Ava Jancar

“Bernd & Hilla Becher: A Survey – 1972-2006”


REVIEW The problem, or perhaps the benefit, of a survey of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher in an environment like the Fraenkel Gallery is the institutional quality the space projects onto the work. Although a sense of sterility is key to the Bechers’ photography, and while it can be contended that the 49 Geary Street site only accentuates the Bechers’ attempt at objectivity, such a setting also brings the success of the work in the marketplace to the fore, rather than providing a hermetic environment in which to operate.

This conundrum is interesting in light of the deadpan documentation of the water towers, grain elevators and blast furnaces that are the subject of the Bechers’ black-and-white photographs and, seemingly, the Fraenkel show. Arranged in grids for side-by-side comparison, each industrial structure is consistently the same size within its frame. As a result, there is a sense of impartiality, which prompts a discourse between the documented structures and, more broadly, between each photograph. The Bechers’ appear to be simultaneously operating within a system and outside a system. They implement something akin to a turn-of-the-century scientific classificatory technique in which the camera is used to document a subject’s unique features, but they also aestheticize the subject.

Bit the neutral stance of the Bechers’ photographs eschews Blossfeldt-like modeling. Instead, it appears to take cues from the Bauhausian model — one in which the built environment was celebrated, along with the camera, as archetypically modern. Yet while both styles of photography might be influences (perhaps especially so because of the couple’s respective academic training), the Bechers’ photography consistently removes clear reference points. Because of this, the stance of the gallery in which the work is exhibited becomes more apparent. Despite its prime examples from — and comprehensive look at — the German couple’s work, this survey situates their photography within a historical context rather than accentuating its conceptual relevance.

BERND & HILLA BECHER: A SURVEY — 1972-2006 Through Fri/3. Tues–Fri, 10:30–5:30 a.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary, SF. (415) 981-2661. www.fraenkelgallery.com

No mere ornament


REVIEW In Mary and Russel Wright’s Guide to Easier Living, first published in 1950, the designers instruct the midcentury housewife to avoid the "deeply carved wooden chair" in favor of a "contour design" to "simplify cleaning." This form-follows-function approach to design reached its height in the mass market in 1950s and ’60s, most notably with the introduction of the stacking, molded fiberglass chairs of Charles and Ray Eames — which can still found, en masse, in libraries throughout the University of California system.

Initially fueled at the beginning of the 20th century by the creative force of the Bauhaus movement, the reaction against ornamentation was iterated not only in the home but also in painting and music. A traveling survey, "Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury," now on view at the Oakland Museum, presents a cross-section of modernism as explored by West Coast — and specifically Los Angeles — artists and designers. The exhibition takes a social and domestic stance, interspersing living room–like sets with didactic timelines, framing Vernor Panton’s iconic "S" chair with the introduction of Barbie and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. While this presentation nicely emphasizes the consumer context of much of the midcentury design, the pristine examples of hard-edge paintings do not benefit as much from this framework.

Characterized by well-defined abstract and geometric forms, the paintings by Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Karl Benjamin, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin, among others, instead situate themselves through their own clear, clean lines. Much the same way the subtle variations in Mondrian’s surfaces define his work, the intricacies of these paintings reinforce the mentality of their era — a philosophical idealization of the California landscape and climate. They vibrate an optimism in direct opposition to the frustration found in abstract expressionism on the opposite coast.

BIRTH OF COOL: CALIFORNIA ART, DESIGN, AND CULTURE AT MIDCENTURY Through Aug. 17. Wed.–Sat., 10 a.m–5 p.m. (first Fri., 10 a.m.–9 p.m.); Sun., noon–5 p.m. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak, Oakl. $8, $5 seniors and students (free second Sun.). (510) 238-2200, www.museumca.org

“Held Rectangles”


REVIEW In Lawrence Weiner’s 1968 piece, A 36" X 36" REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALL-BOARD FROM A WALL, the title functions as a set of instructions for a physical action that must be performed to complete the work. Like a number of Weiner’s other pieces in the same vein, the result varies based on where the piece is installed and/or executed, making for a work of art that is difficult to re-create identically. For these reasons, Weiner’s art seems to defy substantive definition. Since the artist does not seem to favor a specific environment in which to create the work, the piece becomes transient and ephemeral unless permanently installed — and even in this case, it co-exists simultaneously with other iterations elsewhere.

While the piece by Weiner currently on view in the small exhibit "Held Rectangles" at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum does not include a physically executed element, aside from the typographical installation of the words A RECTANGULAR REMOVAL FROM A XEROXED GRAPH SHEET IN PROPORTION TO THE OVERALL DIMENSIONS OF THE SHEET (1977), the construction of a geometric form is implied. Not only does the Weiner text allude to an act, it is based on a subjective set of parameters that, like A 36" x 36" REMOVAL, resist redundancy. In spite of his succinct instructions and regularized typeface, the phrase describes an abstract shape that is never defined but rather assumed.

