Glen Helfand

Fits and housing starts


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REVIEW There’s a new multistory condo complex rising on a sliver of SoMa between the freeway and the Caltrain tracks. It’s on one of those heretofore undesirable plots that stood vacant for decades, holding their own as a weedy buffer zone between transportation and industry. I wonder if the contractors are using a new high-tech glass that, in the space of a faux bay window, will neutralize the din of traffic. Who’d want to live there?
San Francisco is an urban area, don’t you know. But the way space here is quickly filling in with homes is reflective of a broader condition of (until recently) a healthy real estate market and the resulting sprawl. It’s something I experience when visiting family in unapologetically suburban Southern California. Just outside my old neighborhood, with streets named to invoke the American Revolution — Freedom Drive, Liberty Bell Road — were oak-shaded dry creek beds where I headed for adolescent escapes. Those once-wooded areas have been shaped into fields of roomy new houses in an unspecific Mediterranean stucco style. The arteries there are named after trees — Spruce Drive, Cedar Lane — that I don’t recall being indigenous. Is it progress or loss?
California denizens cannot avoid the quandaries of safe, “affordable” homes and the problematic environmental effects of building auto-centric communities far from any sort of civic center. The state then makes a fitting geographical framing device for a small but notable exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. “Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl” brings together a couple dozen artists who picture a half century of development in photographs, painting, video, and sculpture, revealing the allure and shortcomings of suburbia.
While compact and high density rather than sprawling and homogenous, “Suburban Escape” manages to address numerous social and cultural concerns, the first of which is the literal, almost sculptural creation of suburbs. At the start curator Ann Wolfe shows us distant views of cookie-cutter homes. The first piece is William Garnett’s grid of six black-and-white aerial photographs documenting the 1950 construction of the Lakewood, a Southern California community that from above looks like fields of housing starts that sprouted into a grid of cubelike buildings. They’re a perfect complement to Robert Isaacs’s 1968 photograph Ticky Tacky Houses in Daly City, an equally geometric composition that inspires waves of comfort and revulsion. The uniformity looks appealingly orderly from a distance, but the idea of living in houses so similar and close together is another concern altogether, something fraught with unsustainable foundations, not to mention nosy neighbors.
Suburbia is rife with ambivalent vibes, and they are noted throughout the show. Bill Owens’s photo of a Fourth of July block party expresses a cul-de-sac comfort zone and clean, new neighborliness. And yet, the picture also conveys the psychic isolation of spacious lots. Just one photo from Owens’s 1970s-era Suburbia series isn’t enough to convey his vision, although this picture speaks volumes.
Mimicking the physical structure of housing tracts, a number of the artists work in series. Freshly Painted Houses, a grid of small 1991 color photos by Jeff Brouws, shows the Daly City neighborhood where the artist grew up during the 1960s. The cheerful exterior schemes reflect the influx of Asian American immigrants who, the artist states in the exhibition catalog (which includes an expanded, more convincing range of works than the museum presentation), painted their houses in more vibrant colors than did most of “middle class mainstream America.” The piece adds a welcome layer of social context to architecturally insignificant structures.
John Divola’s provocative series Los Angeles International Airport Noise Abatement Zone, House Removal Grid, Present (1975, 2005) is one of those frighteningly irresistible before-and-after projects. It shows a collection of doomed dwellings that were in the sonic path of LAX and the empty lots after the buildings were razed. Shot in a relatively short time span in the 1970s and printed only recently, the pairings suggest the aftermath of a smart bomb that vaporizes only stucco-faced structures. All that remains are a flat landscape, stoic palm and cypress trees, and the occasional pathway to a nonexistent front door. Next to these, Free House (2003), an acrylic work by Deborah Oropallo, addresses the surprising disposability of suburban buildings with images of boarded-up toy houses — literal model homes — inspired by Berkeley structures that were worth less than the land they were erected on.
That same cheap, serial construction of houses is noted in Mark Campbell’s sculpture Maximum Density (2000), a low platform covered with hundreds of tiny honey-hued rubber homes. At once seemingly organically formed and a highly constructed board game, Campbell’s project is difficult not to touch yet equally difficult to reconcile. Similarly, Destroyed Houses (1999–2004), a series of 30 collage paintings by Jeff Gillette, is a gleeful deconstruction of real estate advertisements set against bucolic landscapes. Like a willful child pulling wings off flies, the artist here has devious fun destroying unaffordable homes — and the pervasive dream of owning one.SFBG
Through March 4, 2007
San Jose Museum of Art
110 S. Market, San Jose
Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
(408) 294-2787

