Ari Messer

At the Drive-In


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thurs/16–Sun/19, various venues

(408) 916-1010

The elephant in the shroom



DRUG LIT The psychedelic experience is perfectly, if unintentionally, expressed in a poetry collection: Too long I took clockwork as a model instead of following the angle my inclinations make with the ground. So writes Rosmarie Waldrop in A Key into the Language of America (New Directions, 1994), a book based on Rhode Island founder Roger Williams’s 1643 guide of the same name. The most "meditative" poets, from Milton and Blake to James Merrill and Denise Levertov, are often those who have reworked historical texts. The same could be said about scholars of psychedelics. Forget about Aldous Huxley’s exaggerated diatribes and everything by Carlos Castenada. The "doors of perception" aren’t opened by self-indulgent rambles of the "I’m a spiritual person" variety.

In 2007, sick of the ingrained pop mythologies surrounding psychedelics (and realizing, it seems, that such pseudoscience isn’t helping make the case for legalization), British scholar Andy Letcher published Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Harper Perennial, 384 pages, $14.99). Though he spends quite a bit of time debunking myco-myths that I’d imagine are only actually believed by people while tripping — Santa Claus is a giant, speckled variety of the Amanita genus; Stonehenge was like a Dead show without the music — the double-PHD Letcher gives a solid sense of magic mushrooms as they moved through history, and we moved with or tripped over them. Letcher uncovers how little we can possibly know.

Because mushrooms can "simply be picked and eaten," Letcher explains, there is "not a single instance of a magic mushroom being preserved in the archaeological record anywhere." Drugs and apparent representations of magic mushrooms that have been found have had other, nonintoxicating uses, from food to insulation, or have been doctored up to appear trippy, as with one example of Neolithic rock art widely distributed through self-declared visionary Terence McKenna’s books — McKenna’s then-wife, Kat Harrison, actually made the drawing from a photo, adding her own interpretation.

I once heard prankster Paul Krassner relate the tale of his first psychedelic escapade. After his mind returned, he said, it seemed like a good idea to call his mother and express his elation (the rational part of his mind must have still been distracted). Her hilarious response was perhaps culled from the jumbled logic of the war on drugs: "Watch out," she pined into the phone. "I’ve heard that LSD can be a gateway drug to … marijuana!"

Letcher shares this realistic sense of humor about the life of drugs. Before picking apart proponents of the otherworldly "ancient mushrooming thesis," he offers them room to breathe. He is ultimately interested in the cultural evolution of the West’s "yearning for enchantment" in response to changes that have occurred since the industrial revolution. "That we in the West have found value in those remarkable mushroom experiences, where almost all others before us have regarded them as worthless," he notes, "means that in a very real sense we could claim to be living in the Mushroom Age." He explores how McKenna’s death in 2000 left the psychedelic movement without an "obvious figurehead" and how the need to paste our modern sensibilities onto "a pre-historic religion or tabu" (as shroom-popularizer Gordon Wasson wrote in a letter to Robert Graves in 1950), is just an urge.

Post-McKenna, what is the destination of the psychedelic movement’s next trip? A new book, Mushroom Magick (Abrams, 144 pages, $19.95), is respectable for its clear motivations and gorgeous, thorough design. It’s a little too much fun, consisting of over 100 lush, full-page watercolors by Arik Roper, whose shrooms "grow from the tip of my pen without much effort." Incomplete but clear field notes by Gary H. Lincoff and an essay by Erik Davis offer tasty morsels, and the short bibliography points to useful resources such as Paul Stamets’ field guides. But Daniel Pinchbeck’s foreword follows the same trajectory that Letcher so carefully deconstructs. I’m afraid that Mushroom Magick ultimately presents as recreational something that, with or without New Age revisionism, clearly has a deeper, revelatory role to play in human affairs. And that’s not furthering the discussion, that’s a little irresponsible.

On location



PHOTO ISSUE The ghost of Cindy Sherman is everywhere these days. In Untitled Film Stills (1977 onward), Sherman pictured archetypal B-movie versions of herself in emotionally-charged fake film stills. The project remains a salient commentary on self-imagining and imposed, gendered narratives. Yet Sherman’s influence can be seen most dramatically these days in photos where people are simply afterthoughts, either insulated or not present at all. Accessible digital video technologies have partially relieved photographs of the burden of "truth." Built and destructed environments are revealed as character actors and elegiac voyeurs.

This is felt even at current exhibitions of work from past decades, pictures that used to mean something quite different. Jerry Burchard’s nocturnal shots have long offered commentary on the medium’s innate capacity for revelation. But seeing them alongside Debbie Fleming Caffery’s knowing depictions of Mexican prostitutes and Linda Foard Roberts’s oval photos of almost-knowable materials at Robert Koch Gallery, they abandon a previous film-narrative sensibility (the blurry shots akin to 1970s horror film aesthetics, the celestial long exposures like being at the drive-in) and move closer to the subjects themselves: the game-like design of a park in Morocco, the cleavage of skeletal trees. What was caricatured emotionality for Sherman is silent theatricality for Burchard, the black-box-theatre intimacy of it all. His Casablanca, Morocco (1973-76) doesn’t demand that you want to know what it’s portraying. I initially saw the white streak as a mattress, something angelic and domestic that would be at home in a Tony Kushner play, but I was ultimately content with the mystery.

Nearby at Rena Bransten Gallery, photographs in the group show "Decline and Fall" move the empty stage further into ghostliness. Doug Hall’s Helena, Wife of Constantine, Museo Capitalino, Rome (1996/97) reads like Thomas Struth having an exorcism. Light speaks first, statues second. Light holds court. The oval molding appears flattened, invoking airport baggage carts. Next to Hall’s in-transit humans, Candida Höfer’s 2004 depiction of frozen palatial elegance and Martin Klimas’ 2003 picture of shattering ceramics against a white background appear increasingly compassionate.