By contrast, John C. Fernie’s Held Rectangles Series (c. 1970) begins with a physical object, recognized as a frame, examined through its 360-degree rotation and documented in a series of eight photographic screen prints. Unlike Weiner’s open instructions for a shape, Held Rectangles Series is defined, though the content it frames is not. In this case, the frame, like the shape in Weiner’s piece, becomes a study of a cultural signifier, its historical implications disturbed by its placement within the context of conceptual art.

HELD RECTANGLES Through Aug. 3. Wed.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft, Berk. $4–$8 (free first Thurs.). (510) 642-0808, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

“Form +”


REVIEW With the evolution of the gallery into a white, blank space, the artwork displayed within its walls has metamorphosed as well. The first-floor exhibit at the Meridian Gallery, "Form +," — curated along with two adjacent shows, "Franck André Jamme: New Exercises" and "Dhyana" by California College of the Arts dean Larry Rinder — call into play both of these factors.

In its very nature, the three-story Victorian that houses Meridian already opposes the clean lines most contemporary art galleries aspire to. Instead, one enters to a bare first floor, ripe with references to its early 20th-century past. A fireplace nook, a step down from the level of the rest of the floor, houses an installation — penned directly on the walls — of tiny paintings in graphite and gouache by Léonie Guyer. Her clean forms are abstract — as are all of the works included in the three shows — and filled with solid colors. Within this busy context, Guyer’s pieces help to establish the crux of "Form +." Guyer’s clean forms are abstract, as is all the work included in these shows; filled with solid colors; and within this rather busy context, help to establish the crux of "Form +." Aiming to address the meditative qualities of form, this exhibition posits formalism as not merely about the materials but a very specific cerebral process. Guyer rejects the necessity for a space devoid of context in favor of a site-specificity that almost obliterates her pieces yet maintains the viewer’s consideration.

"Form +"’s remaining works, exhibited in less quirky settings, are slightly more insular. In spite of the self-referential qualities of the pieces on paper by Todd Bura or Prajakti Jayavant, who both account for every line or crease in their compositions, there is an overarching sense of history: the immediate history of the artist’s hand and that of the artists’ awareness of their place within the broader timeline of art history. As a result, the throwback atmosphere of Meridian’s space both complements and highlights the beautiful subtleties of these works by a somewhat underrepresented contingent of contemporary Bay Area artists.

FORM + Through May 3. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m., free. Meridian Gallery, 535 Powell, SF. (415) 398-7229, www.meridiangallery.org

The Bewitching Mary Blair Project


REVIEW Beginning in 1940 and continuing through the ’60s, Mary Blair was a key contributor to the Disney aesthetic. As one of Walt Disney’s right hands, she was responsible for the design of both the It’s a Small World and Alice in Wonderland rides at Disneyland, as well as numerous large-scale tile murals that adorned the exteriors of Tomorrowland and still grace the lobby of the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort in Florida. Not only is her work part of the Disney canon but she also created illustrations for the classic children’s Little Golden Books. Illustrative artifacts of Blair’s life and concept art for her now-legendary amusement park architecture are all part of "The Art and Flair of Mary Blair."

The Cartoon Art Museum exhibit includes a representative sample of Blair’s illustrative range. From the announcement of the birth of her son to a cigarette advertisement, her distinct sense of color and design inevitably indicate the era in which they were produced. And in its innocent nostalgia — most clearly displayed in the stylized gouache sketches made during her South American travels — Blair’s work simultaneously projects an idealistic view of the future.

In her plan for the exterior of It’s a Small World, she combines squares, triangles, and diamonds with overlapping fields of color to shape a complex geometric composition. The patchwork quality of the surface closely resembles the fabric designs of one of Blair’s modernist contemporaries, Ray Eames, who also recognized the intricacies and the simplicity of both natural and built environments. Composed of the world’s most recognized landmarks, Blair’s condensed multi-cityscape is less representative than it is abstract: its Eiffel Tower resembles a geodesic slice.


Through March 18

Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

Cartoon Art Museum

655 Mission, SF


(415) 227-8666, www.cartoonart.org

“Pablo Guardiola”


REVIEW Although, on entering Little Tree Gallery, it seems that Pablo Guardiola’s show consists of only seven photographs, that small collection forms the crux of a multidimensional presentation. The images have slight subjects and document the finite and the ephemeral. In Much More Than a Brand of Crackers, a Beer, a Malt Beverage and a Legendary Taino Leader (2007), a bottle cap is captured after being flung onto an asphalt surface. It isn’t until later, when one has progressed through the slightly wavering line of neighboring photos, that the bottle cap from that photograph reappears, wedged against a power outlet in the corner of the gallery. The cap from a Malta Hatuey, as referenced in the title, bears multiple meanings, alluding not only to one of the first indigenous national heroes of Cuba but also to the yeasty, fizzy drink from that country. Similarly, in Untitled (2007), Guardiola makes the two-dimensional 3-D: the postcard used to announce the exhibit is presented tacked to a coordinating blue lath surface.