Goldies Visual Art winner Tim Sullivan


In his most recent San Francisco exhibition, at the cozy Little Tree Gallery in the Mission, Tim Sullivan managed to reanimate the late blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield. Mind you, he did it with a low-tech visual effect — a full-color glossy of the actress attached to a flat-screen monitor, a shifting blue sky visible through little almond-shaped slits in the eyes of the photograph. But the mixture of sublime pop (the elaborate media construct of Mansfield) with an almost metaphysical art reference is a key movement in Sullivan’s appealing photography, video, and sculpture. His work is an enticing combination of funky but effective tricks, sophisticated references, and an appreciation of comedic white-trash aesthetics.
Sullivan’s work often contains gracious nods to other artists. He’s made a hilariously perverse video-sculpture homage to Bruce Nauman’s mid-1960s Self-Portrait as a Fountain and devoted an entire exhibition at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery to the influential Dutch-born conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who toyed with a sad-sack persona and disappeared mysteriously while attempting to cross the Atlantic alone in a 13-foot boat. Sullivan, a striking figure with pale blond hair and dark horn-rim glasses, often appears in his own work, using self-portraiture to tangentially channel his artistic forebears. While there may be something postmodern about this strategy, you don’t have to know about contemporary art history to be captivated by his visual magic. For instance, you need only know about the 1960s-style power of Herb Alpert to appreciate Sullivan’s remake of the classic Whipped Cream and Other Delights album cover. Sullivan plays the babe, slathered in foam.
He’s also made a life-size horizontal photograph of himself seemingly levitating just above the floor against a backdrop of fabulously chintzy flecked wallpaper. It’s in lush color — the artist wears a crimson T-shirt, a color he favors, perhaps for its theatricality. The image appears at a key spot in an opening gallery in the California Biennial, a timely survey of 31 West Coast artists organized by the Orange County Museum of Art (through Dec. 31), and it’s had the effect of giving Sullivan, a San Francisco Art Institute grad, wider recognition — he reports that he sold out an edition of the photograph, and he doesn’t even have gallery representation. He was singled out in the Los Angeles Times’ review of the show, which dubbed him a purveyor of high-spirited “do-it-yourself special effects art.”
The OC show also includes a hilarious video called Magic Carpet Ride, a piece made at a Fisherman’s Wharf souvenir stand. In it Sullivan and his former teacher, the filmmaker (and Goldie Lifetime Achievement winner) George Kuchar, cavort on a roller coaster gondola. The pair exude goofball charm as they whiz over the Golden Gate Bridge past friendly drag queens. Kuchar is an instructive reference, as Sullivan also seems to dream in Technicolor. They also collaborated on a theatricalized reenactment of Chris Burden’s Shoot, the politicized 1971 gallery performance in which the Southern California conceptualist artist was shot in the arm with a pistol. The Sullivan-Kuchar version is set against an amber-hued commercial photomural of a tropical sunset. As a child of the Midwest, Sullivan expresses a continuing appreciation for and bemusement with the California dream. In another recent piece, he’s made fluorescent matchbooks emblazoned with regionally significant incendiary song titles, “California Dreaming” and “Running with the Devil” among them. This guy’s on fire. (Glen Helfand)