For the San Francisco Arts Commission and PhotoAlliance’s "10 x 10 x 10" at City Hall, 10 local curators invited 10 photographers to submit 10 works each. Stacen Berg chose John Harding for his careful compositions of people who are "entirely distanced from their public environment." In one hallway, Harding’s analog captures of San Francisco street scenes face off with the late Ken Botto’s urban shots, constructed from miniatures and morphs. It’s as if the buildings and slabs, not the people, are shooting the movies of our lives. Heather Snider chose Solstice Fires, Lucy Goodhart’s "reverential but not sentimental" pictures of last summer’s Big Sur fires. In dialogue with Jesse Schlesinger’s varied but participatory outdoor exposures, picked by Joyce Grimm, and Chris McCaw’s stunning paper negatives, chosen by Linda Connor, Goodhart’s photographs speak to a world that is listening even when no one is there. *

10 X 10 X 10

Through Sept. 18

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery at City Hall

1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, SF

(415) 554-6080


Through Sat/8

Rena Bransten Gallery

77 Geary, SF

(415) 982-3292

Through Aug. 22

Robert Koch Gallery

49 Geary, fifth floor, SF

(415) 421-0122

“2012: Super-Bato Saves the World”


REVIEW Energy must not be conserved in Enrique Chagoya’s universe. From his earlier pieces on paper through his show-stopping work on linen at the turn of the century (Le Cannibale Moderniste, 1999; Aparición Sublime, 2000; Pocahontas Gets a New Passport (More Art Faster), 2000), the experimental printmaker’s mock-specificity and hidden sensitivity — both aspects of a brilliant pictorial stubbornness — leave the whole body buzzing. This is art that gathers energy from its viewers as much as its subjects. An edition of eight fully-functional, gaudy, lusty, but also mystically calm slot machines in the style of souped-up Camaros, "2012: Super-Bato Saves the World" lacks the intentionally confusing expansiveness of Chagoya’s accompanying work on paper, but maybe that’s the point.

Spread out in one area of Electric Works is Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Aliens Manuscript I, a 2008 contribution to an ongoing series that explains our country and the world at large, especially the art world, to "others." In this panoramic piece, creationists are represented by an ape kneeling before a paper-like flame, conservatives by a man in monk’s clothing, and neocons by a happy couple between human and ape; all are setting fire to Aztec iconography. Elsewhere art historians lay siege to the museums and emerging media artists visit the world in a UFO. Around the corner, Super-Bato grins.

The date cited by Chagoya doesn’t just mark the next U.S. presidential election — it’s also the end-year of the ancient Mayan 5125 year calendar. In Chagoya’s eyes, the world might have already ended, collapsing in a mockery of a sham. In addition to an obvious affinity with Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s vision (the two have collaborated on some iconic books), Chagoya’s most affecting work here recalls Mildred Howard’s politically charged, lushly wrought assemblage sculptures and intricate installations. Both artists map aesthetic delights on top of the real world. What happens in politics no longer stays in politics.

2012: SUPER-BATO SAVES THE WORLD Through July 2. Electric Works, 130 Eighth St., SF

(415) 626-5496,

Jimmy Sweetwater Presents


PREVIEW In the era of Slow Food in the City of Fog, I wonder why more people don’t slow down for a second and get out to taste some local music. Think about the last time you were willing to fork over more than a fiver for some local talent. Seriously. San Franciscans sometimes seem fonder and more aware of what the Bay Area attracts than of what it produces. Jimmy Sweetwater is out to change that. Sweetwater is the rare breed of promoter who is also a musician — he plays a mean harmonica and a dirty washboard. He has been giving his all to keep his series of local music going in a town drawn to touring bands. Sweetwater, a historian of Mission District music from the past 20 years, has put on five shows at the Great American Music Hall, four at Slim’s, and one at Cafe du Nord. According to Sweetwater, club staff has largely been supportive, but it’s a struggle to fill venues in these times of financial woe. "There’s a ton of local talent that never gets to play the big clubs," he says, noting that he tries "to combine different kinds of music in one night." All-local nights and combinations of different genres — these aren’t traditional strategies, but the Bay Area is the perfect place to unleash them.

This weekend sees a diverse Jimmy Sweetwater Presents lineup at the Red Devil Lounge, including the high-speed-Calexico-like Diego’s Umbrella, honkeytonkers 77 El Deora, the East Bay’s Ben Benkert, and the Mission Three, a group including Sweetwater that will play a number of tunes by the Band, even one of my favorite (and rarer) Band joints, "Acadian Driftwood." Sweetwater always seems to be doing a thousand things at once. It’s all for the love of song in this songlike town.

JIMMY SWEETWATER PRESENTS: DIEGO’S UMBRELLA, BEN BENKERT, 77 EL DEORA, AND THE MISSION THREE Sat/25, 9 p.m., $10. Red Devil Lounge, 1695 Polk, SF. (415) 921-1695.

“Julie Blackmon: Domestic Vacations”


REVIEW One of my most uninteresting college professors used to insist that negatives only exist in language, but couldn’t explain what this meant. That’s funny, I thought, because I can physically feel a complete lack of interest in your class. In fact, I think you can feel it too; it’s contagious. Nonetheless, I was never bored as a child, and I’m still never bored. The boring and the uninteresting are different concepts. Julie Blackmon’s lucid, staged photographs of childhood fantasy worlds in the twilight of America are stunning for a ton of reasons, but first and foremost they get their signature bite and sting by recognizing that everyone in each scene is interested in different things. There is no sincere panorama. From the modern intrusions into Blackmon’s protoclassical, Dutch-inspired scenes — a miniature FedEx truck, Netflix mail — to trippy little things such as the almost lurid dog eyes and discarded gloves in Snow Day (2008), every person, place, and thing appears distracted by an otherworldly mission.

Adding to this sense of confused biography, Blackmon, the oldest of nine kids and now a mother of three, uses people and things from her life in her work like a novelist trussing out character relations pictorially. She reminds me of some essays by Orhan Pamuk about his daughter, Rüya. It’s not the stories themselves that are so thrilling, but the palpable feeling of love in their narrative arcs, plus the vectors they send out into Pamuk’s novels, where characters seem to have little aspects or shimmers of Rüya (even if she wasn’t born when the story was written): her young mind, her toys and delusions, the way she gazes out the window and finds it startlingly new every day.

JULIE BLACKMON: DOMESTIC VACATIONS Through May 23. Tues.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. SF Camerawork, 657 Mission, second floor, SF. (415) 512-2020.

A search for patterns in the light – and dark


A search for patterns in the light — and in the dark


Trevor Paglen’s section of the 2008 SECA Art Award exhibition is somewhat centrally located — you have to pass through it to get to Jordan Kantor’s room, as well as to a small room containing pieces by all four awardees. This positioning resonates, for Paglen is nothing if not conscious of maps and their meanings, and his contributions have visual connections to the other three artists. The dizzying, multicolored swirls of Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass, a c-print from 2008, aren’t far from Tauba Auerbach’s post-op art graphics. The night skies in Paglen’s photography aren’t far from the deep blues and flaring lights of Kantor’s 2008 oil-on-canvas Untitled (lens flare), where the painted camera effects are also suggestive of one of Kantor’s Paglenesque earlier subjects, the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Such ties are helpful, because the flagrantly governmental subject matter and complicatedly political perspectives of Paglen’s work make it too easy to downplay or ignore its artistic facets. The white spots of 2008’s PARCAE Constellation in Draco (Naval Ocean Surveillance System, USA 160) are a photo-corollary to those found in Bruce Conner’s lovely late-era ink drawings. (Like Paglen, the late Conner kept his eye on activities the U.S. hides in plain sight, and that awareness adds undercurrents to works of his that might otherwise be coded as purely spiritual.) When Paglen, from a mile away, uses a long-lens camera to uncover the ambiguous activities of an unmarked 737 in a black spot in Las Vegas, I’m reminded of the telescopic images of cruelty at the end of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1957 Salò. But unlike Pasolini, Paglen is far from being in full charge of the staging, so his seductive images can only blurrily hint at barbarism or sinister motive.

