obscured by windswept gray hair as she walked down a sun-bleached street. When viewing it next to the other portraits in “Boulevard,” Grannan’s third solo show at Fraenkel, I realized it wasn’t so much the woman’s “odd” outward appearance that attracted the photographer, but the sense of purposefulness conveyed in her frozen stride.

It would be quite easy to dismiss the pictures in “Boulevard” on the grounds that Grannan is a latter-day Diane Arbus, inherently exploiting her “singular” subjects in the act of photographing them. Many appear to be regular denizens of the street — the homeless, addicts, hustlers — or are folks whose self-presentation defies established norms: an aging Marilyn Monroe impersonator, a trans woman with a 100-yard stare, an extremely hirsute biker-type.

Such a charge is unfair, and I suspect, likely the work of our own unease at looking at people who we would normally turn away from, or perhaps stare at furtively, if encountered on the street. Grannan, though, seems to want to give them their moment without overextending the encounter. Hence, a photograph. She doesn’t pose her subjects and none look directly at the camera. It’s as if, as with the fur-wrapped crone, she stopped them midstride, got her shot, and they went on their way. She respects their anonymity as well (each photo is titled after the city, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where it was taken). The discomfort in looking at Grannan’s work — she extends her gaze in The Believers, a related solo film installation at 1453 Valencia — partly comes from how technically accomplished and flawless it is: she shoots midday to capture her subject’s every wrinkle, blemish, and faded tattoo.

It feels off and disingenuous to call Grannan’s work “beautiful,” but it’s hard not to look and keep looking at the people in her neighborhood, some of whom are our neighbors as well.


Through April 10, $5

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.


Through Feb. 19, free

Fraenkel Galley

49 Geary, SF

La Frontera


HAIRY EYEBALL Walking through Tracey Snelling’s 10-year survey at Rena Bransten brings to mind the famous opening tracking shot of Orson Welles’ 1958 noir Touch of Evil. For over three tension-ratcheting minutes Welles’ camera — all swooping omniscience — takes in the garish sights and sounds of a tourist outpost along the U.S.-Mexico border as it tails an American car that, unbeknownst to the couple behind the wheel, has been planted with a bomb that’s about to go off.

Much like the back lot border-town surveyed by Welles, the Oakland-based Snelling pays repeated visits to liminal spaces: empty strip malls, dusty souvenir shops, seedy motels, and bygone roadside attractions. From her intricate miniature models of these buildings — many outfitted with ambient noise soundtracks, realistic interior lighting, looped video clips of “occupants,” and distressed paint jobs — to the mock-ups of the sort of neon signage once seen along Route 66 that greet you as soon as you walk into the gallery, Snelling’s art drops us somewhere south of some border, just on the edge of town, and definitely on the wrong side of the tracks.

The locations Snelling chooses are for the most part generic and yet deeply familiar. This is in no small part due to their recurrence as archetypical backdrops in pop culture and Hollywood films, something her art self consciously plays with. Take Big El Mirador, a large sculpture of an adobe hotel, for which Snelling has set up six DVD players behind the piece (coordinated with a sync box) to play a different film clip through each of the building’s six window to give the illusion of action happening in the rooms. Other models feature clips swiped from movies that feature similar structures, or are, as with the sculpture of Norma Desmond’s mansion from Sunset Boulevard, miniature versions of buildings from films.

At the same time, Snelling’s obsessive eye for detail — whether getting the fluorescent glare right inside a convenience store or building a perfectly weathered Tecate billboard — make each environment feel more “true-to-life,” inviting the viewer, much as a child does with a doll house, to construct narratives for the often-unseen occupants of these ghost town dioramas.

In other pieces Snelling situates the viewer as the occupant. In the space of a few steps one goes from looking at the exterior of model of the Motel El Diablo to standing in what could presumably be one of its rooms, complete with a cramped single bed, dresser, bad art on the wall, and more suggestively, a pair of black high heels casually tossed on the floor. Another life-size installation is a walk-through gift shop filled with to the brim with motion-activated tchotchkes, fake kachina dolls, Chinatown good luck dragons, and Hindu religious posters.

This scalar slip ‘n’ slide between life-sized and downsized only further adds to the fun house atmosphere generated by Snelling’s lovingly crafted and decidedly lonely monuments to displacement.



Max Cole’s acrylic-on-linen paintings feature alternating arrangements of two horizontal elements — ramrod straight lines of varying widths and small vertical hatch-marks — executed in varying shades of gray, black, brown, and white.

Like the painter Agnes Martin, Cole is an abstract precisionist whose canvases function as time cards, that with each tick, document to an almost zero-degree the entire span of their own creation.

And like Martin, Cole’s paintings are also rooted in the natural world, despite their superficial resemblance to, say, ruled writing paper. Titles such as Briscone Pine welcome one to see the grooves and ruts of tree bark, or in the case of the show’s name, “Terra Firma,” geologic strata, in these painting’s large bands and delicate vertical marks. *


Through Jan. 29, free

Rena Bransten

77 Geary, SF

(415) 982-3292



Through Feb. 12, free

Haines Gallery

49 Geary, SF

(415) 397-8114

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,



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,



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.



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,



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,



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,

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.

SF Camerawork and YBCA do the right thing (Updated)


Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: a Washington DC art institution caves in to right wing politicians and conservative Christians calling for the removal of “controversial” work made by an openly gay artist.

No, I’m not talking about what happened with Robert Mapplethorpe more than two decades ago. In case you haven’t been following what’s turning into the biggest art news story of 2010, David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly was removed from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” on November 30th, after Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough bowed to pressure from Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, incoming House Speaker John Boehner, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who denounced the video as a form of, “hate speech.”

In response, the artist’s estate and the P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York have made Fire In My Belly available for exhibiton, and several museums and galleries across the country have started installing the video, along with other Wojnarowicz pieces. Two San Francisco institutions (that, incidentally, happen to be just down the street from each other) join the protest tomorrow.

The Queer Cultural Center and San Francisco Camerawork will screen the entire 13-minute version of Wojnarowicz’s piece at SF Camerawork’s gallery space at 7pm. The screening will be followed by a presentation on censorship and the arts by art historian Robert Atkins as well as a roundtable discussion with Ian Carter, Kim Anno and (via-Skype) “Hide/Seek” curator Jonathan Katz. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will also show A Fire in My Belly from 11pm to 2am on a continuous loop as part of its Noel Noir party.

I’m still waiting to hear back from SFMOMA’s press office as to whether or not the museum has any plans to install and/or screen the video. In the meantime, Tyler Green’s ongoing coverage of the fiasco at Modern Art Notes continues to be indispensable.

UPDATED: SFMOMA is going to do the right thing too, in January. A publicist for the museum has just confirmed that it will hold a free screening of the full-length (30-min) version of A Fire In My Belly on Tuesday, Jan. 4 at 5:30 pm with a discussion afterward. Way to go!


Friday, Dec 10

7pm, free

San Francisco Camerawork

657 Mission St, Second Floor

(415) 512-2020

11pm-2am, $20 general admission


701 Mission St

(415) 978-2700


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