Matt Sussman

A minor place


HAIRY EYEBALL The painter Margaret Kilgallen died in 2001; she was just 33 years old. A year later, critic Glen Helfand would write in the Guardian (“The Mission School,” 7/1/2002) a coming out party for Kilgallen, her husband Barry McGee, and friends such as Chris Johanson and Alicia McCarthy, whose scruffy, heartfelt, and street-influenced art had started to attract a popular following abroad as well as intense interest from beyond the Bay Area art world.

When an artist dies young, it is hard to not view their work through the lens of their cruelly curtailed biography. The work that remains is always haunted by speculation about what could have been. Posthumous exhibits will always be, to some extent, tributes, and those who write about that artist’s work face the very human impulse to eulogize, as well as the critical one to historicize.

This dilemma is especially true for Kilgallen and her art. In the decade since her untimely passing due to complications from breast cancer, the Mission School has been variously contested and embraced as both an aesthetic and historical category, and the artists Helfand associated with it have become well-known, frequently imitated, and displayed in increasingly prestigious venues. Kilgallen, along with Johanson and McGee (with whom Kilgallen had a daughter just three weeks before she died), is prominently featured in the Geffen Contemporary’s current, much-hyped summer blockbuster “Art in the Streets.” And viewers need only spend a few hours trolling Etsy to sense the larger stylistic impact the Mission School has had on a younger generation of creative types.

“Summer/Selections,” Ratio 3’s current exhibition of paintings by Kilgallen and the first San Francisco solo show of her work in 13 years, is a bittersweet homecoming, to be sure. But it’s also, like Kilgallen’s art, unsentimental — which is not the same as unfeeling. It’s a reminder that while time doesn’t heal all wounds, it can sometimes afford us enough distance to see with greater clarity those qualities of the departed that so compelled or moved us in the first place. And, undoubtedly, the soft power of Kilgallen’s talents as a sympathetic observer is fully on display here.

Like her contemporaries, Kilgallen culled much of her imagery from hand-painted storefronts and signage along Mission Street, thrift-scored printed matter, old-fashioned typography, and the hand-scrawled texts of the homeless and itinerant. But sometimes the signal-to-noise ratio in her larger pieces — the crazy quilts of painted and stitched-together canvas scraps, or even her wall murals — drowned out the delicacy and assuredness at work in each individual component.

The remarkable selection of acrylic paintings — most from 2000 and all untitled — hanging in Ratio 3’s main space offers some much-welcome breathing room. They are single-subject studies of objects (groups of shoes, wigs, lips, trees, and plant life), simple repeating patterns (droplets, waves, grids), or (mostly) female figures on canvases made from discarded endpapers or repurposed grocery bags — another instance of Kilgallen’s sensitivity to the material grain of her surroundings.

Whether in the color gradations and tiny spiked edges of a leaf, or in the finely outlined toenails of a mule-clad foot, Kilgallen’s remarkable control over line and paint application imbues each canvas, even the simplest or most abstract, with an untold back-story. This is especially true of the women, who all have laugh lines but usually address the viewer with a tight-lipped smirk. If Kilgallen’s flora could have come from a children’s book, her women could pass as characters from a Dan Clowes comic.

The untitled collage pieces in the back room — smaller-scale examples of Kilgallen’s quilt-like assemblages of canvas — are more abstract, yet still retain the just-right sense of color, line and proportion on display in the other paintings. In one piece, from 1999, a single fluffy gray cloud is the only graphic break in a long expanse of sutured turquoise. Another from the same year resembles the collaged remains of a billboard’s past incarnations. But like all of the pieces in “Summer/Selections,” it feels wholly fresh.

I wish the same could be said of the recent work of Johanson, an SF expat and Kilgallen’s contemporary, whose current show at Altman Siegel is about as coherent and compelling as its title: “This, This, This, That.”

I have always preferred Johanson’s folksy takes on Sol LeWitt’s rainbow-hued precision over his text or figure-filled paintings, and there are plenty to take in here. The problem is one of editing.

For every piece — such as the carefully thought-out uneven grid of squares and rectangles “Fall Apart and Let It Go” (2011) — that feels like Johanson is trying to push himself and his explorations of color into a more formal direction, there is another that reads as an easy way out.

The acrylic and latex color shards of “Same Brain, Same Body, Different Day” (2011) nicely mirror the visible segments of the pressed grain of the wood they’re painted on, whereas “Celebration of Life Through Found Palette and Paint” (also 2011), a painted panel mounted to an upright, rainbow-colored wooden shipping palette, just feels lazy.

Certainly, many artists have made repetition a compelling cornerstone of their practice, extending their engagement with a single technique, approach, or material into a fruitful long-term relationship. Johanson, however, seems like he is simply in a rut, making more and more of the kind of art that first brought him wider renown with diminishing creative returns. Warhol did all right for himself in the 1970s, though, and I’m sure Johanson is doing just fine as well. But I know he’s capable of doing more.  


Through Aug. 5

Ratio 3

1447 Stevenson, SF

(415) 821-3371


Through July 30

Altman Siegel

49 Geary, Fourth Floor, SF

(415) 576-9300,




HAIRY EYEBALL It’s not just the title of Stephanie Syjuco’s solo show “RAIDERS” — her first at Catharine Clark Gallery — that brings to mind Indiana Jones. Something of the latter-day swashbuckler comes across in Syjuco’s art, which, like Indy, initially seems to be playing to all sides for the sake of plunder — when in fact this cleverness is the outward expression of a deeper skepticism toward the very institutions it’s engaged with.

But Indiana Jones is also a pop cultural commodity and a franchise that has netted millions for creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. This too, I imagine, is not lost on Syjuco, whose work frequently strips Pop Art bare of its smart, slick exterior (as well as Conceptual Art of its pretensions) to access the larger and far less glamorous network of market forces, production processes, and questions of ownership that shape it as a commodity.