"Photography — and this is especially true after September 11 — is a performance," Paglen told Thomas Keenan in an Aperture article from last year. "To photograph is to exercise the right to photograph. Nowadays, people get locked up for photographing the Brooklyn Bridge." Paglen’s pictures are the most successful portion of his SECA contribution — his presentation of emblematic Pentagon patches, while provocative and even aesthetically playful, raises (much like William E. Jones’ so-called 2007 film Tearoom) problems of authorship. By looking up at the sky and revealing that it’s looking back down at us, Paglen creates a grounded answer to the work of aerial photographers such as Michael Light, whose visions reorient one’s perspective. Paglen isn’t out to make you see clearly. He wants you to look deeper. And wonder. (Johnny Ray Huston)

For a review of Trevor Paglen’s new book, Blank Spots on the Map (Dutton), see Lit, page 42.


Tauba Auerbach is shaking up her spin-off sphere of the so-called Mission School with optical investigations into that interzone between the figurative and abstract, representational systems and what they communicate, order and chaos. This Bay Area native — at 27, the youngest of the current SECA Award winners — was likewise shaken to the core as an eight-year-old during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. "Actually I was at gymnastic class on Judah Street and on the uneven bars," she recalls by phone from New York City, where she now resides. "I was swinging from the low bar to the high bar when it just moved away from me and I fell. It was absolute chaos. Adults screaming conflicting instructions to us. I saw the windows bow in and out, and I remember driving home over the hill and seeing smoke and thinking our house was gone."

The memory bubbles up — as vivid and close to the surface as Auerbach’s perusal of chance and broken glass, Shatter II (2008), in the SECA exhibition — while she talks about her latest project: a piece for the Exploratorium’s "Geometry Playground," which opens in September. The title sounds like a perfect fit: a brain-teasing sense of play underlies many of Auerbach’s projects, including the design of new mathematical symbols for Cambridge University logician Byron Cook’s research into computer science’s famed termination, or halting, problem. "I think there are shortcomings in any coding system," she muses. "Binary is so interesting because the components are so limited…. Every time you want ambiguity in a binary system, you have to simulate it."

Auerbach’s darting intelligence peels off in many directions, much like her eye-boggling patterns. The artist’s old day job, in which she learned the lost art of sign painting at New Bohemia Signs in the Mission District, dovetails with her witty, abstracted deconstructions — or explosions — of writing and semaphore systems, assorted alphabets, Morse code, and eye charts. Two such 2006 works, The Whole Alphabet, From the Center Out, Digital V and …VI, which layer letters drawn from a digital clock, are on display at SFMOMA.

Penetrating glances into chaos and change yielded Auerbach’s largest pieces — the 2008 Crumple paintings — in which she crumpled paper, photographed the results, and then translated the creases onto canvas with halftone printing and paint carefully applied by hand. The folds materialize as one steps further back — and break down into dizzying pixels close up. Multiple entry points exist down this rabbit hole, first carved out by Op artist Bridget Riley. But as with Auerbach’s 2008 Static chromogenic prints, which saw her looking for randomness in analog TV static, the hidden spectrums and other visual tricks are rendered with an elegance a scientist would appreciate. (Kimberly Chun)


In Jordan Kantor’s paintings, meaning is candid. When the word "candid" entered the English language in the 17th century, it was closer to its Latin roots, meaning "bright," "light," "radiant," "glow," or "white," with whiteness symbolizing purity and sincerity. Later, as the word approached then copulated with the critical language of photography — that crazy new field of "light writing" initially accused of everything from demonic possession to being a potential assassin of traditional visual arts like painting — "candid" gave birth to its common usage today, meaning "frank," "blunt," "severe," a harsh snapshot, brutally honest vision. So severity in art became intertwined with truth.

Kantor’s local gallery, Ratio 3, with its emphasis on projects’ overall coherence, is a welcome home to his current trajectory. His pieces for the SECA Art Award exhibition are alive with many truths at once, their spaces equally negative and positive. The three Untitled (lens flare) paintings and Untitled (HD lens flare), all from 2008, make you step back, only to feel as if your are standing closer than before. Untitled (Surgery) (2006–07) and Untitled (Eclipse) (2008) glow with negative light. This work is in stride with Kantor’s participation in important group shows at Galeria Luisa Strina in São Paolo ("This Is Not a Void," 2008) and New York’s Lombard-Freid Projects ("Image Processor," 2007) that dealt with our unstable relationship with images. It confirms that he is a photographer who just happens to use paint. I see aspects of Linda Connor’s slow, large exposures here, as well as Cindy Sherman’s foxes-in-the-headlights humans.

Kantor isn’t hardened by academia, though he has a PhD from Harvard and teaches at California College of the Arts. The brilliant candidness in his pictures is tied to an aesthetic understanding of human desires and scientific pursuits, but also to a humanistic refusal to be neutral. If you spend enough time with his work, you start to see that it is candid in its celebration, not just in its criticism. It reminds me of the ending to poet James Wright’s "A Christmas Greeting," from Shall We Gather at the River (1963), where the dead and the living ask the same questions: "Charlie, I don’t know what to say to you," the poet pines to someone he might have known or just imagined, "Except Good Evening, Greetings, and Good Night, / God Bless Us Every One. Your grave is white. / What are you doing here?" (Ari Messer)

“Fabliaux: Tom Marioni Fairy Tales”


REVIEW I like Tom Marioni for the same reasons that I dig New Order. Though the band came after Marioni’s early sound sculptures, both arose with driven clarity, holding up 20th-century culture to the eye of the storm. They’re like woodsy fairy tales gone splendidly, mockingly urban: you’ll remember the imagery, hear the melody, find them in your dreams, and hallucinate them on old concrete walls long after you’ve left the show. So it’s fitting that "Fabliaux: Tom Marioni Fairy Tales" includes both a selection of Marioni’s printmaking work, published with various master printers at Crown Point Press, and a book of sardonic, remixed fables, with the prints as illustrations of the tales’ philosophies. From the ghostly aquatint Process Landscape (1998) to the bold, blood-like lines of A Door Must Be Either Open or Closed (2002), the exhibition summons noisy spirits and stands up to multiple listening sessions.