These types of dualities continue throughout the show, both in the process of the artist’s production — captured in his photographs — and in his seemingly chance yet obviously staged and sculptural documentations. In one image, a sign reading Estetica refers in Spanish to beauticians while also making an indirect allusion to the theory of aesthetics. Another photo shows what appears to be a simple grease stain on a paper bag. With closer inspection, it resembles the silhouette of a world map.

The simplicity of form and composition — and the equally plain presentation — proves deceptive yet captivating. As hinted at by the title of the single sculptural piece in the exhibit displayed without a related photograph, Some Ideas Should Be Kept Warm (2007), Guardiola’s work reveals an immediate, minimal beauty even as the subtle complexity of each photograph leads to further rumination.

PABLO GUARDIOLA Through Feb. 16. Wed.–Sat., noon–6 p.m.; and by appointment. Little Tree Gallery, 3412 22nd St., SF. (415) 643-4929, www.littletreegallery.com



REVIEW In the grand scheme of things, the mission of Hamburger Eyes is an admirable one: to perpetuate the life of film-based photography, its processing, and its printing. By offering both color and black-and-white labs at their newish Photo Epicenter, they have created an outpost that caters to specific photographic practices while maintaining a distance from the rising popularity of digital technologies.

In "Android," the current exhibit in the Epicenter’s intimate entryway gallery, the photographs of Hamburger Eyes magazine editor Ray Potes pay direct homage to the history of his medium and the beauty of the high-contrast black-and-white image. Regardless of subject, his prints are consistently striking in their formal qualities. The subjects, however, compete with the technical elements of the photographs.

Potes’s photos are less about capturing and producing an image with a pleasing combination of blacks and whites than about capturing a lifestyle — or at least a snippet of one. The 100 11-by-14-inch photographs on display, all framed but hung so close together that they take on a muralistic quality, present an extensively documented world but maintain a highly edited point of view. Although the imagery hints at a photojournalistic eye, documenting the decay and inhumanity of city life, the main focus is on a youth or street culture à la Vice magazine.

In this sense, photographs of so-called crackheads and human excrement on sidewalks appear to arise from a pubescent interest in the extreme for its own sake. The arrangement of human destitution in such close proximity to images of pretty girls and topless women illustrates the artist’s range, yet the simultaneity of optimism and pessimism, created by juxtaposing such polar aspects of urban life, also seems to accentuate the growing divide in classes and a sense that the poor and drug addicted have become mere curiosities for the affluent. The photographs would have benefited from a more thoughtful installation that resolved, or simply addressed, the social issues they perhaps inadvertently conjure.

ANDROID Through Dec. 7. Hamburger Eyes Photo Epicenter, 26 Lilac, SF. (415) 550-0701, www.hamburgereyes.com

“Rembrandt to Thiebaud: A Decade of Collecting Works on Paper”


REVIEW Dada artist Kurt Schwitters maintained that formal elements were second only to an art object’s ability to remain in flux — in spite of the static qualities inherent in his own work. No completed artwork could ever be fully finished but rather was kept open for future reinvention. In the current exhibition at the Legion of Honor, "Rembrandt to Thiebaud: A Decade of Collecting Works on Paper," which includes an approximately 5-by-7-inch collage by Schwitters, this constant plasticity of the art object seems to have come to the fore. Not only has the reception of such a variety of works — ranging from Michelangelo to John Baldessari, James Whistler to Richard Misrach — changed drastically since the inception of the art market, around the time of Rembrandt, but what might be considered an artwork and how its production affects this consideration has morphed as well.

The exhibition opens with a few 15th-century engravings by Albrecht Dürer, introducing us to hundreds of pieces from the largest collection of works on paper in the western United States via the golden ratio. This ideal is slowly dismantled throughout the course of the exhibit as it moves toward the contemporary, exemplified along the way by Yves Klein’s postage stamp, painted in his signature International Klein Blue. Matted and framed, this initially functional object has been elevated to the status of original artwork, which at this moment is perhaps more original than the Dürer multiple. Similarly, Edward Kienholz’s 1969 work For $146.00 was initially a direct illustration of the cost of the piece and has come to illustrate what the work is not worth today. Without making any physical changes, the transformative nature of the collection has led to an intrinsic modification of the artworks contained therein. (Ava Jancar)

"REMBRANDT TO THIEBAUD: A DECADE OF COLLECTING WORKS ON PAPER" Through Oct 7. Tues.–Sun., 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, near 34th Ave and Clement, SF. $5–$8, free for 10 and under (free for all Tues.). (415) 863-3330, www.thinker.org/legion