Whereas Takashi Murakami installed an actual Louis Vuitton boutique inside Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Syjuco’s project “Counterfeit Crochet” called on hobbyists the world over to knit fake designer bags, complete with logos, and even provided the patterns and instructions. She has also, on more than one occasion, set up detourned versions of shops and marketplaces inside museum walls.

“RAIDERS” opens with an installation of what at first glance appears to be a collection of handsome Asian antiquities — mainly vases and small, decorative vessels — arranged on the very shipping crates they were transported in. It quickly becomes obvious that what we’re looking at is truly a set-piece, and that the “priceless” cache before us is actually an arrangement of life-size photographic reproductions adhered to laser-cut wooden backings.

Raiders: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (Selections from the A____ A__ M______) — to give the installation its full title — becomes more interesting when you consider that Syjuco used images downloaded from the Asian Art Museum’s online database of its holdings as her source material. Love and theft (if I may poach the title of Eric Lott’s remarkable study of American minstrelsy) are certainly forces that have shaped many a museum’s prized holdings, and it is this history — one so often bound to colonialism and its aftermath — that is also embedded in Syjuco’s fakes.

And Syjuco decidedly, politically, traffics in fakes, not forgeries. Practically every piece in “RAIDERS” has rematerialized online, open source materials — be they digital images or readily accessible canonical texts — into art objects that are themselves parodies of object-ness. Conceptually whip-smart and materially banal (wood, tape, paper, and glue are common ingredients), Syjuco’s pieces continually taunt us with the question, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

In the gallery’s back room, jewel-case-size blocks of wood covered in pixilated digital prints of CD cover art representing Syjuco’s entire collection of “music illegally downloaded or pirated from others” are, as the bright orange stickers adhered to their shrink-wrapped exteriors proclaim, really available for the “blowout price” of $9.99 a piece.” Across from this pile that looks as if it had been airlifted straight from a Tijuana bootlegger, is Phantoms (h__rt _f d__kn_ss) an installation organized around Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, replete with a table, sawhorses, houseplants, TV monitors, and 10 bound copies of different online, public domain versions of Conrad’s text that are strictly “price upon request.”

Syjuco is certainly not the first artist to take on the art world’s biggest white elephant: value. But she wields her scalpel with a thoughtful precision and economy of gesture that will forever be beyond the abilities of a gaseous giant such as Damien Hirst. And that, to borrow another clichéd bit of market-speak, is truly priceless.



If you missed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s excellent Eadweard Muybridge retrospective that closed earlier this month, Matt Bryans has created something of an homage to the early master’s photographic panoramas and doctored views of a not-quite-virginal Yosemite at SF Camerawork.

“Untitled” unfurls along one of the gallery’s walls for nearly 30 feet, a fantastical expanse of ever-shifting landscape seemingly captured from a middle distance. Glaciers give way to snow-capped peaks, which then dip into valleys that ease into rolling plains and finally abut more misty crags. In the piece’s upper half, clouds swirl and dissolve across the arc of the sky as in a Chinese ink painting.

Although the piece has the weathered patina of an old daguerreotype and recalls Muybridge in its staged epicness, Bryans is a collage artist who works solely with a medium whose livelihood has been called into question about as often as film photography’s: newsprint. “Untitled” — which like the other large collage commissioned by SF Camerawork is all explosions and stars wrapped around a support column — was created using only India erasers and inky photographs clipped from newspapers.

Scanning the sky of Bryans’ panorama, you can make out the smudged traces of what was once type. And the closer you look, you start seeing the fissures between the thousands of carefully glued pieces that Bryans has transformed into a seemingly organic whole, which nonetheless appears on the point of disintegration.

The panorama piece is large enough that it sags a little and billows whenever a current of air hits it. It seems to hang heavy with the losses it embodies — photography’s ghosts, newspapers as a disappearing medium, the unknowable contexts of the images themselves — a load that’s almost too much to bear. 


Through July 16

Catharine Clark Gallery

150 Minna, SF

(415) 399-1439


Through Aug. 20

SF Camerawork

657 Mission, SF

(415) 512-2020


Crying in public


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Through July 2

Southern Exposure

3030 20th St., SF

(415) 893-1841


The faith and the fury


FILM Hell hath no fury like an enraged Klaus Kinski. The late German actor, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as the combusting supernova at the center of the Wernzer Herzog films Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Cobra Verde (1987), was as famous for his coruscating off-camera temper as for his onscreen intensity. With Kinski, there is always the near-unanswerable question of to what extent is his performance acting and to what extent is he just being himself. Are we watching someone who has totally, obsessively (unhealthily?) committed to his craft, or a petulant diva whose overinflated ego perhaps bruises too easily?

Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savoir, a recently rediscovered concert film of a 1971 solo performance, makes a riveting case for all of the above. Filmed a year before he headed to the South American jungle with Herzog, Jesus Christ finds Kinski alone on a spot-lit stage before a packed house delivering a monologue that frames Christ as a persecuted outlaw. “Wanted: Jesus Christ,” he purrs, “charged with seduction, anarchistic tendencies, conspiracy against the authority of the state.”

Not five minutes in the catcalls begin, no doubt encouraged by Kinski’s sudden switch to the first person, making overt the already implicit and problematic association of himself with his subject. “I want my 10 marks back!” cries one audience member. “Shut up!” Kinski volleys back. When one particularly bold heckler climbs on stage to chasten Kinski for his un-Christ-like language, the actor has his security guards forcibly remove the young man and storms off stage to the audience’s cries of “fascist.”