I suffer from an inability to experience art, especially "silent" or conceptual art, without hearing things, and Marioni, a keystone in the California Conceptual Art movement and a San Francisco resident since 1959, makes it outright impossible for me not to hear a soundtrack alongside his prints, whether New Order’s song "Your Silent Face" or the faint sound of a poet repeating herself in the Northern California fog. At the recent Martin Puryear exhibition, across the street from Crown Point at SFMOMA, Puryear’s painterly forms had a hypnotic effect, and the most striking of Marioni’s prints here — A Rose … (2008) and Flying with Friends (Drypoint) (2000) — ring out like a reversal, a dis-assemblage, of that exhibition’s solid circles of wood, which were described by the curators as "wall-mounted ring forms" and by Puryear as "occupying the same space as paintings yet lacking a center." A Rose … references Gertrude Stein’s unforgettable phrasing, and looking at Marioni’s grassy drypoints I hear Stein’s wry lilt, her words running round and round.

Or maybe I just hear things because of all the free beer. Marioni recently staged a comeback of his seminal project, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970-ongoing) at a time when, as friends remind me every time Kanye West starts whining on the radio, nobody’s popping champagne.

FABLIAUX: TOM MARIONI FAIRY TALES Through Feb. 21. Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Crown Point Press, 20 Hawthorne, SF. (415) 974-6273.

Shock and awe


› a&

After 15 years of a labor of printmaking love in what has become the artistic heart of SoMa, Aurobora Press has to be out of its home at 147 Natoma Street by the end of the month. When the landlord came forward with a tenant able to pay three times what the press was shelling out for the historic back-alley building, built in 1907 with bricks from the rubble of the earthquake, Aurobora — no stranger to our languishing economy — was forced to pack its bags. Standing before a radiantly colored Jay Davis monotype in the press’s small office, director Michael Liener said that he was trying to stay positive and accept that "change is good." But he was clearly in shock, sounding somewhat otherworldly in his soothsaying. "We’re still figuring out where we’re going to land — maybe in a space, maybe not."

In order to lessen its moving load, the press is currently selling framed work at unframed prices, though Aurobora Projects, the press’s showroom in Menlo Park, will continue to operate. Sadly, Aurobora’s coveted residencies, which allow artists who don’t normally work in the medium to come in and make monotypes — paintings on paper, created by inking a flat surface and then pressing it in an intaglio press — are up in the air. In the tradition of early 20th-century artistic crossovers such as French Catalan sculptor Aristide Maillol’s exquisite woodblock illustrations, the residencies have helped artists discover hidden resonance within their own symbolic systems. For example, working in monotype without preconceived notions, painter Angela Dufrense captured the essence of Ivan the Terrible. Local sculptor Stephen DeStaebler saw his signature angel wings and rock-forms expand on paper.

Caught between dimensions and subject to the idiosyncrasies of a big, heavy press, the monotype medium is an ongoing experiment in temporality. Thus Liener is familiar with the unexpected. He stressed that he doesn’t harbor hard feelings toward the landlord, who helped Aurobora get the space in the first place. Liener had been on a month-to-month lease, but that doesn’t make it any easier to leave a space that he created from the ground up. "The question now is, do I have the will, the stomach, the bank account, to do this all over again?" he says. "It’s kind of the end of an era. When we first moved here, we spent four months ripping this place apart, exposing the bare bones, shaping a beautiful gallery." During Aurobora’s time at 147 Natoma, Liener and friends pulled down six rooms, took out the "cheesy carpet," and exposed and patched the site’s original floorboards.

"We were here before the [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] opened, before the W [hotel], before all the development," Liener observes. "We were out here pioneering. This is just another example of what happens when an area becomes ‘discovered,’ ‘found,’ ‘populated’: the ‘pioneers’ can no longer afford their good work. I’m not unique. This happens everywhere in every city. When you create a really lovely space and you’re here for a period of time, it becomes a selling point for the next person to come in and kick you out." The tragedy is that it’s the quiet little places, the hidden spaces for meditation and contemplation, that always seem to disappear first. And what do we need most right now?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books


The first book I held close to my heart was Italian poet Antonio Porta’s 1987 Kisses from Another Dream, number 44 in the ongoing City Lights Pocket Poets Series. I bought it on a trip to the city from Santa Cruz when I was around 17, and I savored every line, whipping out the book at coffee shops and other high school hangouts, in attics late at night, at beach bonfires, and even for a speech at one friend’s funeral. It wasn’t just the eerily direct poems that turned me on, nor the delightful format (which has remained basically unchanged in the series aside from modernized cover designs), but a feeling of participation in a tradition that began with the first City Lights Publications book, founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World in 1955, and that has continued with wordsmiths and thinkers from Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski to Tom Hayden, Terry Wolverton, and San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman.

I am biased about City Lights, but isn’t that the mark of good publishers — to increase readers’ bias toward purveyors of quality writing and thought? To this end, City Lights has participated in a type of conscious branding of which Americans can be proud. The publisher and North Beach bookstore continues to be marked by fierce, heartfelt works that seem to emanate from their instantly recognizable Y-with-an-O-on-top logo of a human in a state of ecstasy, outrage, celebration, and/or soothsaying.

Having worked in numerous positions in the small press world, I continue to be annoyed by the oddly prevalent idea that putting out more books — including those of low quality which you think will sell — somehow guarantees success. Despite this type of bingeing, the information age has ushered in a new set of consumers whose interests, resources, and appetites run so wide that they crave guidance across the board. From the Slow Food movement to’s daily online roundups, people are willing to research and improve most areas of their lives. Publishers have long served this need, and under the guidance of the current executive director, Elaine Katzenberger, and others such as editor and Guardian contributor Garrett Caples, co-owner Nancy Peters, and Open Media Series acquiring editor Greg Ruggiero, City Lights is increasing the potential of real and literary democracy.

At a publishing-world dinner a little while back, Katzenberger impressed me with her eloquent dedication to publishing good writing without unreasonable marketing goals. Obviously City Lights wants its books to sell, but there’s no reason to expect Oprah’s Book Club-type numbers. Part of the reason the press is still in business is that it has taken risks on good but unknown writers, not on bad but marketable mishmash. In his introduction to 1995’s City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, Ferlinghetti writes: "The function of the independent press (besides being essentially dissident) is still to discover — to find the new voices and give voice to them — and then let the big publishers have at them." He goes on to remark that although City Lights initially tapped into the Beat scene, it has continued to respond to current circumstances: "From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic, and not publishing (that pitfall of the little press) just our ‘gang.’ I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment."

In a recent column for Slate, Emily Yoffe noted that taking offense — especially taking offense at taking offense — has become a "political leitmotif" during the seemingly endless election season. Any actual discussion disappears into the mist. City Lights’ political output, whether you agree with individual authors or not, has certainly worked against the reactionary bullshit and political fluff that plagues politics everywhere. It’s been good to see them bringing this cultural literacy to more art-related titles of late, including 2007’s All Over Coffee by Paul Madonna and this year’s Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun by Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen, a much-needed evaluation of Bilal’s controversial project.