Mr. Big Stuff


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America is unquestionably the land of the large. We well realize that gigantic things generate a sense of awe — along with danger — as it currently applies to presidential hubris and supersized snacks. It’s no accident that the artists who work biggest are United States residents — not to mention men: Think of James Turrell, who transformed a crater in the Arizona desert into a massive temple to natural light; Richard Serra, whose hefty steel sculptures have blocked public plazas and famously crashed through a gallery floor; Christo, whose canvases are world landmarks and entire states; and even Jeff Koons, who effectively inflated a topiary puppy to the size of a mountain. They may have international reputations (and a few peers in other countries), but there is something undeniably American in the desire to realize dreams that large. The trick is to translate that sense of awe into something more than size envy.
Matthew Barney is perhaps the first contemporary artist to translate the idea of that monumental impulse to the media age. His latest venture, “Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint,” which opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week (look for a review in these pages soon), is a sizable, career-spanning project. Like most of his work, it involves a feature-length film, and objects and images that relate to a self-invented universe, one filled with references to the human body, landscapes, and landmarks. Perhaps, as some critics have suggested, Barney’s work extends the enveloping nature of film into three-dimensional space, or synthesizes various art forms into a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk — that total, epic extravaganza of a term that’s frequently attached to Barney. Whatever it’s called, it feels like something major.
Barney’s Drawing Restraint series — which comprises performances, videos, a feature film, and drawings — is rooted in the idea of struggle, transformation, and creation. The pieces in the ongoing series reflect the artist’s changing means — the earliest of them were done with Barney attempting to make drawings on the wall while shackled with rubber tethers or jumping on a trampoline and inscribing a self-portrait on the ceiling. Drawing Restraint 14, which was recently executed at SFMOMA, involved the artist scaling the building’s tubular skylight and drawing on the curved wall. Drawing Restraint 9, as has been widely reported, costars Barney’s real-life partner Björk, was filmed on a large Japanese whaling ship and employed the full crew as extras (a primary theme of the film is Barney’s identity as an occidental — read: American — in an inscrutable Japanese culture), and was realized on a budget of nearly $5 million.
That seems an attractive sum for an artist to be working with, but not when you compare it to the costs of this country’s greatest cultural exports — Hollywood movies — or even the price of an impressionist painting at auction. It definitely pales before Damien Hirst’s recently publicized bid to make the priciest work of art ever: a diamond-encrusted skull costing some $18.8 million. If Barney could raise those kinds of funds, most likely he’d have little trouble taking his vision to a next level, be it with CGI effects or with greater amounts of his signature material, petroleum jelly.
The SFMOMA exhibition involved casting 1,600 gallons of the stuff, a relatively small amount in Barney terms, in a rectangular mold — a process that was slowed by clogged hoses and a minor rupture on the museum steps. As he did at the Guggenheim with his 2003 Cremaster Cycle exhibition, Barney easily occupies a good chunk of the museum. The show covers the whole of the fourth floor, which has, for the first time, most of its walls removed. The now-vast galleries house a few whale-sized sculptures, all illuminated with hundreds of industrial-looking lightbulbs installed by Barney’s crew. Clusters of sleek flat-screen monitors hang from the ceiling throughout. While it’s not the most expensive show that SFMOMA has mounted — recent ones involving less exotic materials have had much bigger price tags — Drawing Restraint feels deluxe, even if its most used material is cool, white plastic instead of precious stones.
Is Barney’s work gracious or self-absorbed? Is his work fueled by ego, the art market, or artistic drive? These are difficult questions, and although the Cremaster exhibition was accompanied by a telephone book–sized catalog with reams of explanatory text, it’s still difficult to know. Critic Jerry Saltz, in a review of Drawing Restraint 9, described Barney as “a mystic exploring his own inner cathedral.” It seems apt, as that religious edifice is a cavernous container in which to contemplate mystical phenomena, not to mention a form to which museums are often compared. We’re meant to enter them and be quietly wowed, whether we believe the dogma or not.
Those who have tickets to the already sold-out Barney lecture on June 23 — an example of his rock star status — will most likely come away with a sense that the artist possesses a genuine humbleness and an unerring drive to realize his vision. He thinks big, and manages to live up to his ambitions with dignity. Whatever you think of his work, you gotta admire his supersized pluck. SFBG
June 23–Sept. 17
Fri.–Tues., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.;
Thurs., 11 a.m.–>8:45 p.m.
151 Third St., SF
$7–$12.50, free for 12 and under and members (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–8:45 p.m.)
(415) 357-4000
For Drawing Restraint events, go to

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DO NEW MEDIA move more quickly? The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s media arts curator, Benjamin Weil, will officially resign Sept. 3. Starting at the museum in 1999 at the zenith of the dot-com boom, Weil was responsible for commissioning well-regarded pieces by Christian Marclay and Pipilotti Rist, whose work is on view until August. He also reinstated the film program and presented numerous sound projects at the museum. He’ll see through upcoming shows featuring Jeremy Blake’s Winchester Trilogy and six works by Gary Hill, which open in February and March 2005, respectively. But Weil will devote most of his time to Eyebeam, a think tank-like art space in New York City where he’s served part-time as curatorial chair since 2003. The serious multitasker is also curating Villette Num&ea cute;rique 2004, a Paris-based new media festival that opens this fall.

I was lucky enough to go on a recent hard-hat tour of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, and I have to report that the building will be a breathtaking surprise when it opens next fall. Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s vision melds with the park location, not to mention the northern California landscape – the copper surface suits the atmosphere, while the inset windows and courtyards allow for the park to be almost omnipresent. And the view from the much-contested tower? A stunning 360 degrees! The larger interior does raise an important question, though: can the de Young’s curating choices live up to this new and improved structure? Stay tuned.