Things only get uglier as the evening progresses. Kinksi returns a second time to proselytize for the continued relevance of scripture by drawing comparisons to then-current issues such as Vietnam and the growing counterculture. The audience, both fascinated and repelled by this wealthy actor whose truculent delivery and hostility toward his flock undercuts his message of nonviolence and justified outrage at the world’s horrors, continues to have its say. Many times, in fact. Kinski walks away from the mic twice more in disgust at the “riffraff.” It is only after the film’s credits that the visibly drained thespian finally delivers his sermon in full to the remaining faithful.

What’s surprising is the palpable sincerity beneath Kinski’s vitriol: He seems genuinely exasperated by the unreceptive crowd, even as each successive disciplinary outburst further alienates them. Of course, such naiveté is another symptom of privilege, but rarely are the privileged as hypnotic or as loose a cannon as Kinski. God bless him.


Thurs/16, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/19, 2 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787 *


The ballad of Peter and Raymond


Once upon a time (1987 to be exact), two young men who were old friends moved to San Francisco from the Midwest to take in all the big city had to offer. Like many 20-somethings, Eddie Lee “Sausage” and Mitchell “Mitch D” Deprey didn’t have a lot of money and wound up living in a somewhat derelict apartment in the Lower Haight with a bright pink exterior they dubbed “the Pepto Bismol Palace.” The paint was peeling and the walls were thin but the rent was cheap.

What Eddie and Mitch didn’t count on was having Peter J. Haskett and Raymond Huffman as their neighbors. “You blind cocksucker. You wanna fuck with me? You try to touch me, and I will kill you in a fucking minute.” “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, little man!”

The insults, tantrum-throwing, and threats of violence (which sometimes crossed over into actual fisticuffs) coming from next door were constant. When they weren’t drinking like fishes, Peter — acid-tongued, gay — and Ray — the more hotheaded of the two and an unrepentant homophobe — seemingly devoted their every waking hour to mercilessly tearing each other apart.

Weeks went by. Eddie and Mitch started to lose sleep. And after one failed attempt at complaining to Raymond’s face (he threatened death), they started tape-recording Peter and Ray’s endless geyser of vitriol — first, as possible future evidence — but also out of a growing voyeuristic fascination with these two seniors who had to be the world’s oddest and angriest odd couple.

The rest is history. Mitch and Eddie started including snippets of Peter and Ray’s bickering on mixtapes for friends. Somehow, the editor of the now-defunct SF noise music zine Bananafish heard a snippet and approached Mitch and Eddie about distributing compilations of the recordings to a large network of found sound fans. Gradually “Peter and Raymond” became known and much-beloved characters. Their warped repartee — frequently referred to using Raymond’s favorite rejoinder, “Shut up, little man!,” as shorthand — inspired several theatrical adaptations, short animated films, pages of comic book panels by artists such as Daniel Clowes, and even a one-off single from Devo side project the Wipeouters. SF Weekly did a cover story and there were reams of additional press. Hollywood types called wanting to know who owned the rights to Peter and Raymond. Things had gotten big.

“Shut Up Little Man has been an enchanted, messy cultural accident,” reflects Sausage (he’s kept the moniker) over a Skype conference call. “It was a personal obsession and a private joke that in a very curious way became an underground cultural phenomena.” Sausage, a visual artist and musician who supports himself as a rare-book seller, remains, in his words, “the official custodian” of Shut Up Little Man’s (SULM) legacy, which is copiously detailed on its website.

Deprey — who now works as an insurance agent in Wisconsin where he lives with his wife and teenage children — is also on the line. Although Sausage is doing most of the talking, he interjects from time to time to provide clarification. We are discussing Matthew Bate’s documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure — perhaps the squarest peg in Frameline 35’s lineup. As much an attempt to comprehensively recount the above long, strange trip from start to finish, the film is also the newest chapter in the now 20-year saga of Peter, Raymond, Mitch, and Eddie.

Bate is a clever filmmaker who is able to translate a story that has primarily been told through sound into something visually compelling. Goofy animated interludes are woven between interviews with Clowes, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and the many other SULM fans who have created art inspired by Peter and Raymond. Sausage and Deprey also get plenty of screen time, and Bate goes so far as to have them play their 20-something selves in dramatized reenactments of their early days of interacting with and recording Peter and Raymond, who are played by actors. (Huffman died in 1992 of a heart attack brought on by colon cancer, pancreatitis, and alcoholism; Haskett died four years later of liver problems also due to alcoholism.)

Bate’s film is less successful in presenting a clear account of Sausage and Deprey’s 1994 controversial decision to copyright their recordings — which up to that point had been accompanied only by a note encouraging creative liberties and humbly asking for credit — going so far as to imply that this was an ideological about-face. As Sausage and Deprey tell it, they were simply doing the responsible, professional thing in the face of mounting disputes over who could or couldn’t sell the rights (the current disclaimer on the SULM website notes that “permission and licensing is usually granted, but please ask first”).

“Because this stuff was so viral and so innocuous, it wasn’t clear who owned any of this, ” explains Deprey, “We just didn’t want people wrongfully charging other people to use it. And the truth is, we’ve never gotten a penny from any of the artists [featured in the film].”

Still, Deprey and Sausage have now become the semiofficial executors of Peter and Raymond’s estate, even if it’s a legacy composed of hours and hours of blue streaks captured on tape. No surviving relatives of either Huffman or Haskett have come forward in the time that their infamy has grown, underscoring the fact that these two men — despite the venom they constantly spewed at back and forth — really only had each other.

“In a very real way, I think it’s a nontraditional love story,” says Sausage. “There’s a lot of passion and a lot of intimacy there. I mean, arguing is one of the most intimate things we can do as human beings.”

Indeed, Peter and Raymond’s highly dysfunctional Boston marriage might be the queerest onscreen relationship in the whole festival.


June 22, 9:30 p.m., $11

Victoria Theatre

2961 16th St., SF

P.S. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure was recently picked up by a distributor and will be released theatrically Aug. 26.