One of the poems in that heart-close Porta volume is "You Continue to Ask What Silence Is." If poetry comes from silence, and politics from the space between dreams and reality, then City Lights knows what silence is, and this is why its authors scream so sweetly. A Lifetime Achievement award is as much a hymn to co-owner Ferlinghetti’s life and early organizational skills as to what City Lights has become. Though he has technically passed over the editorial reins, Ferlinghetti remains involved in the press and also, in terms of his own writing, intentionally uninvolved: he has kept New Directions, over on the other coast, as the publisher of his own writing, ensuring that in an age of celebrity and numbness, City Lights is anything but a vanity press.

Freeze! You’re … just browsing



While the bankers who took your money were grabbing even more of it last weekend, a different sort of highbrow crowd — those whose investment, whether financial or personal, rests mainly in art — weren’t quite sure what to do. At the Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regent’s Park, the theme was non-commitment. "It feels like the old days," gallerist Jack Hanley said on the second evening of the four-day international fair. "Instead of buying up everything in the first 15 minutes, everyone is taking their time." Hanley, whose eponymous gallery has branches in New York and San Francisco’s Mission District, represented the only Bay Area gallery at either Frieze or the Zoo Art Fair, an equally significant affair that took place nearby.

At Frieze, the shift from a seller’s to a buyer’s market wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gallerists were obviously nervous about waiting to see if all of the expressed interest would translate into sales in the post-fair follow-up. But with the power shifting back to the consumer, there were a lot more intriguing discussions. The resulting atmosphere was suggestive of a free music festivalwhere expectations are actually higher than they would be otherwise, since everyone is out for a damn good time, rather than just looking to get their money’s worth.

I had set out to see how collectors and other fair visitors perceived the Bay Area contemporary art on view, but it turned out that Frieze, a sight in its own right, had a different idea regarding how it should be covered. With sales slow and the mood contemplative, visitors were seemingly uninterested in where a particular artist hailed from and more concerned with smaller spectacles: illusions, dazzling techniques, and pieces that changed before their eyes.

A spectacle, art theorists will tell you, is a social relationship mediated by images. In other words, spectacles become a part of you and demand a certain sense of critique. At Frieze, in the wake of the incessant camera clicks following celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, George Michael, Kate Bosworth, and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (who apparently took to Nobuyoshi Araki’s latest photos of bound women), there was a noticeable return to direct experience. Numerous fair projects took advantage of this need for interaction, including Dan Graham’s dimension-shifting Rectangle Inside 3/4 Cylinder and Norma Jeane’s three glass cubes where smokers could experience isolation in the midst of the fair’s chaos (check out the online video at In the first two days of the fair, almost 400 smokers lit up in the booths.

Work by SF’s Colter Jacobsen and SFMOMA SECA Art Award prize-winners Tauba Auerbach and Leslie Shows, all represented by Hanley, drew a constant stream of visitors. Conversations with gallerists, art students, browsers, and collectors at Hanley’s booth revealed a fascination with technique, in particular Shows’ hypnotic use of collage to create unnerving landscapes. "There’s a whole universe in there," said one art student from London about Shows’ Cross-Bedded Texts (The Magnetic Dynamo). Two gallerists from Manchester paced back and forth in front of Shows’ Elise (White Bile), Rachel (Blood), Phoebe (Yellow Bile), engrossed in the triptych’s color combination. Shows had a black piece, too, but there was no room for it in Hanley’s crowded booth.

In focusing on living artists and global undertakings, the fair’s directors Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp (who also own Frieze magazine) deserve props for supporting a personal environment. At Hanley’s booth, Home Country by Londoner-turned-Berliner Simon Evans left visitors discussing their individual experiences of particular London neighborhoods. The piece, a black-and-white subway map with puns, personal statements, and anecdotes carefully placed at many of the tube stops, also left some visitors wondering "why he never went to certain places," which were left curiously blank.

Props also should go to whoever controls the weather, for Frieze was blessed with uncannily sunny days in a city known more for fog than for illumination. Following talks by Yoko Ono, Scottish writer/artist Alasdair Gray, music critic Simon Reynolds, and contemporary Renaissance man (most recently of Edible Estates fame) Fritz Haeg, the crowd was buzzing about what might come next — not necessarily about which lines would next be blurred between auction houses, dealers, curators and buyers, but about which flashy sculpture they would encounter in the garden. As happens every year at Frieze, the talks will be made available for free (at, so put away your checkbook, put on your earphones, and don’t forget to write.

Vacancy and claustrophobia


REVIEW Matthias Hoch’s disconcerting skill as a photographer is connected to a pair of paradoxes. His close-ups of the byproducts of "moderne" European cities and suburbs, from geometric ceilings to business parks, feel like panoramas. In his wider shots — of large concrete grids, or one otherwise "perfect" building’s sad slant — claustrophobia and a sense of vacancy commingle. The German artist’s new work on display at Rena Bransten Gallery focuses on Almere and Rotterdam, cities in the Netherlands that don’t have the touristy resonance of Amsterdam or the Hague.

I wonder what Carl Jung would have said about modernity’s strange architectural sprawl. Are we growing a new set of archetypes? Hoch’s latest photographs provide one answer: a sense that nothing has changed. Rotterdam #20 and #24 (both 2007) are like an overmanicured zen garden in a bad dream. The bent green lighting in Almere #11 (2007) recalls the tarot suit of Swords, representative of overthinking. If you stare long enough, the fluttering white shape on what looks like fake grass in Rotterdam #26 (2007) becomes the foot of a Buddhist statue, about to lift.

Almere #1, Almere #2 brings together two engrossing short videos. In the second, the thick black pipes of a parking structure are as lively as the worm-things in 1990’s Tremors. In the first, the shifting textures of light in reflective/refractive glass become a wide-sweeping eternal dawn. Like Hoch’s photographs, these videos are ultimately pictures of good-byes. When I left the show, I could hear one of my personal favorites — Lou Reed and John Cale’s melancholic adios to Andy Warhol, "Hello, It’s Me" — in my head. I couldn’t help thinking that Hoch’s timely pictures would have looked great in even bigger prints on the walls of the once silver, now defunct Factory.

MATTHIAS HOCH: NEW WORK Through Oct. 11. Tues.–Fri., 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Rena Bransten Gallery, 77 Geary St, SF. (415) 982-3292,



REVIEW When veteran Istanbulite Orhan Pamuk received the Nobel Prize in literature two years ago, the committee complimented his "quest for the melancholic soul of his native city." Melancholic? The world’s third largest city has one big, melancholic soul? I think Pamuk, of all people, would disagree. The 10th International Istanbul Biennial, which was curated by über-busy San Francisco Art Institute faculty member Hou Hanru in 2007, took a more caustic if not realistic theme: "Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War." The organizers of the "Orienting Istanbul" conference at Berkeley this week have produced a truly interdisciplinary (and free to the public) conference that cuts through the jargon and confronts big ideas head-on. Nonetheless, I’m glad they snuck in some actual art, including "Istanbul-Berkeley," Hanru’s selection of video works from the biennial.