Art fair city


HAIRY EYEBALL The booths have been dismantled, countless plastic cups and empty liquor bottles are heading to recycling centers, and the exhibitors have returned to the quiet of their respective white cubes. San Francisco’s big, busy art fair weekend has come and gone. By many accounts it was a success for a city that two years ago hadn’t had an art fair in almost two decades, even if, in retrospect, it doesn’t feel like the lay of the land has been significantly altered.

The buzz generated by the raucous preview parties for SF’s two newest fairs, artMRKT and ArtPadSF, carried on throughout the weekend, no doubt helped by the good weather and ever-present availability of booze. When I arrived at the Phoenix early Saturday afternoon, the young, stylish crowd (which included a few families) milled around the hotel’s patio, awaiting a much-hyped synchronized swimming performance organized by Bean Gilsdorf, a California College of the Arts student. Other visitors popped in and out of the midcentury modern hotel’s rooms, each occupied by a gallery, like excited college students on their first day at the dorms. “It’s been positive so far,” said Patricia Sweetow, one of the first gallerists to sign on with ArtPadSF.”The fairs give the community a focus, a place, a reason to celebrate.”

Wendi Norris, co-owner of Frey Norris gallery, echoed Sweetow’s comments when we chatted at her booth beneath the fluorescent glare of the Concourse’s lights. “Participating in this makes me feel like part of a community, instead of an island,” Norris said, adding, “of course, there’s the business side of things, but that’s not the only reason we’re here.” It was past 5 p.m., and the steady stream of foot traffic throughout the art-covered cubicles slowed as people drifted toward the corner bars. I hoped that they would stop en route at the tables for local arts organizations and nonprofits, which, truer to Norris’ words than she perhaps intended, had been placed at the outer edges of artMRKT’s grid-like layout like outliers in an archipelago.

Still, none of the partnering orgs involved could be said to have suffered from underexposure. Attendance at the fairs was high. ArtMRKT boasted 13,000 visitors over its three days (impressive, considering that incumbent SF Fine Art Fair’s total was 16,600). Meanwhile, ArtPadSF brought in 9,000 visitors (with 2,000 tickets sold), a high number given the Phoenix’s smaller size and the fair’s edgier aesthetic. Certainly, artMRKT and ArtPad’s turnouts were helped by the shuttle service that ran between them on the weekend (something that further underscored Fort Mason’s relative geographic remoteness).

The fairs were also strong fundraisers. UCSF’s Art Program netted $10,000 at artMKRT’s preview benefit, and ArtPad’s party raised $15,000 for its beneficiary nonprofit, the Black Rock Arts Foundation. Additionally, the SF Fine Art Fair raised $2,000 in donations for the SF Art Commission’s ArtCares conservation program, and each of the local arts organizations that participated in artMRKT’s MRKTworks online and mobile auction now has $1,500 more to their name.

Given those numbers, the question isn’t whether San Francisco can support art fairs — clearly it can, although I don’t think a city our size needs three to its name — but rather, What kind of fairs can best support art in San Francisco? ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF’s differing approaches and ambiances complimented each other immensely, and it was heartening to see such a concerted outreach effort to noncommercial spaces as well, even if, as at artMRKT, their presence didn’t really register onsite or in terms of programming.

One criticism I heard from a portion of gallerists, collectors, and attendees was that none of the fairs offered a strong enough curatorial sensibility, and that there weren’t enough prominent names among the non-SF participating galleries (several prominent SF galleries were also notably absent). Art fairs are, to some degree, always going to have to deal with the problem of offering something for everyone and nothing for some. But implicit in this critique is that none of the fairs presented themselves — and by extension San Francisco — as a unique market to be taken seriously by collectors.

To repeat a sentiment expressed in local critic and former Guardian contributor Glen Helfand’s take on the fairs for SFMOMA’s Open Space blog, the presence of art fairs isn’t going to turn San Francisco into a market boom town overnight. And that’s fine. In Helfand’s words, “[the Bay Area’s] market is determined by scale and temperament — we’ve got intimacy and experimentation on our side, but a curiously uncomfortable relationship to conspicuous consumption.” Smaller fairs such as ArtPadSF, at which the art was by and large more affordably priced and modest in scale, are one way perhaps to ease that discomfort, while still allowing local galleries, arts orgs and artists tobuild out their contact networks.

Certainly by late Sunday afternoon, as packing materials emerged, the optimistic skepticism expressed by many in the art community in the weeks leading up to the fairs seemed to have given way to pleasant surprise.

While talking to Kimberly Johannson of Oakland’s Johannson Projects, I witnessed a very happy 20-something purchase her first piece of art: a palm-sized, chirping kinetic sculpture of a bird-like creature by Misako Inaoka. Transactions like this could be taken as a hopeful sign that the future of art collecting in the Bay Area doesn’t rest solely with the established few or with moving units (although sales figures of SF Fine Art Fair, which boasted $6.3 million spent on modern and contemporary artwork, offer a different form of reassurance).

It will be interesting to see if and how these fairs, in particular ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF, grow and expand. “We need to keep in mind that these fairs are in their infancy,” cautions SF Art Commission Gallery director Meg Shiffler, who also attended and participated in the fairs, in an e-mail. “But people showed up. This goes a long way in validating the substantial support for the visual arts that exist in San Francisco.”

For a city that too often portrays itself as the woeful underdog routinely losing its visionaries to New York City and Los Angeles, that validation is critical.



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



Through June 11; free

Ratio 3

1447 Stevenson

(415) 821-3371


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

Concourse Exhibition Center

620 Seventh St., SF

(212) 518-6912


May 19–May 22

Phoenix Hotel; $10

601 Eddy, SF

(415) 364-5465


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

Festival Pavilion

Fort Mason Center, SF

(800) 211-0640


The long goodbye


Pierre Thoretton’s documentary L’amour fou opens with two clips of men bidding farewell. The first, from 2002, is of the French-Algerian couturier Yves Saint Laurent announcing his retirement in a moving and emotional speech worthy of his favorite writer Marcel Proust. The second is of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s longtime business partner and former lover, eulogizing his departed friend at the designer’s memorial service six years later.

Thoretton’s film is suffused with goodbyes, many tender and candid, some portentous and rehearsed. To be sure, L’amour fou is a touching portrait of the powerful and tempestuous bond between Saint Laurent and Bergé, a bond that lasted close to five decades and resulted in one of the great empires of 20th century fashion. But it is also, alongside David Teboud’s two 2002 YSL documentaries, another entry in the hagiography of Saint Laurent, one cannily steered by Bergé as much as by Thoretton.

“Every man needs his aesthetic ghosts,” says Saint Laurent in his retirement speech. It is the 2009 exorcism of the various spirits that he and Bergé accumulated over the years — rare art deco furniture and décor; classical African and Chinese sculpture; singular pieces by Brancusi, Picasso, Mondrian, and Braque — from the Rue de Babylone apartment they once shared to the Christie’s auction block that provides Thoretton with a narrative around which to organize Bergé’s remembrances of things past.

Well-spoken and charming, Bergé still comes off as the punchy entrepreneurial foil to Saint Laurent’s dazzling but fragile genius. He can be both hyperbolic (praising Saint Laurent’s gifts) and forthcoming (discussing the designer’s demons). His penchant for grand pronouncements (“I don’t believe in the soul — neither in me or these objects”) is tempered by dark humor (auctioneers are “morticians of art”) and an occasional mischievous twinkle in his eye that suggests we shouldn’t take what he’s saying quite so seriously. Former muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux are also interviewed but this is clearly Bergé’s show.

Bergé’s naturalness as a raconteur recalls Alicia Drake’s characterization of him in The Beautiful Fall (2006), her smart tell-all account of the high fashion demimonde of 1970s Paris, as a master rhetorician. Saint Laurent designed the clothes, but Bergé built the YSL brand. He knew the power of image. He saw the money in launching the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line just as a new youth culture was shaking up the old guard, and spun perfume sales out of the controversy surrounding the launch of 1977’s Opium.

Bergé is still very much proselytizing the gospel of Saint Laurent, acting as figurehead for the house’s archival legacy and recounting its storied history, as he does here. In the end, though, the lavish parties, the jet-setting with the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol, the gorgeously appointed properties in Morocco and the French countryside, and the staggering cache being boxed up in Paris for “the auction of the century” (which raised nearly $13.4 million in proceeds for HIV and AIDS research), are simply, as Bergé puts it, “how the money was spent.”

It is when Bergé describes sharing a quiet moment with “Yves,” or acting as caregiver during one of the designer’s frequent bouts with depression, or at the height of his drug and alcohol abuse, that he no longer speaks as a historian or businessman. Bergé’s register is of one who has loved deeply, madly even, and has fought greatly for that love. “I will never forget what I owe you,” he says to Saint Laurent during the funeral service and it is the lover’s prerogative that we will never truly know how much that is. 

L’AMOUR FOU opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.


TV eye


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Through July 2

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

1111 Eighth St.

(415) 551-9210


Through May 14

Romer Young Gallery

1240 22nd St., SF

(415) 550-7483


A bang and a whimper


SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Science fiction’s open secret is that it has never really been about the future. As William Gibson explained to an interviewer in 2007, echoing earlier genre criticism by writers such as Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ, science fiction is, at its heart, “speculative fiction, but you don’t really have the future to work with, so you are always working with history and with the present.”

Gibson’s ecumenical gloss on genre fiction provides a helpful rubric under which to view some of SFIFF’s odder ducks. Although each of the following films slot differently genre-wise — apocalyptic road movie, surrealist fantasy, cybernetic thriller — the “what ifs?” posed by their imaginings of alternate presents (and in one case, an alternate past) certainly qualify them as speculative fictions. To what degree their directors are skilled at telling such stories remains open to speculation.

It’s hard to tell which way the world ends (or if it is ending at all) in Jo Sung-Hee’s dark, head-scratcher of a debut feature, End of Animal. The modest production opens inside a taxi, which a young pregnant woman is taking to her mother’s place in the country. All hell breaks loose when the driver, for reasons left unexplained, picks up a male hitchhiker who within minutes is spouting end times gibberish and, following his prediction of the blinding freak flash that suddenly cuts off all power in the surrounding area, vanishes into thin air.

Much like K in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the now-stranded and cell phone-less woman spends the next hour and a half unsuccessfully trying find a roadside shelter, alternately befriending and fending off increasingly-hostile locals who are just as confused and frightened as she is. Are we watching those left behind duke it out post-Rapture? Or was the hitchhiker an alien? And why does he want the woman’s baby so badly? Unfortunately, End of Animal drops many tantalizing breadcrumbs but offers no trail to follow.

Unlike other contemporary ruminations on the apocalypse, such as Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003) or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma (1999) and Pulse (2001), End of Animal‘s explanatory obstinacy does not enhance the drama or emotional intensity of watching its protagonists endure their trials by fire, but rather, leaves viewers feeling just as lost in the woods.

Alejandro Chomsky offers something more transparent in his serviceable adaptation of fellow countryman and frequent Borges collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1973 novel Asleep in the Sun. Chomsky translates Casare’s strange tale of a humble watchmaker who uncovers a sinister plot in which the souls of the mentally afflicted are siphoned into unknowing canines with plenty of visual relish, thanks to an antiseptic color palette and great 1930s-inspired production design. The film mixes bemusement and dead earnestness to its detriment, dialing down the urgency of its protagonist’s growing realization that he is the lapdog of an all-controlling bureaucracy from “nightmarish” to merely “unpleasant.” Alas, Asleep in the Sun‘s Kafka-esque (there he is again) pretensions are all bark and no bite.