Much of Hanru’s curatorial work has focused on urbanization and living, breathing cities. The chosen videos do not disappoint. They address spatiality in radically different ways. Sulukule, the oldest Roma neighborhood in Turkey, has recently been subject to changes alternately referred to as "urban renewal" and "forced gentrification." Wong Hoy-Cheong involved his subjects — Roma children — in the production of Darling Sulukule, Please Sulukule (2007), creating a hyperrealism caught between a flashback to childhood and a dream of the future. Emre Hüner’s textural Panopticon (2007) has a healthy tinge of mysticism, making it a good balance to the disorienting Boumont (2006), also by Hüner. Taking interpretation of urban life beyond Istanbul, Cities of Production (2006), by MAP Office (, the thrilling collaboration between architect-artists Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix, brings a startling sense of playfulness to factory life in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta.

ISTANBUL-BERKELEY Wed/24–Sun/28. Wurster Hall, first floor foyer, University of California Berkeley campus, Berk.

“Miju: Effigies and Demigods”


REVIEW Dear Miju, I know you aren’t a folk singer. You are an artistic collaboration between Bay Area artists (and couple) Michele Muennig and Juan Carlos Quintana. Using childhood imagery and a fittingly subdued palette, you deconstruct fantasy worlds on paper and canvas. Your solo show at Jack Fischer Gallery, "Effigies and Demagogues," is both outlandish and darkly comical: dolls catch fire and real people head to the edge of the abyss. Still, your art — how did you fit so many big paintings in such a small gallery? — reminds me irrevocably of folkie John Wesley Harding, né Wesley Stace, one of our most ironic songwriters.

You are an improved Harding — one who knows when to stop. Harding’s "The Night He Took Her to the Fairground" was murdered by studio musicians but sounds fantastic when he does it solo with a guitar: "He poisoned her with words / She tried to spit them out," he croons, and, as your paintings Shallow Cause for Optimism and Destiny for the 21st Century Manifested show at Jack Fischer, it’s hard to tell if people are trying to hurt each other or if they’re just caught up in the same bad dream. In Shallow Cause, your separate artistic touches combine seamlessly to evoke a marionette that has slackened forever. In Destiny, people exhaust themselves trying to haul the icons of a Manifest Destiny that never existed, while another character parts curtains only to reveal cliffs.

You must have read what I read: Mattimeo (Philomel, 1989), Through the Looking Glass, and Peter Pan. And you must have looked at the illustrations similarly: J.D. Bedford’s Tinker Bell was more frightening than his Captain Hook, for she seemed not to know how foolish she looked, twinkling about, headed for the open sea but dressed for the beach.

MIJU: EFFIGIES AND DEMAGOGUES Through Sept. 27. Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m., Jack Fischer Gallery, 49 Geary, suite 440, SF. (415) 956-1178,

“Summer Reading”


REVIEW I wish I were Jorge Luis Borges. The Argentine man of letters was top among those writers, such as Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood, and Ali Smith, whose nonfiction is even more potent, surreal, and addictive than their fiction. Borges once remarked on a translation of William Beckford’s Vathek: "The original is unfaithful to the translation." I’d say the same about "Summer Reading" at Hosfelt Gallery. Taking as their inspiration a range of literary classics, from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the 18 works on display at the group show manage to be more than just windows into each artist’s reading of a particular book. They provide a bird’s-eye view of internal floor plans, acting as translations from the literary into the visual, increasing ambiguity while lowering page count.

Su Blackwell’s four wall-mounted sculptures use actual books, their pages cut and molded into little trees of text and gallivanting characters, creating miniature worlds so fragile that they seem to have been frozen in time so they will not break. In Blackwell’s The Secret Garden — inspired by the book of the same name — a little girl is supported by tree branches from one angle, but from another appears to be reaching for them unsuccessfully, frightened and alone.

John O’Reilly’s collage, Dead Centaur — Of Cormac McCarthy, captures the dark textures of reality in McCarthy’s writing, and José Antonio Suarez Loñdono’s intimate notebook drawings, inspired by Kafka and Evan S. Connell, are like footnotes in the form of silhouettes. Amy Hicks’ videos, ReAdaptation: the book series (2007–08), use flip-books meticulously constructed by taping pictures onto book pages. One of the volumes is on display and looks like something a stalker would construct, but the videos are more melancholic than creepy.

SUMMER READING Through Sat/9. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Glenn Kurtz reading, Fri/8, 6 p.m. Hosfelt Gallery, 430 Clementina, SF. (415) 495-5454,



REVIEW Some early Bay Area figurative painting, wrote Peter Selz in 2002, encountered "the human figure by means of the physicality and the gestural performance of abstract expressionism." More explicit figures later emerged from this abstract cauldron. Ana Teresa Fernández, however, would rather start with the explicit body and work backward. Fernández, who grew up in Mexico, isn’t a figurative painter, performance artist, videographer, feminist, or Latina artist — although she assumes all of these roles from time to time. The best work at her 2008 Headlands Center for the Arts Tournesol Award exhibition, "Tela Araña Tela" (a mirroring of the Spanish for spider web), is so powerful, the movements in her work so difficult to look away from, that she acts as a detective, an intuitive investigator of the emotions embedded in human muscle tone and media complacence an exposer of the skin-tight, commonplace untruths of so-called manual labor.

By meticulously documenting stills from her own performance work — which uncovers, overstimulates, and ironically decapitates familiar images of femininity and the female worker — Fernández manages to blend forcefulness and stillness into her brand of revelation. The two large, untitled paintings depicting her body in muscular heels, beset — I don’t know how else to say it — by laundry on a clothesline, show no human face. The face has been smothered, disappearing into a wavering white sheet. The even larger painting shown here between those two, Untitled, a documentation of Jennifer Locke’s 2007 Artists’ Television Access performance in which she covered her body in glue, reveals a lattice or an amorphous web around Locke’s face, making it hard to tell if it’s the skin or the glue that’s melting. The works on paper displayed here — also performance documentations — lack the forcefulness of the paintings. But don’t miss the video installation, where balloons are popped like they’ve never been popped before.

TELA ARAÑA TELA Through Aug. 9. Wed.–Sat., noon–5 p.m., and by appointment. Luggage Store Gallery, 1007 Market, SF. (415) 255-5971,

Book ’em


› a&

Michael Swaine is contagious. Whether investigating Reap What You Sew/Sewing for the People (2001, ongoing) in the streets of the Tenderloin, using braille to make a Plea for Tenderness (2007) at the Southern Exposure Gallery, or joining forces with Futurefarmers and the interdisciplinary design studio’s founder, Amy Franceschini, with whom Swaine began collaborating in 1998, the San Francisco artist brings a driven curiosity and sense of aesthetic detail to every project he touches. If you experience his work, you can’t help but get involved. He has been dubbed Futurefarmers’ "analog anchor," and his involvement in "BAN 5"’s Ground Scores: Guided Tours of San Francisco Past and Personal, guest-curated by Valerie Imus, is an ideal real-world interactive piece in a city of book lovers.