Well, thank your SFIFF programmers for including the recently restored version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 techno-caper World on a Wire. Originally made as a two-part miniseries for German TV, Fassbinder’s only foray into science fiction finds the uber-prolific director borrowing a page or two from Alphaville (1965) while blowing some air kisses to Stanley Kubrick’s monolith 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and out Matrix-ing 1999’s The Matrix by some 25 years.

When the inventor of a supercomputer responsible for generating an artificial world mysteriously disappears, his handsome predecessor must fight against his corporate bosses to find out what happened, in the process stumbling on a far more shattering secret about the nature of reality itself. Sound crazy? Well, it is. But, between the mirrored and Lucite furniture, chiseled Teutonic women in disco finery, chase sequences, and frenetic zooms, it adds up to some of the most enjoyable hours you can spend at the festival.


April 21–May 5, most shows $13

Various Bay Area venues

The joy of life


FILM To say that Bill Cunningham, the 82-year old New York Times photographer, has made documenting how New Yorkers dress his life’s work would be an understatement. To be sure, Cunningham’s two decades-old Sunday Times columns — “On the Street,” which tracks street-fashion, and “Evening Hours,” which covers the charity gala circuit — are about the clothes. And, my, what clothes they are.

But Cunningham is a sartorial anthropologist, and his pictures always tell the bigger story behind the changing hemlines, which socialite wore what designer, or the latest trend in footwear. Whether tracking the near-infinite variations of a particular hue, a sudden bumper-crop of cropped blazers, or the fanciful leaps of well-heeled pedestrians dodging February slush puddles, Cunningham’s talent lies in his ability to recognize fleeting moments of beauty, creativity, humor, and joy.

That last quality courses through Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’ captivating and moving portrait of a man whose reticence and personal asceticism are proportional to his total devotion to documenting what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways.”

Press goes about filming Cunningham the way the photographer claims to capture his own subjects: “discreetly, quietly, invisibly.” Press, along with producer Philip Gefter and cinematographer Tony Cenicola (also a Times staff photographer), followed Cunningham for two years with no crew (after Press spent eight attempting to get Cunningham’s consent), tailing the photographer from uptown soirees to the runways of Paris fashion week.

Interspersed with Cunningham’s own sharp insights and footage of the photographer biking around Manhattan and throwing himself into oncoming traffic to get the perfect shot, are interviews with old friends and frequent subjects: Upper West Side grandes dames, fashion powerhouses, former editors, neighbors, and strutting peacocks. The loving accounts they share of encounters with Cunningham sing his artistic praises and unwavering kindness but stop short of revealing much about the man himself, save for his monasticism.

Cunningham famously lived for decades in a tiny studio apartment above Carnegie Hall filled almost exclusively with negative-stuffed file cabinets and an Army cot. His uniform is the cheap blue jacket worn by French street sweepers, augmented by a duct-tapped poncho in inclement weather. He rarely stops to schmooze, let alone sleep or eat. When a real estate agent shows Cunningham, who over the course of filming was evicted from his Carnegie Hall cell, the kitchen of the new apartment he will be relocated to, he genially scoffs, “What would I do with that?”

Cunningham’s disdain for the material and emotional comforts most of us take for granted might seem at odds with the worlds he documents (perhaps the film’s most shocking moment comes when Cunningham casually reveals he has never been in a romantic relationship). Fashion has become a hydra-headed beast of which street style, and the myriad bloggers who document it, have been completely swallowed by.

What Bill Cunningham New York makes clear, however, is that for this man, sustained by indefatigable reserves of passion and the ability to see what others can’t, the pursuit of beauty is not merely his chosen vocation; it has always been and always will be a calling.

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters.

Exercises in style



HAIRY EYEBALL Will Yackulic’s return to painting has none of the grandiosity or pretension that the phrase “return to painting” might suggest. Rather, Yackulic’s abstract canvases at Gregory Lind offer a contained (one might say modest, even, as each rectangle measures in the neighborhood of 144 square inches) but no less exhilarating exploration of the tension between the two qualities of his work that are so perfectly pinpointed by the show’s title, “Precision and Precarity.”

Although it has been six years since Yackulic last picked up a brush, his approach here is not unlike the works on paper he has steadily created in the interim. Much like his wave fields made from the dense accumulation of precisely spaced typewriter keystrokes, there is a finessing of the medium in this new group of (mostly) oil paintings that never claims mastery. The material seems to have had as much of the final say as the artist’s hand.

The subject of the conversation — geometric abstraction — has been a recurring one for Yackulic. This time, instead of floating geodesic orbs, the starting point was a Jenga-like stack of woodshop scraps Yackulic constructed and then set about capturing using a variety of colors, paint application techniques, perspectives, and degrees of abstraction. One canvas, the appropriately titled Smolder, even appears to have been burnt with a cigarette.

Some paintings come across as proper still lifes, engaging with the woodpile as a physical object. Taken together, the heavy yolk-yellow highlights and brown shadows of Claypool’s and the nocturnal blues and watery purples of Crepuscular and Evening Arrangement form a dance of the hours played across what could be a model of one of mid-20-century architect Joseph Eichler’s experiments in suburban modernism.

Other canvases respond to the form as a prompt about pure shape, discarding fixed dimensionality. In Over/Under, jutting lines become breakwalls for an incoming tide of indigo that has spilled over into the canvas’ azure lower half. Yackulic also employs other shapes (the cross-hatches in XXX, the Easter-ish green and pink dots of Sick Day) to colonize what becomes, over the course of the show, familiar terrain.

All this shape shifting brings to mind Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1949), in which the experimental French writer retells the same banal incident 99 times employing a different voice, genre, or formal device with each successive iteration. Yackulic does much of the same thing in “Precision and Precarity,” only the story he’s retelling is the abstract tradition in modern art.

Retelling, though, shouldn’t be confused with repeating, and Yackulic doesn’t shy away from giving his exercises in style some bite when necessary. The aforementioned Smolder, although hung closest to the gallery’s entrance, provides a humorous coda to the rest of the show. Slanted lines, suggestive of the beams of Yackulic’s original model, disappear into a black cloud of pencil smudge as if to playfully say, “You know what else depends on precision and precarity? Arson.”



Camilla Newhagen’s soft sculptures made from everyday clothing are anything but soft. Bras and reclaimed suits are stuffed full of polyester and contorted into unsettling anthropomorphic forms reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s monstrous feminine sculptures. However, the strongest piece in the powerful but small selection of Newhagen’s work now at Jack Fischer is the least assuming: a man’s white Oxford shirt on a hanger, sheared of everything save its collar and one sleeve, and tacked to the wall with the aid of invisible push pins.

Ghostly and extremely sensuous, Pin Point Oxford evacuates gender and class from an overly marked and rather quotidian garment. The white button-down is no longer so buttoned-down. Much like the work of Belgian designer Martin Margiela, who famously fashioned dresses to look like dress-forms and vests from leather gloves, Newhagen has created a piece of irresistible anti-clothing. It’s a pity you can’t slip it on. *


Through April 30

Gregory Lind Gallery

49 Geary, Fifth Floor

(415) 296-9661


Through May 7

Jack Fischer Gallery

49 Geary

(415) 956-1178

Touching from a distance


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(415) 978-2787

By demons driven


SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL A few years ago, much was being made of the “new wave” of Asian horror films. Western audiences were being introduced to the long-haired, vengeful spirits and women on the verge of murderous rampages that had been scaring moviegoers in Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia for much of the late 1990s and early aughts. Companies such as Tartan and Lionsgate rushed to make the latest bloodbaths from directors such as Takashi Miike and Kim Ji-woon available on DVD, and Hollywood began to voraciously buy up story rights and churn out English-language remakes. Then Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) came along.

But while the new wave of Asian horror may have crested as a Western phenomena, SFIAAFF’s retrospective “After Death: Horror Cinema from South East Asia” proves that using regional ghost stories as a springboard for Romero-worthy blood feasts is still a winning formula for many Southeast Asian directors. Nang Nak (1999), the oldest of the three films in the series, reenvisions the Thai folktale of a wife whose love for her family chains her to the earthly realm long after death. Histeria (2008) loosely bases its six-girls-tormented-by-an-evil-spirit variation on the classic slasher narrative on actual cases of mass hysteria among Malaysian schoolgirls. And 2008’s Affliction (the only film unavailable for preview) pits a father against his daughter as he fights to prevent her transformation into an Aswang, a blood-sucking monster of Filipino legend.

To be honest, there might be a reason these titles have received less attention abroad than the output of the Pang brothers (2002’s The Eye), for example. For all its flashy cinematography and folkloric source material, Nang Nak drags for most of its 100 minutes (when we already know long before the protagonist does that his dutiful dearest is not all she appears to be, waiting for him to finally catch on feels like an eternity). Histeria has more fun at least with its set-up, sketching out the hierarchy at work in its clique of schoolgirls sentenced to a long weekend of janitorial labor at their rural boarding school before dispatching them in unsavory ways one by one. The film even features what’s touted to be Malaysian cinema’s first same-sex onscreen kiss; although a “half-peck” might be more accurate. Still, the film’s special effects are imaginative — especially its creature design — and its scares are genuine even if the twist ending doesn’t pack much surprise. Indeed, the films in “After Death” are perhaps SFIAAFF’s most familiar offerings, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable for, say, date night.


March 10–20, most shows $12

Various venues


The unseen enemy


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


Through April 2

Altman Siegel Gallery

49 Geary, Fourth Floor, SF

(415) 576-9300


Through March 12

Silverman Gallery

804 Sutter, SF

(415) 255-9508


Not forgotten


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Through May 13, free

City Hall

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

(415) 554-6080


Through April 17; free–<\d>$18

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000


Every little star


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Through April 10, $5

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.


Through Feb. 19, free

Fraenkel Galley

49 Geary, SF



FILM Who wants to die for art? That question, immortally screamed by Divine at the climax of John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974), has most recently been taken up by Darren Aronofsky’s campy psychological thriller Black Swan (2010), in which Natalie Portman’s fragile ballerina discovers that giving her all as the good and evil leads in an edgy production of Swan Lake requires giving up her sanity, and eventually, her life.

The somewhat romantic notion that an overinvestment in one’s art can lead to a psychotic break with reality also underlies Ronald Colman’s far more gripping, Oscar-winning performance in George Cukor’s 1947 backstage noir A Double Life, a film Black Swan perhaps owes as much a debt to as it does to its other cinematic antecedents such as The Red Shoes (1948) or All About Eve (1950) (2007’s I Know Who Killed Me also deserves a lesser place on that list).

In the film — which screens at the Castro Theatre in a new archival print as part of Noir City 9 — Colman stars as Anthony John, a celebrated stage actor with a nasty temper who winds up playing the title role in a production of Othello opposite his ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso), who has been cast as Desdemona. As John gets deeper into his character, his own lingering frustrations over his failed marriage become cross-wired with Othello’s jealous rage resulting in a fatal instance of life imitating art. "What seems a fairly safe profession, acting," wrote New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther in his review of the film, "is as dangerous as they come."

Cowritten by husband-and-wife team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (who themselves were no strangers to the stage) and photographed with Expressionistic verve by Milton R. Krasner, A Double Life is — true to its title — filled with mirror imagery, split frames, and opposites locked in conflict. It also sets the stage, if you will, for the other titles in this year’s Noir City program, many of which turn on a character struggling to keep from splitting in two.