Swaine hopes his walking tours of individual home libraries, How to Organize a Public Library, elicit new audiences for art. He wants to reach "outsiders who don’t go to museums, who perhaps don’t want to go to museums," he said recently on the phone from his SF studio. "Maybe they just happen to love books." Everyone on the tour will be an "active participant," he said. To sign up, people will fill out a survey and must agree to include their own home library on the tour — if it fits the grid of walkable homes that weekend.

The artist is no stranger to walking tours. When he first moved to the Bay Area, he worked at the Exploratorium and fell in love with Bob Miller’s "light walks." These inspired Swaine’s now-legendary "weed walks" that he co-leads with botanist Archie Wessells, and first developed in the Exploratorium parking lot. For his 30th birthday, Swaine organized a 17-hour walk around San Francisco, meeting a different friend each hour and "connecting the dots."

I could connect with Swaine’s vision: my father, an architect in Santa Cruz, has long dreamed of building a library structurally based on the Iliad. What this means, exactly, neither of us knows, but talking about it has been a great bonding ritual for years. Maybe I can convince my dad to come up to the city and turn my sporadically gathered collection of 1970s poetry books and photography monographs into a Homeric fort. If I can, you are all invited to come by with plastic spears and knock it down. Then, with Swaine’s guidance, we might begin to farm the future, collaborating with the books at our feet.

HOW TO ORGANIZE A PUBLIC LIBRARY Walking tours Aug. 23 and 30 (also Sept. 20 and 27), noon–4 p.m. Locations to be announced. For reservations, call (415) 978-2710, ext. 136, or go to

Flight or write


› a&

"The moment one learns English, complications set in," wrote Spanish ex-pat Felipe Alfau, in English, beginning his 1948 novel Chromos (first published in 1990). Learning English, he wrote, "far from increasing [one’s] understanding of life, if this were possible, only renders it hopelessly muddled and obscure." While this might be true of learning any new language — one starts to see how words simply refer to other words — we might say the same about literature. Are those of us who look to books for salvation making the simple needlessly complex? Orhan Pamuk claims that writing novels is just an "excuse to wrap myself up in new personas." Gregory Corso wrote of our relationship to books: "I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk / pour secrecy upon the dying page." Though not especially positive, both descriptions are sensual and alluring.

Katherine Silver’s thrilling translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (New Directions, 142 pages, $15.95), the first English appearance of any of the Salvadoran exile’s eight novels, brings out the physical effects of a different type of reading: the translation of human tragedy into words, and then back into life. It begins with the incantatory phrase, "I am not complete in the mind." The sentence comes from a report of transcribed Indian testimonies of survivors of a massacre in an unnamed country that resembles Guatemala. The alcoholic, sardonic, surprisingly compassionate narrator is editing this report as a freelance gig for the Catholic Church.

On the phone from her home in Berkeley, Silver admitted that when an editor first showed her 2004’s Insentatez (Tusquets Editores) at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, she was put off by the subject matter: "I looked at it very quickly and said, I don’t like violence. Then I read it on the airplane and said, ‘I want to do this.’ It’s not really about violence. It’s all ultimately about the intimacy of language and writing."

Despite being plagued by increasingly violent fantasies ("For I am not a total stranger to magical realism," the narrator says to explain a particularly brutal one in which a brain is split in half), he is finally brought back to earth not by the truths of the report but by a paranoid (and in the end, realistic) attention to the relationship of the report to the outside world. One sexual fantasy’s effect is simply to "stabilize" his mood. Later, overwhelmed with isolation, he goes outside to "howl like a sick animal under the star-studded sky." After this release, he is able to see the real danger approaching in the shadows.

Senselessness builds so seamlessly to an arresting finale that you will immediately read it again, attentive to how the language of the report infests the narrator’s language. Silver was lucky, she said, to be working with such a "careful" writer. "A translator is a very close reader," she said. "It’s kind of like looking at a book through a magnifying glass. But I never had to second-guess him. He wears well." As a result, the moment one starts reading Senselessness, complications set in — complications we cannot live without.

“Punball: Only One Earth”


"Punball: Only One Earth"

PREVIEW From large-scale printmaking to the small masking-tape sculpture Pillow Talk (2002), William T. Wiley’s anti-genre-fication catalog reaches a grinning pinnacle in the 65 works from the past eight years on display at the "Punball: Only One Earth" exhibit at Electric Works. Wiley’s piece, Punball: Only One Earth (2007) is a completely remade (and playable) version of Gottlieb’s 1964 "North Star" pinball game, which celebrated the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus‘ North Pole undersea crossing. With saturated colors, globes drunk on their own worldliness, and puns on our heated global situation, Wiley’s game is an ironic distillation of his acutely history-conscious world. It’s as if a marketing agent had bought the rights to his signature characters and symbols — Mr. Unnatural, wick-like ampersands, angelic hourglasses — and produced a Wiley-model game that the artist then carefully sabotaged late at night while sporting one of his own dunce-cap sculptures, just before its release.

The game is the product of more than a year’s collaboration: the original machine came from Electric Works supporter Joe Sweeney. "In my age bracket, pinball machines were everywhere," Wiley said by phone from his west Marin residence. "You were often eating hamburgers to the sound of ding, ding<0x2009>!" Working on this project, he found "a whole culture of pinball people…. It’s an actual folk art form: insider, outsider. It touches lots of different things."

When I ask about what the younger generation, with our poor grasp of history, might be missing in Wiley’s work, he laughs and brings the discussion back to the importance of using "humor and absurdity" to critique the present. For Wiley, humor has an element of chance. He found the school desk for the sculpture and print Deskerado/Child’s Play Print (2007) during a walk to the post office. A random crack in the wood became a red, white, and blue equatorial line on the white-on-black print. "No Child Left A-head," the print declares, mourning, above all else, our loss of imagination.

PUNBALL: ONLY ONE EARTH Through July 28. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; Sat., 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Electric Works, 130 Eighth St., SF. Free. (415) 626-5496,

Power everywhere and nowhere


REVIEW Arguably the strangest image in the news this year was an Associated Press-circulated pic of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wearing the type of 3-D glasses you’d find packaged with a comic book, examining a map at Tehran’s space center in a state of deep concentration. If you consumed solely mainstream news, you might think Iran consists only of a handful of gruff older men who have lost touch with reality.