So often in film noir, the burden of proof is so great as to drive our hero or heroine mad as they try to convince those around them that they’re innocent, in danger, or more often than not, both. Such is the case with Pat O’Brien’s museum curator in Crack-Up (1947), who survives a horrible accident only to be told it never happened, or Barbara Stanwyck’s imperiled, bed-ridden rich girl in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number (Stanwyck, it should be noted, is all over this year’s festival, including a blistering starring turn as the titular addict in 1949’s The Lady Gambles).

In some cases, as with two of this year’s many not-on-DVD rarities, the protagonists actually do have evil twins. Olivia de Havilland beat Hayley Mills to the punch playing both sisters in Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946), in which the evil de Havilland uses her physical resemblance to frame her sweet sister (also de Havilland) for murder. Meanwhile, in Among the Living (1941), Albert Dekker goes up against himself as a brain-damaged psychopath who terrorizes a small town and the fraternal twin who must take him out.

This year’s nuttiest film by far is Fritz Lang’s Freudian roller-coaster ride The Secret Beyond the Door (1948). Faster than you can say Rebecca (1940), Joan Bennett’s naïve newlywed has been whisked off to her new husband’s big, dark house full of repressed secrets and a spinsterish head housekeeper. As gorgeous to look at is its plot is difficult to follow, The Secret Beyond the Door is a film you’d have to be nuts not to see.


Jan. 21–30, $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

La Frontera


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


Through Jan. 29, free

Rena Bransten

77 Geary, SF

(415) 982-3292



Through Feb. 12, free

Haines Gallery

49 Geary, SF

(415) 397-8114

Sawako’s choice


FILM Sawako Decides, the most recent feature by the talented 27 year-old Japanese director Yuya Ishii, might not be the best film of 2010 that you never saw, but it certainly ranks as one of last year’s funniest — and perhaps more debatably, most feminist.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Ishii double feature “Lost in Japan,” which pairs Sawako with Ishii’s previous film To Walk With You (2009), is an all- too-brief introduction to a director whose modestly budgeted films about losers, misfits, and the socially marginalized in a Japan as depressed as they are have been garnering critical praise and catching the attention of festival programmers since his 2006 debut Rebel, Giro’s Love. Sawako Decides leaves no doubt that Ishii is one to watch (and to watch repeatedly).

Five years after winding up in Tokyo after a failed post-high school elopement, 20-something Sawako (a wonderful Hikari Mitsushima) has landed herself a thankless pink collar job serving tea at the offices of a toy manufacturer and an equally lame coworker boyfriend, whose young daughter from a previous marriage seems just as indifferent to Sawako as her father is. A human doormat in the extreme, Sawako is the first to agree the chorus of detractors that surround her that she’s, “not really much … a lower-middling type, really.” This routine existence is upended when her boyfriend arranges for Sawako to take over her estranged and terminally ill father’s freshwater clam packing business, and Sawako must face down the rural community — most notably, the pack of sniping older female employees she now oversees — who view her as a selfish deserter.

Although Sawako is a far cry from Emma Stone’s sass-spouting Olive in Easy A (2010), Ishii still wants his underdog to come out on top, and eventually the fates smile kindly, albeit crookedly, on her. By the time the film reaches the climactic scene in which a newly-emboldened Sawako leads her shocked employees in a rousing anti-government anthem, there is no denying that she has — to borrow the title phrase of another recent coming-of-age film anchored by a strong female character — true grit, and that Ishii is not only a wildly inventive filmmaker, but one who possesses a true heart.

Ishii — who also frequently edits and writes his films — combines humor and pathos in a way that mimics his bumbling antiheroes’ oft-failed attempts to integrate themselves within the world around them: jokes are frequently followed up a beat too late so as to go practically unnoticed or are delivered in a deadpan that verges on D.O.A. He also has a penchant for peppering his narratives with absurdist detours, out-of-the-blue dance numbers, and enough idiosyncratic supporting characters to make Miranda July proud.

Unlike July’s work, however, Ishii’s films leave no aftertaste of preciousness. Ishii’s characters are often as laughably insufferable as their peers make them out to be, but Ishii takes their funny-sad struggles to exist quite seriously, putting his work more in line with that of, say, Woody Allen or even Todd Solondz, than of anything Michael Cera has mumbled his way through. Ishii’s films are “existential” — a descriptor they’re frequently tagged with — to the extent that his characters, through much hilarious trial and error, transform their failure to achieve what society expects of them into a new ethics for living.

Thus, Sawako Decides‘ most radical proposition is that “nothing special” is not simply a demoted way of being, but grounds for collectivization. Japanese culture’s drive toward upper-middle class exceptionalism is exposed as a myth that should have died with the Bubble Economy (in To Walk With You, the protagonist discovers everybody’s mother wants them to be a lawyer largely for lack of imagination). Like Melville’s scrivener Bartleby, Sawako turns staying within one’s station into an act of defiance. To be the best at being a “lower-middling person” is not defeatist. Rather, it is to embrace one’s stunted potential as a generative constraint. If everyone’s a loser, than no one is. *



Jan. 13–15, $6-$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF (415) 978-2787

Look forward in anger


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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

SF Camerawork and YBCA do the right thing (Updated)


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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, Dec 10

7pm, free

San Francisco Camerawork

657 Mission St, Second Floor

(415) 512-2020

11pm-2am, $20 general admission


701 Mission St

(415) 978-2700


Where everybody knows your name


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


Fri/10 through Jan. 15, 2011

Romer Young Gallery

1240 22nd St., SF

(415) 550-7483


Through Jan. 22

Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute

800 Chestnut, SF

(415) 749-4563