"After the Revolution" — a remarkably energetic and intimate photography show at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery on City Hall’s ground floor — brings more subtle realities to light. The young artists — Californians Amir H. Fallah, Shadi Yousefian, Elhum Amjadi, Naciem Nikkhah, and Parisa Taghizadeh, and Tehranians Mahboube Karamli, Parham Taghioff, Morteza Khaki, Meysam Mahfouz, and Mehraneh Atashi — were all born around the time of the Iranian Revolution. They present narrative projects with an eye for individuality, whether in Yousefian’s collaged Self-Portraits (2003) or Khaki’s Purse Snatching (2006), an evocative collection of specimenlike images of people’s wallets.

The exhibit leaves you feeling that power is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. In Atashi’s Bodiless 1 (2004), which presents some of her remarkable photos from inside a Zourkaneh or "power house" — a sort of spiritual workout center for Iranian men — Atashi pops up in hijab, with her camera, in mirrors, while bare-chested men leap and flex their way into another world. Taghizadeh brings a mysterious cinematic quality to Iranian women in the act of applying makeup in Make-Up Iran (2001), while Fallah’s Fort Series (2007) constructs physical versions of his male friends’ inner lives. It’s disconcerting to have to pass through security at City Hall to see this show, but if anyone needs to see these pictures right now, it’s the inhuman bureaucrat in all of us.

AFTER THE REVOLUTION: CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY FROM TEHRAN AND CALIFORNIA Through June 27. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Brown-bag lunch discussion on Thurs/22, noon, at 401 Van Ness. San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, SF. Free. (415) 554-6080,

“Broken Promised Land”


REVIEW "Broken Promised Land" is a distracting title for Israeli photographer Shai Kremer’s exhibit at the Robert Koch Gallery. Though broken dreams and bombed-out promises are certainly present in the 11 color photographs on display from Kremer’s seven-year project shooting Israel’s militarily disfigured landscapes, it’s ultimately the subtlety of his work that defines its wide-ranging resonance.

Kremer also has shown works from this series at New York City’s Julie Saul Gallery. They grabbed the title "Infected Landscape," part of the name of Kremer’s forthcoming monograph from Dewi Lewis Publishing, advance copies of which are available for perusing at Robert Koch. That name is fine but "Broken Promised Land" might have been more potently called "Earth" — or in Hebrew, "Eretz." Kremer’s exquisitely lit land of riddled targets, separation walls, and military training centers with their sad, flimsy, make-believe villages appears simultaneously abandoned by humanity and swarming with energy, spiritless and ghostly. The edges of the landscapes feel as if they’re about to swallow up entire scenes and spit them out, dispensing with the human elements. Burned Olive Trees and Katyusha Crater, Lebanon War (2006) combines the beauty and timelessness of a Mediterranean hillside village with a scar in the landscape so severe that every glance reveals something different in the foreground: a controlled burn; a clean photograph of an olive grove, mounted on a dirty one; or the destruction wrought by a rocket. Shooting Defense Wall, Gilo Neighborhood, Jerusalem, Israel (2004) displays a wall strangely painted to blend in with the street and landscape.

Kremer, born in 1974, shares a broad affinity with younger Middle Eastern artists such as Oraib Toukan, whose interest in cultural memory is returning significant results. "My goal is to reveal how every piece of land has become infected with loaded sediments of the ongoing conflict," Kremer has stated about the series. Unfortunately, he’s immensely successful.

BROKEN PROMISED LAND Through May 31. Tues.–Sat., 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary, fifth floor, SF. (415) 421-0122,

“Fox in the Mirror”


REVIEW When artists speak of found objects, they sometimes mean found — in a marketing plan. But Liliana Porter is different. The Argentine artist is the real thing, hopelessly devoted to convincing us that something is missing, not from her impeccable arrangements of miniatures and figurines — or the potent, often-hilarious feelings they invoke — but from our too serious attitudes toward the private parts of our lives.

Porter’s 2007 video Fox in the Mirror, presented in a show of the same name at the Hosfelt Gallery, reveals the artist to be a sculptural Gertrude Stein. Stein gave language body — undressed it, laughed at it, cried for it, and cuddled it. Porter does the same with Fox, manipuutf8g small, signature objects to Sylvia Meyer’s arresting musical score, which varies from lush tangos to symphonic yet anticlimactic movie-trailer music. "Oriental" pentatonic melodies are thrown in ironically to match Porter’s musical and military Chinese figurines.

The video begins with a series of vignettes more powerful than the following narrative sequence, which is eerily conducted by a well-dressed fox. They sparkle with sex and sadness as a white candle resembling a man and woman dancing in formal wear spins into tears, a bright yellow chick encounters an emotional storm, and a duo of Mao wristwatches move one tick forward and a lifetime of ticks back to Meyer’s electro remix of a song from The Sound of Music (1965). Sketches named after types of punctuation stimulate feelings of expectation as a turbaned musician seems about to swallow a bird alive. Javier Marias wrote that the present is a curse because "it allows us to see and appreciate almost nothing." He has a point, but the beauty of the statement outweighs the sadness of its meaning. The same could be said about Porter’s transcendent art.

LILIANA PORTER: FOX IN THE MIRROR Through May 3. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Hosfelt Gallery, 430 Clementina, SF. Free. (415) 495-5454,

Found objects


REVIEW When artists speak of found objects, they sometimes mean found — in a marketing plan. But Liliana Porter is different. The Argentine artist is the real thing, hopelessly devoted to convincing us that something is missing, not from her impeccable arrangements of miniatures and figurines — or the potent, often-hilarious feelings they invoke — but from our too serious attitudes toward the private parts of our lives.

Porter’s 2007 video Fox in the Mirror, presented in a show of the same name at the Hosfelt Gallery, reveals the artist to be a sculptural Gertrude Stein. Stein gave language body — undressed it, laughed at it, cried for it, and cuddled it. Porter does the same with Fox, manipuutf8g small, signature objects to Sylvia Meyer’s arresting musical score, which varies from lush tangos to symphonic yet anticlimactic movie-trailer music. "Oriental" pentatonic melodies are thrown in ironically to match Porter’s musical and military Chinese figurines.

The video begins with a series of vignettes more powerful than the following narrative sequence, which is eerily conducted by a well-dressed fox. They sparkle with sex and sadness as a white candle resembling a man and woman dancing in formal wear spins into tears, a bright yellow chick encounters an emotional storm, and a duo of Mao wristwatches move one tick forward and a lifetime of ticks back to Meyer’s electro remix of a song from The Sound of Music (1965). Sketches named after types of punctuation stimulate feelings of expectation as a turbaned musician seems about to swallow a bird alive. Javier Marias wrote that the present is a curse because "it allows us to see and appreciate almost nothing." He has a point, but the beauty of the statement outweighs the sadness of its meaning. The same could be said about Porter’s transcendent art.

LILIANA PORTER: FOX IN THE MIRROR Through May 3. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Hosfelt Gallery, 430 Clementina, SF. Free. (415) 495-5454,